Movies in Middletown

Muncie, Indiana, from the Centre for Middletown Studies,

Usually when the Bioscope comes across interesting and relevant texts on silent cinema which are freely available online, they get described and placed for future reference in the Bioscope Library. In the case of Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd’s Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, the main body of the book has relatively little to do with cinema per se, but it has three or pages of real interest to us, so I’m reproducing the entirety of that text here (while still putting it in the Library).

Middletown is a classic sociological study, published in 1929 (with a sequel, Middletown in Transition, published in 1937). ‘Middletown’ was the name the Lynds gave to an archetypal small American city, which could be looked upon as a model example by which to examine sociological trends. The city chosen was Muncie, Indiana, population 38,000 at the time of the study, which began in 1924 and looked at changes undergone in this small Midwestern city between 1890 and 1925. Middletown was instantly recognised as a classic study, and it has enjoyed enduring influence and popularity down to the present day.

The Lynds studied Middletown under six main social activies: Getting a living, Making a home, Training the young, Using leisure in various forms of play, art, and so on, Engaging in religious practices, Engaging in community activities. In the area of leisure time, their main thesis was that time for leisure had increased, but that much of this new leisure time was spent on ‘passive’ recreations, such as the cinema. The evidence presented on the place of cinema in America in the mid-1920s is rich in interest and meticulously-researched detail. One may feel a little uneasy at the mass audience being examined under the microscope like this, but there is also a heartening sense of that audience delighting in an entertainment that belonged to all, untroubled by those dwindling forces in society that might wish to clean up or close down its simple joys.

Here’s the relevant text, with the footnote numbers in square brackets and the notes themselves following after the main text:

Like the automobile, the motion picture is more to Middletown than simply a new way of doing an old thing; it has added new dimensions to the city’s leisure. To be sure, the spectacle-watching habit was strong upon Middletown in the nineties. Whenever they had a chance people turned out to a “show,” but chances were relatively fewer. Fourteen times during January, 1890, for instance, the Opera House was opened for performances ranging from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Black Crook, before the paper announced that “there will not be any more attractions at the Opera House for nearly two weeks.” In July there were no “attractions”; a half dozen were scattered through August and September; there were twelve in October.[17]

Today nine motion picture theaters operate from 1 to 11 P.M. seven days a week summer and winter; four of the nine give three different programs a week, the other five having two a week; thus twenty-two different programs with a total of over 300 performances are available to Middletown every week in the year. In addition, during January, 1923, there were three plays in Middletown and four motion pictures in other places than the regular, theaters, in July three plays and one additional movie, in October two plays and one movie.

About two and three-fourths times the city’s entire population attended the nine motion picture theaters during the month of July, 1923, the “valley” month of the year, and four and one-half times the total population in the “peak” month of December.[18] Of 395 boys and 457 girls in the three upper years of the high school who stated how many times they had attended the movies in “the last seven days,” a characteristic week in mid-November, 30 per cent, of the boys and 39 per cent of the girls had not attended, 31 and 29 per cent, respectively had been only once, 22 and 21 per cent, respectively two times, 10 and 7 per cent, three times, and 7 and 4 per cent, four or more times. According to the housewives interviewed regarding the custom in their own families, in three of the forty business class families interviewed and in thirty-eight of the 122 working class families no member “goes at all” to the movies.[19] One family in ten in each group goes as an entire family once a week or oftener; the two parents go together without their children once a week or oftener in four business class families (one in ten), and in two working class families (one in sixty); in fifteen business class families and in thirty-eight working class families the children were said by their mothers to go without their parents one or more times weekly.

In short, the frequency of movie attendance of high school boys and girls is about equal, business class families tend to go more often than do working class families, and children of both groups attend more often without their parents than do all the individuals or other combinations of family members put together. The decentralizing tendency of the movies upon the family, suggested by this last, is further indicated by the fact that only 21 per cent, of 337 boys and 33 per cent of 423 girls in the three upper years of the high school go to the movies more often with their parents than without them. On the other hand, the comment is frequently heard in Middletown that movies have cut into lodge attendance, and it is probable that time formerly spent in lodges, saloons, and unions is now being spent in part at the movies, at least occasionally with other members of the family. [20] Like the automobile and radio, the movies, by breaking up leisure time into an individual, family, or small group affair, represent a counter movement to the trend toward organization so marked in clubs and other leisure-time pursuits.

How is life being quickened by the movies for the youngsters who bulk so large in the audiences, for the punch press operator at the end of his working day, for the wife who goes to a “picture” every week or so “while he stays home with the children,” for those business class families who habitually attend?

“Go to a motion picture … and let yourself go,” Middletown reads in a Saturday Evening Post advertisement. “Before you know it you are living the story laughing, loving, hating, struggling, winning! All the adventure, all the romance, all the excitement you lack in your daily life are in Pictures. They take you completely out of yourself into a wonderful new world … Out of the cage of everyday existence! If only for an afternoon or an evening escape!”

The program of the five cheaper houses is usually a “Wild West” feature, and a comedy; of the four better houses, one feature film, usually a “society” film but frequently Wild West or comedy, one short comedy, or if the feature is a comedy, an educational film (e.g., Laying an Ocean Cable or Making a Telephone), and a news film. In general, people do not go to the movies to be instructed; the Yale Press series of historical films, as noted earlier, were a flat failure and the local exhibitor discontinued them after the second picture. As in the case of the books it reads, comedy, heart interest, and adventure compose the great bulk of what Middletown enjoys in the movies. Its heroes, according to the manager of the leading theater, are, in the order named, Harold Lloyd, comedian; Gloria Swanson, heroine in modern society films; Thomas Meighan, hero in modern society films; Colleen Moore, ingenue; Douglas Fairbanks, comedian and adventurer; Mary Pickford, ingenue; and Norma Talmadge, heroine in modern society films. Harold Lloyd comedies draw the largest crowds. “Middletown is amusement hungry,” says the opening sentence in a local editorial; at the comedies Middletown lives for an hour in a happy sophisticated make-believe world that leaves it, according to the advertisement of one film, “happily convinced that Life is very well worth living.”

Next largest are the crowds which come to see the sensational society films. The kind of vicarious living brought to Middletown by these films may be inferred from such titles as: “Alimony – brilliant men, beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight revels, petting parties in the purple dawn, all ending in one terrific smashing climax that makes you gasp”; “Married Flirts – Husbands: Do you flirt? Does your wife always know where you are? Are you faithful to your vows? Wives: What’s your hubby doing? Do you know? Do you worry? Watch out for Married Flirts.” So fast do these flow across the silver screen that, e.g., at one time The Daring Years, Sinners in Silk, Women Who Give, and The Price She Paid were all running synchronously, and at another “Name the Man – a story of betrayed womanhood,” Rouged Lips, and The Queen of Sin. [21] While Western “action” films and a million-dollar spectacle like The Covered Wagon or The Hunchback of Notre Dame draw heavy houses, and while managers lament that there are too few of the popular comedy films, it is the film with burning “heart interest,” that packs Middletown’s motion picture houses week after week. Young Middletown enters eagerly into the vivid experience of Flaming Youth: “neckers, petters, white kisses, red kisses, pleasure-mad daughters, sensation-craving mothers, by an author who didn’t dare sign his name; the truth bold, naked, sensational” – so ran the press advertisement under the spell of the powerful conditioning medium of pictures presented with music and all possible heightening of the emotional content, and the added factor of sharing this experience with a “date” in a darkened room. Meanwhile, Down to the Sea in Ships, a costly spectacle of whaling adventure, failed at the leading theater “because,” the exhibitor explained, “the whale is really the hero in the film and there wasn’t enough ‘heart interest’ for the women,”

Over against these spectacles which Middletown watches today stand the pale “sensations” of the nineties, when Sappho was the apogee of daring at the Opera House: “The Telephone Girl – Hurricane hits, breezy dialogue, gorgeous stage setting, dazzling dancing, spirited repartee, superb music, opulent costumes.” Over the Garden Wall, Edith’s Burglar, East Lynne, La Belle Maria, or Women’s Revenge, The Convict’s Daughter, Joe, a Mountain Fairy, The Vagabond Heroine, Guilty Without Crime, The World Against Her (which the baker pronounced in his diary, “good, but too solemn”), Love Will Find a Way, Si. Plankard. These, it must be recalled, were the great days when Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with “fifty men, women, and children, a pack of genuine bloodhounds, grandest street parade ever given, and two bands,” packed the Opera House to capacity.

Actual changes of habits resulting from the week-after-week witnessing of these films can only be inferred. Young Middletown is finding discussion of problems of mating in this new agency that boasts in large illustrated advertisements, “Girls! You will learn how to handle ’em!” and “Is it true that marriage kills love? If you want to know what love really means, its exquisite torture, its overwhelming raptures, see — .”

“Sheiks and their ‘shebas,'” according to the press account of the Sunday opening of one film,” … sat without a movement or a whisper through the presentation … It was a real exhibition of love-making and the youths and maidens of [Middletown] who thought that they knew something about the art found that they still had a great deal to learn.”

Some high school teachers are convinced that the movies are a powerful factor in bringing about the “early sophistication” of the young and the relaxing of social taboos. One workingclass mother frankly welcomes the movies as an aid in child-rearing, saying, “I send my daughter because a girl has to learn the ways of the world somehow and the movies are a good safe way.” The judge of the juvenile court lists the movies as one of the “big four” causes of local juvenile delinquency, [22] believing that the disregard of group mores by the young is definitely related to the witnessing week after week of fictitious behavior sequences that habitually link the taking of long chances and the happy ending. While the community attempts to safeguard its schools from commercially intent private hands, this powerful new educational instrument, which has taken Middletown unawares, remains in the hands of a group of men – AN ex-peanut-stand proprietor, an ex-bicycle racer and race promoter, and so on – Whose primary concern is making money.[23]

Middletown in 1890 was not hesitant in criticizing poor shows at the Opera House. The “morning after” reviews of 1890 bristle with frank adjectives: “Their version of the play is incomplete. Their scenery is limited to one drop. The women are ancient, the costumes dingy and old. Outside of a few specialties, the show was very ‘bum.’ When Sappho struck town in 1900, the press roasted it roundly, concluding, “[Middletown] has had enough of naughtiness of the stage … Manager W – will do well to fumigate his pretty playhouse before one of the dean, instructive, entertaining plays he has billed comes before the footlights.” The newspapers of today keep their hands off the movies, save for running free publicity stories and cuts furnished by the exhibitors who advertise. Save for some efforts among certain of the women’s clubs to “clean up the movies” and the opposition of the Ministerial Association to “Sunday movies,” Middletown appears content in the main to take the movies at their face value “a darned good show” and largely disregard their educational or habit-forming aspects.


17. Exact counts were made for only January, July, and October. There were less than 125 performances, including: matinees, for the entire year.

18. These figures are rough estimates based upon the following data: The total Federal amusement tax paid by Middletown theaters in July was $3002.04 and in December $4,781.47. The average tax paid per admission is about $0.0325, and the population in 1923 about 38,000. Attendance estimates secured in this way were raised by one-sixth to account for children under twelve who are tax-free. The proprietor of three representative houses said that he had seven admissions over twelve years to one aged twelve or less, and the proprietor of another house drawing many children has four over twelve to one aged twelve or less.

These attendance figures include, however, farmers and others from outlying districts.

19. The question was asked in terms of frequency of attendance “in an average month” and was checked in each case by attendance during the month just past.

Lack of money and young children needing care in the home are probably two factors influencing these families that do not attend at all; of the forty-one working class families in which all the children are twelve years or under, eighteen never go to the movies, while of the eighty-one working class families in which one or more of the children is twelve or older, only twenty reported that no member of the family ever attends.

“I haven’t been anywhere in two years,” said a working class wife of thirty-three, the mother of six children, the youngest twenty months. “I went to the movies once two years ago. I was over to see Mrs. — and she says, ‘Come on, let’s go to the movies.’ I didn’t believe her. She is always
ragging the men and I thought she was joking. ‘Come on,’ she says, ‘put your things on and we’ll see a show.’ I thought, well, if she wanted to rag the men, I’d help her, so I got up and put my things on. And, you know, she really meant it. She paid my carfare uptown and paid my way into the movies. I was never so surprised in my life. I haven’t been anywhere since.”

20. Cf . N. 10 above. The ex-proprietor of one of the largest saloons in the city said, “The movies killed the saloon. They cut our business in half overnight.”

21. It happens frequently that the title overplays the element of “sex adventure” in a picture. On the other hand, films less luridly advertised frequently portray more “raw situations.”

22. cf. Ch. XI.

Miriam Van Waters, referee of the juvenile court of Los Angeles and author of Youth in Conflict, says in a review of Cyril Burt’s The Young Delinquent: “The cinema is recognized for what it is, the main source of excitement and of moral education for city children. Burt finds that only mental defectives take the movies seriously enough Jo imitate the criminal exploits portrayed therein, and only a small proportion of thefts can be traced to stealing to gain money for admittance. In no such direct way does the moving picture commonly demoralize youth. It is in the subtle way of picturing the standards of adult life, action and emotion, cheapening, debasing, distorting adults until they appear in the eyes of the young people perpetually bathed in a moral atmosphere of intrigue, jealousy, wild emotionalism, and cheap sentimentality. Burt realizes that these exhibitions stimulate children prematurely.” (The Survey, April 15, 1926.)

23. One exhibitor in Middletown is a college-trained man interested in bringing “good films” to the city. He, like the others, however, is caught in fthe competitive game and matches his competitors’ sensational advertisements.

Middletown is available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (30MB), PDF (33MB) and TXT (1.3MB) formats. There’s more on the influence of motion pictures on Middletown society throughout the book, which is marvellous window on a society, easy to read and enticing in all its detail. If you are interested in finding out more about Middletown itself and the studies that came out of it, there’s a Centre for Middletown Studies at Ball State University, Muncie, which continues the research work and has a wide range of background information and digitised resources.

A ragged swarm of adventurers

Here’s another gem uncovered from using Live Search. In fact it’s a text I know well, but I hadn’t realised it was available on the Internet Archive because there is nothing in the title Fifty Years of a Londoner’s Life (1916), by journalist Henry George Hibbert, to indicate its interest to the film historian. But Hibbert’s book contains a lively and observant chapter on the emergence of cinema in London, being especially vivid in describing the rush of showmen and speculators who jumped upon the cinema-building boom after 1910. He is also accurate in pointing out that a previous boom in roller skating rinks, which had collapsed, had left a number of empty venues looking for a new use, and many such were converted into cinemas. And thanks to the Internet Archive, which provides a plain text version, here is that chapter:


Its Introduction to London – A Protégé of the Music Hall – Millions Made, and Lost – Its Wondrous Future

Of all the children to whom the music hall has been foster mother, none was so rapid in its growth, so wayward, so fruitful in surprise as the cinematograph. And, after twenty years of remarkable achievement, it is still, in the belief of them that know it best, but on the threshold of its greatness. “The British public,” said one recorder of its early exhibition, “has a new toy, of which it is not likely to tire quickly”; just as an American writer of the first importance had been interested, but found the cinematograph “a curiosity of no particular importance.” A toy; a curiosity!

Moving pictures, it is still necessary to explain to the technically unlearned, do not move. This illusion was produced by the earliest scientific toy-makers. All the early photographers strenuously endeavoured to capture impressions of movement. Edison casually gave to the world a contrivance known as the kinetoscope, which he did not effectually protect. And from that many inventors toiled simultaneously to develop what we know as the cinematograph.

To the imagination of the Londoner, Robert W. Paul made the first and the most prolonged appeal. He was a craftsman of delicate and ingenious scientific instruments, and, having made a greater, or at any rate a more important contribution to the development of the cinematograph in England than any other, having taught many men of more heroic enterprise, or better luck, how to become millionaires, he retired from the field and returned contentedly to his first calling.

Paul illustrates the romance of invention with a homely picture. When, in the small hours of one morning, his experimental pictures were first endowed with life, in his Hatton Garden workshop, his men uttered a great shout of victory, the police were alarmed and broke in. As a sedative, an impromptu exhibition was administered to them. And so, in the winter of 1895, the cinematograph came to London. In a few weeks it was brought to the notice of Augustus Harris, and, frankly regarding it as an entertainment novelty of an ephemeral quality, he tried a cinema side-show at Olympia, where it competed with Richardson’s show and kindred delights.

Meanwhile Lumière, a Parisian photographer, had arrived at similar results, from a manipulation of the kinetoscope. Trewey, the juggler, and exponent of comic expression with the aid of a flexible felt hat, brought the Lumière apparatus to London, and was certainly ahead of Paul in impressing the cinematograph on the great mass of pleasure-seekers. The music hall agents and music hall managers were incredulous. Trewey resorted to the home of the scientific toy – the Polytechnic, and was looked upon as having achieved the finality of his mission. But he persisted. He arranged an afternoon season at the Empire, in the early days of March 1896. He soon insinuated the cinematograph to the evening programme here. And the reign of the moving picture began. I remember asking Trewey what he believed to be its possibilities in expeditiousness. He declared that if the progress of improvement were maintained a day would come when an occurrence might be reproduced on the screen within forty-eight hours. Whether or not my old friend lived to see his estimate corrected to minutes, I know not. Paul was in immediate succession. Toward the end of March, 1896, his so-called Animatograph was established at the Alhambra, where a tentative engagement, for weeks, was extended to one of years’ duration. Indeed, I do not believe that either of the two great Leicester Square houses has been without some form of animated photograph in all the meantime. Soon a finer apparatus than that either of Paul or of Lumière arrived at the Palace – known as the American Biograph, which for many months drew all London. Its pictures were larger, steadier, more actual. Before the end of 1896 there was not a music hall without its equipment of animated photography. Its scientific, industrial, commercial, and above all its tremendous art possibilities, were not yet conceived or perceived. Let me, as merely of the ministry of popular entertainment, emphasise this fact. The greatest, or at any rate the most appellant, scientific invention of our time, was nurtured in the English music hall, just as the electric light was first exploited as the advertisement of a theatre. A third Londoner completed the group of the pioneers of animated photography – a young American salesman of apparatus, Charles Urban, to whom the higher development of the new invention – its use for illustrating travel, the wonders of nature, and of scientific investigation – has always appealed, more than its use for frivolous amusement – on occasion, debased amusement. And two young Frenchmen, the Brothers Pathe, who began life as the exhibitors of a gramophone at Paris, quickly built up an immense business for the manufacture and sale of apparatus and films.

Imagination recoils from an attempt to suggest the magnitude of the cinematograph to-day. Estimate England’s inexplicably small share, then multiply it many times, and begin the endeavour to appreciate the fact that the cinematograph represents the third largest industry of America, where millionaires operate in its finance as they do in public loans, in railways, mines and steel; where great theatrical managers, dramatists and actors have silenced its menace by alliance, where they think nothing of an expenditure equalling ten thousand pounds on a production, and where they maintain upwards of six hundred picture theatres in a single city, Chicago.

Is English enterprise to follow in the wake of this huge enterprise? There are, at any rate, points of remarkable likeness in the evolution of the cinematograph here. First of all, the fact is to be noted that the pioneers of the industry, in both countries, nearly all retired – a few of them enriched, some of them disappointed and disaffected, some of them utterly broken. There never was a business of such strange mutations. It has been called by one of its most important adherents, Fred Martin – one of my boys, when he first of all aspired to journalism – who is mainly responsible for the manipulation of the exclusive picture and the introduction of the five-reel or “full performance” film here, in preference to a programme of many items, “The Topsy Turvy Industry.”

One of its wealthiest men to-day was a travelling showman. But the experience of the travelling showmen as a community was very different. To a man they abandoned their waxworks and their freaks and their marionettes for the cinematograph. I recall a St Giles’s Fair at Oxford that historic function still retained, but I think then lost, its boyish fascination for me – when, of fifty-one booths, forty-nine enclosed crude cinematograph shows, mostly exploiting vulgar comedy. The travelling showman came next to the music hall in popularising the cinematograph as an entertainment and in supporting it as a manufacturing industry. But he was hoist with his own petard. His success stimulated local enterprise, and when he revisited an old pitch he found a permanent picture theatre established.

Ruin spread among the travelling showmen and a new era in the history of the cinematograph began. Not the Klondyke attracted such a ragged swarm of adventurers. The collapse of the skating rink fever had left numerous sites and building shells free. Wild-cat speculators attracted millions of money from ignorant speculators, always fascinated by the business of pleasure. You could count picture palaces by the score in a brief ride across London. Again a debacle; and the official liquidator busy. But out of the wreck a new, resplendent picture palace – the ideal picture palace – is slowly rising. Its architects have expanded to one hundred thousand pounds in outlay on a structure.

For the short, amusing picture play there will always be a particular market. Elemental amusement will never lose its charm and importance – not till the love of toys is dead in small children and great. But cinematograph has left the nursery, and – still with uncertain eyes – is surveying the world. It has fascinated nearly every great actor, nearly every great author of our time, and liberally rewarded their adhesion to its cause. It is forming its own schools of financiers, and artists, and mechanicians, formerly drawn from everywhere and anywhere. The millionaires of the moving picture world include a clothing salesman, an itinerant conjurer and a music hall “lightning cartoonist.” The redoubtable Charlie Chaplin, now drawing his weekly emolument in thousands of dollars, was a “Lancashire clog dancer.” The greatest producer of the day, D.W. Griffith, who begins his cash account with a retaining fee of four hundred pounds a week, was but a few years ago a desperate actor. Mr Frederick A. Talbot, the historian of the cinema, estimated that four million people visit picture palaces daily in Great Britain. They pay fifteen million pounds out of their pockets annually into the box-offices of the cinema halls, and one person out of every three hundred and fifty one passes in the street depends upon the pictures for a livelihood. Of what individual investment may mean Mr R.G. Knowles is an example. He has outlaid twenty-five thousand pounds on the material of his travel lectures, and his wife, once Miss Winifred Johnson, abandoned the musical career she so adorned to become his secretary, editress, librarian.

Fifty Years of a Londoner’s Life is available in the usual range of formats from The Internet Archive, as has plenty more in the way of fascinating detail on the changing London social scene. Unlike some nostalgists of this era, he does not exclude the modernistic cinema, but sees it as part of the historical thread of the city.

Moving pictures going around London

Whitehall, Cheam

Whitehall, Cheam, from

The touring exhibition, Moving Pictures Come to London, already reported on here, continues on its tours around London. Currently it can be found at the Whitehall, Cheam (which looks a delightful spot), where it runs until 30 March. Based on research carried out at Birkbeck College, the exhibition focuses on the history of moving pictures in London before World War I, looking at the filmmakers, the technology and the audiences. It’s a fine small exhibition, not least for showing how academic research can – indeed should – find a popular outlet. Each version of the exhibition has had a section reflecting the area of London where it is being put on. It’s already been to Camden, Hornsey, Hampstead and Westminster, plus a whirlwind couple of days in Leicester Square, and other venues that I think I’ve missed. Take a look if you can.

… and London screen history

Angel Islington

The Angel cinema in Islington, 1917

Hot on the heels of that last post on the East Finchley Phoenix comes news of a one-day event at Birkbeck College on London’s screen history. Organised by the University of London Screen Studies Group, in association with the London Screen Studies Centre, Birkbeck College and Film Studies journal, the event on Friday 14 March brings together a range of recent work on London’s heritage of film production and particularly reception. Here’s the programme:

London Screen History

Birkbeck College, Malet Street, London WC1
9.30–18.00 Lecture Theatre B33

  • Ian Christie: Introduction
  • Michele Daniels: The Coming of Talking Films to London, 1928-29
  • Jude Cowan: ‘The First Film Studios at Ealing: Warwick Trading Company 1907-1909 and Barker Motion Photography 1909-1918’
  • Pierluigi Ercole: ‘Little Italy on the brink: London Italians and War Films, 1915-1918’

11.00-11.30 tea and coffee

  • Brigitte Flickinger (Heidelberg): ‘Living and leisure: Cinema-going in London in the 1910s and 1920s – a view from outside’
  • Luke McKernan (British Library): ‘Children’s cinemagoing in London before WW1’

13.00-14.00 Lunch

  • Charlotte Brunsdon (Warwick): ‘Shaping the Cinematic City: Three London Journeys’


  • Toby Haggith: Early London housing films
  • Angela English, Jenny Davison: ‘Their Past Your Future and working with London community groups’
  • Roland-Francois Lack: ‘Still Point of the Turning World: Piccadilly Circus in Film’

16.30-17.00 Tea and coffee

  • John Sedgwick (London Metropolitan): ‘The commercial significance of London’s West End cinemas’
  • Richard Gray (CTA): ‘London’s cinema buildings’

The programme has been published a bit late in the day, but it’s a terrific line-up (your humble scribe notwithstanding), so do come along (there’s a small charge for tea and coffee) and see if we can get the audience to outnumber the speakers, at least by a little bit.

The City of the Future

Carrington Street, Nottingham with 1902 inset

Carrington Street, Nottingham in 2003, with inset from Tram Ride Through Nottingham, Carrington Street (Mitchell & Kenyon, 1902)

An exhibition, The City of the Future, has just opened at the BFI Southbank. It has been created by the psychogeographical filmmaker Patrick Keiller, director of London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997). Keiller is currently a Research Fellow at the Royal College of Art, where he has been developing his City of the Future research project. His exploration of urban space through archival film has found varied expressions. This multi-screen installation creates a virtual landscape composed of sixty-eight early actuality films from the years 1896-1909, arranged in the BFI Southbank gallery on a network of maps from the period, and displayed over five screens.

Keiller casts a fascinated eye on the mysteries of the urban environment as expressed through archive film which is so much a part of its time and yet can connect with the here and now. Keiller makes particular use of that distinctive genre of the period, the ‘phantom ride’ (which must be such an evocative phrase for him) – journeys filmed at the front or back of moving vehicles. One haunting expression of his vision is Keiller’s simple idea of placing the original film image within a wider frame of the same location filmed today, as illustrated above. The exhibition (which I’ve not seen as yet), also promises visitor interaction:

Visitors are invited to explore this landscape, both by moving among its various screens, and by departing from the sequences displayed on them to create an individual journey using the ‘menu’ functions of a DVD.

The site of Queensbury station in 2004, with inset from Queensbury Tunnel (Riley Brothers, 1898)

The site of Queensbury station in 2004, with inset from Queensbury Tunnel (Riley Brothers, 1898)

The exhibition is open until 3 February 2008. For other expressions of Keiller’s research, a description of The City of the Future and a downloadable ‘database’ (Excel) of titles from the BFI National Archive that he has viewed and identified as relevant to his investigations is on the Visual Arts Data Service website. There is also an account of his project as a ‘case study’ demonstrating the academic use of archive film on the Moving History site.

There’s an interview with Keiller about the exhibition on the Time Out site.

A striking example of phantom ride, A Trip on the Metropolitan Railway (1910), is available from the BFI’s Creative Archive pages. This is a remarkable, prolonged journey filmed from the front of an Underground train on London’s Metropolitan Line, travelling from Baker Street outwards to Uxbridge and Aylesbury. (The original is seventeen minutes long, but the downloadable clip is just under five minutes)

Cinema by Citizens

Calling all would-be silent filmmakers of today. The Toronto Urban Film Festival (TUFF) has announced a competition under the title ‘Cinema by Citizens: Celebrating the City‘. They are calling for filmmakers, video artists, animators, and ‘urbanites with cameras (or video cellphones)’ to produce silent, one-minute films or videos on one or other of these urban themes:

– My Town
– Urban Ennui
– 905 to the 416
– The Imaginary City
– Big Smoke, Big Dreams
– Forgotten Places, Uncommon Spaces

The festival takes place 8-18 September, and the deadline for submissions is 20 August. International submissions are invited. Winning films will be exhibited online.

Diverting Time

The Egyptian Hall

Courtesy of Maney Publishing, publishers of The London Journal, I am able to publish a PDF of my new essay, ‘Diverting Time: London’s Cinemas and their Audiences, 1906-1914’. Between 1906 and 1914, there were over 1,000 venues exhibiting film in London. They attracted a vast new, largely working class, audience, drawn to an entertainment which was cheap, conveniently located, placed no social obligations on those wishing to attend, and which was open at a time that suited them. The essay examines the rapid growth of the first cinemas in London and the impact that they had on audiences, particularly in terms of the value they offered, not simply economically but in terms of time spent.

The essay gets its title from Montagu Pyke, cinema chain owner, occasional rogue, and author of a fascinating pamphlet on the potential of cinema, Focussing the Universe (1910), in which he writes:

The Cinematograph provides innocent amusement, evokes wholesome laughter, tends to take people out of themselves, if only for a moment, and to forget those wearisome worries which frequently appal so many people faced with the continual struggle for existence. It forms in fact – I like the word – a diversion. It is in some respects what old Izaak Walton claimed angling to be: An employment for idle time which is then not idly spent, a rest to the mind, a cheerer of the spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness.

Did anyone ever write a truer set of words to describe the appeal of cinema?

The essay is just one output from a research project into the film business in London before the First World War which was hosted at Birkbeck, University of London. Another output online, to which the essay refers in details, is the London Project Database of London film businesses and cinemas to 1914. More will follow, in due course.

Moving Pictures in Westminster

The Moving Pictures exhibition on the film and cinema business is London before the First World War will be on show at the City of Westminster Archives Centre 5-30 June. The exhibition, which was previously shown at Hornsey Library and Hampstead Museum, focusses on the highly active film industry and cinema business in London before 1914, with an emphasis on the relationship with local communities. The exhibition is based on The London Project, a research project hosted by Birkbeck College, London, which resulted in The London Project database of film businesses and cinemas in London before the First World War.

There are associated talks taking place at the Centre on 19 and 26 June, at 6.00 pm (admission free). The Archives Centre is located here.

For the weekend of 23-24 June the exhibition will move temporily from the Archives Centre to feature as part of West End Live, in Leicester Square.

City in Film

A call for papers has gone out for City in Film: Architecture, Urban Space and the Moving Image, an International Interdisciplinary Conference to be held at the University of Liverpool, 26-28th March 2008. City in Film will explore the relationship between film, architecture and the urban landscape drawing on interests in film, architecture, urban studies and civic design, cultural geography, cultural studies and related fields. The extensive list of potential subjects includes: Film, Place and Urban Identity; The role of archives in architectural, filmic and curatorial practice; Perception and aesthetics in early film actualities; Historiographies of cities in film; Presence and absence: spectral cities, ghosts and spaces of dereliction; Screen-based technologies – electronic billboards, interactive facades; Design in Architecture and the Moving Image; Film influenced architectural designs, and so on. Proposals for papers (300 words maximum) should be submitted to by 1 September 2007.

City in Film is a two-year research project at the University of Liverpool, which is examining the relationship between the city’s urban landscape and architecture and the moving image, and aims to create an online database of Liverpool films for cinema goers, producers and researchers.