I’ve picked up publicity postcards from cinemas before, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever posted one. Most often, they’ve ended up blue-tacked to a wall or buried at the bottom of a drawer.
This postcard of a scene from James Cruze’s 1923 western, The Covered Wagon, made things easier for filmgoers by including a handy message on the reverse, so that all the sender needed to do was fill in the blanks.
I have just seen “The Covered Wagon,” the Great Paramount Picture, and enjoyed it very much. If you come to London don’t miss it!
In the case of this particular postcard, the attempt to generate word-of-mouth advertising missed its mark, and the message remains blank. But it’s an interesting trace of the extensive marketing campaign for the film, and an illustration of the way that West End film venues were becoming tourist destinations.
The London Pavilion, which had an exclusive deal to show The Covered Wagon as part of a staggered road-show release across the country, was famous as a variety theatre. But, in the twenties, it also lent itself to lavish film presentations like this one, often involving novel ‘exploitation’ methods (as publicity gimmicks were called). Before the first screening, it was announced in the daily press that ’20 living North American Indians from U.S.A. now encamped in the Crystal Palace grounds will appear at each performance’. These were said to be people from the Arapaho tribe, descendants of the Native Americans whose conflicts with pioneers were depicted in the film.
The run at the London Pavilion ended in March 1924 after 350 shows. A trade writer for the Bioscope regretted the film’s passing and the loss of the accompanying side-show, remarking that ‘the regions round about Coventry Street and the Haymarket will no longer be brightened by the presence of the picturesque redskin, his squaws and papooses, with whom we have grown so familiar’ (‘Gossip and Opinions’, Bioscope, 13 March 1924).
Afterwards, the Pavilion played host to a new Paramount epic, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The Covered Wagon moved on to other cities, takings its views of the Wild West with it.
In February 1896, this hall welcomed some of the first audiences in Britain to see projected moving pictures. If for no other reason, it’s an important place in London’s – not to mention Britain’s – cinema history. At the time, it was part of the Regent Street Polytechnic Institute; it’s now part of the University of Westminster. In a little while, the space is due to close for renovation work and, all going to plan, it will reopen in 2015 as the Regent Street Cinema.
Although it started out (and is currently used) as a lecture theatre, the hall has also been a commercial cinema for much of it’s history and it still bears some of the signs – like the Compton organ, installed in the 1930s. Over the course of the renovations, some of the layers of this history will be stripped back and new features added. It’s an interesting mix of urban conservation (the current phase of the project is being part-funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund) and new development. The project still needs money, though, so if you’re interested in contributing, you can make a donation via the website: www.birthplaceofcinema.com.
Thanks very much to James Williams, the development officer on the project, for showing me around. I’m looking forward to seeing what the finished place looks like, and to finding out what other remains of cinema history the builders uncover in the coming months.
There’s a detailed account of the first films shown at the Regent Street Polytechnic in Joost Hunningher’s essay, ‘Première on Regent Street’, in Christopher Williams, ed., Cinema: The Beginnings and the Future (London: University of Westminster Press, 1996). There’s more about the venue’s history as the ‘Poly’ cinema at the Cinema Treasures website.
Featured image: The north and east sides of Leicester Square from a postcard, ca 1903. The caption on the back reads: ‘Leicester Square. – Popular centres of refreshment and amusement abound in and around this charming green spot amidst the roaring streets. The Alhambra [pictured on the right], the home of brilliant ballet and variety entertainment, appears in the view, its Moorish grandeur looking strangely out of place amongst so much typical English architecture.’
I’m celebrating this blog’s first birthday with a trip ‘up West’ to one of the focal points of London’s filmland, Leicester Square. I also wanted to spend a bit of time here because I’ve been thinking about a question posed early in 1913 by a writer in one of the film trade papers: who was the audience for the first West End cinemas?
What the writer, Samuel Harris, actually wanted to know was whether there was a public demand for the expensive new picture palaces appearing on thoroughfares like Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue. London theatregoers, he thought, had little choice but to travel to the West End if they wanted to watch the latest stage shows. But, seeing as there were ‘far more cinema theatres by hundreds outside the West-End than there are theatres and music-halls’, and given that these cinemas generally showed the same films as those in the West End, would cinemagoers from the suburbs or further out really go the extra mile to get something already available closer to home? Plus, if West End cinemas did manage to attract regular patrons, would these be the same people who went to West End theatres and music halls? In fact, he wondered, ‘Where do the West End regular theatre audience come from’ in the first place?
Harris was an estate agent whose firm brokered some of the big West End cinema projects, so he had a personal interest in asking these questions. I’m not able to answer them all yet. But a trip to Leicester Square might provide a bit of background on the West End as a destination for amusement-seekers.
Originally, Leicester Square was a residential spot. It was laid out and railed off from the surrounding Leicester Fields in the seventeenth century as a decorative accompaniment to the stately Leicester House. During the eighteenth century, it was hedged in by private houses – home to aristocrats and artists like William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds. There were a few shops by this point, but in the nineteenth century commerce more or less took over. Residences made way for a wave of hotels, shops, exhibition centres, institutes and museums. Compared to some of London’s other squares, this was quite a dramatic transformation. The architectural historian E. Beresford Chancellor wrote that, ‘from being as much a private square as those of St. James’s or Bloomsbury, Leicester Square has become as much a public “place” as Trafalgar Square or the Place de la Concorde’.
This commercialisation points to something that was happening more widely in the West End at the time. Wealthy residents were moving out of the area to the suburbs, leaving the major theatres (including the old patent theatres at Covent Garden and Drury Lane) in need of a new audience. In their book on nineteenth century theatregoing, Jim Davis and Victor Emeljanow suggest that the Great Exhibition of 1851, which attracted upwards of 6 million tourists to London in the space of five months, gave theatre managers a feel for how they might make up for the loss of their old, local clientele. The solution managers came up with (according to Davis and Emeljanow) was to turn the West End into a kind of theatrical ‘theme park’, unique enough to entice tourists into the area. In Leicester Square, an important model for capitalising on the emerging tourist trade was provided by James Wyld, whose Great Globe stood in Leicester Square gardens from 1851 and continued to pull in visitors for several years after the Exhibition closed.
The Great Globe vanished (replaced, until the 1870s, by what Beresford Chancellor described grimly as ‘a wilderness … and a last resting-place for dead cats’), but other attractions sprung up in its place. By the turn of the century, Leicester Square was dominated by two huge variety theatres – the Alhambra on the east side, the Empire on the north – plus Daly’s Theatre just off the square on Cranbourn Street. There was also the Queen’s Hotel, the Hôtel Cavour (the first of the square’s ‘foreign’ hotels), and a number of shops, clubs and restaurants.
The Alhambra and the Empire both showed films from 1896 as part of their variety programmes. But the first dedicated cinema, the Circle in the Square (also known as the Bioscopic Tea Rooms, and afterwards Cupid’s and the Palm Court), opened in 1909 next to the Alhambra. This was the only full-time film venue on the square until the Empire was rebuilt as a flagship cinema for MGM in 1928. The Alhambra was knocked down to make way for the Odeon in 1936. But there were other early cinemas nearby: the Cinema de Paris on Bear Street opened in 1910, and the much grander West End Cinema Theatre on Coventry Street opened – in the presence of royalty, no less – in 1913.
Who might have been in the audience at these early Leicester Square cinemas? We can guess that foreign and provincial tourists, who visited the Empire and the Alhambra, and who stayed in the area’s hotels, might have also visited the cinemas. So, too, might Londoners in search of some controlled naughtiness. Judith Walkowitz sums up the prevailing culture of Leicester Square around this time as a mixture of ‘foreigness’ and British chauvinism: ‘Sufficiently cosmopolitan to appeal to foreign tourists … as well as to Londoners desirous of a touch of the Continent’. The Cinema de Paris on Bear Street could have been named with exactly these potential customers in mind.
Early Leicester Square cinemas were also well placed to appeal to passing trade. When they opened, the Circle in the Square and the West End Cinema operated a policy of continuous performance, showing films Monday to Saturday from about midday to midnight (and Sundays from 6pm). Positioned next to the Alhambra and the Empire and near the theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue, they would have been in a good position to attract variety patrons waiting for the 8pm performance or playgoers on a night out. During the day, they might have been a stopping point for shoppers en route between the big department stores on Oxford Street and Regent Street and the railway stations at Charing Cross and Waterloo. If they wanted to, passersby were also able to come in just for something to eat: the Circle in the Square had tea rooms adjoining and underneath the auditorium and the West End Cinema had a ‘Balcony Tea Lounge’ that served drinks and snacks.
All this suggests that cinemas could have shared the audience for other West End amusements without necessarily competing with them directly, in the same way that earlier Leicester Square attractions were able to cash in on the tourist trade drummed up by the Great Exhibition. What I’d still like to know, though, is whether these early film venues brought any new visitors to Leicester Square – perhaps people who might not have been able to afford to go out there otherwise, or who might have been put off by the social niceties of West End theatregoing. Tickets at the West End Cinema were as pricey as those at the nearby theatres, but the Circle in the Square seems to have been a bit cheaper. There, customers could watch a film and enjoy a cup of tea for the same price as a seat in the pit at the Alhambra. Could the arrival of film have opened up the West End to new audiences – new ‘cinematic’ tourists?
There’s more digging to be done before I feel confident answering this question. But, as Leicester Square emerges from its recent multi-million-pound makeover, carried out (according to mayor Boris Johnson) to guarantee its status as a ‘beacon for world premieres and the stars of the silver screen’ and, consequently, as a ‘must-see destination’ for tourists, it’s interesting to think back on what impact film might have been having on the square and its visitors 100 years ago.
Samuel Harris, ‘Thoughts that Make Us Pause and Ponder – No. 2’, The Cinema (29 January 1913).
Will you go with me to HALE’S TOURS at 165, Oxford Street, W.? We can visit the Colonies or any part of the world (without luggage!) and return within fifteen minutes. Trains leave frequently from eleven to eleven. It is not only educational but intensely interesting.
So read the message on the back of the postcard pictured above. It advertises one of two (possibly three) Hale’s Tours venues that opened on Oxford Street from 1906. Another was located in the building at number 532 Oxford Street near Marble Arch, and, according to Christian Hayes, there might have been a third on the corner with Argyll Street. By 1908, London had two more Hale’s Tours sites operating at Hammersmith Broadway and Kensington High Street.
The wonder of the 15-minute round trip to Britain’s furthest-flung colonies and beyond was available to about 50-60 people at a time for the uniform price of sixpence. But how was it achieved? The attraction, first introduced at the 1904 St Louis Exposition by the entrepreneur George C. Hale, worked like a modern theme park simulator ride. The venue was made up of one or two carriages, decorated like the inside of a train, except for the fact that there were no windows. Instead, at one end facing the audience was a screen showing moving pictures of passing scenery.
Some of these moving pictures were repurposed or specially commissioned ‘phantom rides’. But there are also records of Hale’s Tours venues showing story films like Edison’s The Great Train Robbery. The effect wasn’t just visual. Although they never left the premises, Hale’s Tours carriages were designed to rock, tilt and vibrate to mimic the feel of a train journey. The ‘passengers’ at some venues were also treated to uniformed attendants, fans blowing a breeze overhead, and the sound of wheels, bells and whistles to add to the illusion.
Raymond Fielding has called Hale’s Tours an early example of cinematic ‘ultrarealism’. The columnist ‘Stroller’ writing for the Kine Weekly in 1908 thought so too:
In the journey through Rome, one could readily believe we were on a tram car; the rumbling of the wheels, the clanging of the bell to clear the traffic, the motion of the vehicle when rounding corners and the other effects were well-timed, free from exaggeration and as natural as one could desire.
But realism wasn’t the only thing on offer. Lauren Rabinovitz suggests that the effect of Hale’s Tours wasn’t just to transport viewers vicariously to distant places, but also to capture the sensations associated with modern technology – the same kind of miniature thrill offered by the rollercoasters on turn-of-the-century amusement parks.
If Hale’s Tours brought ‘the Colonies’ and a patch of the fairground within reach of shoppers along Oxford Street, there’s also an argument to say that the attraction opened up the West End to the idea of places exclusively showing moving pictures. By the time Hale’s Tours in Britain went bankrupt in 1908, there were at least two full-time cinemas in the district. One of these, the Theatre de Luxe on the Strand, had previously been trading as the Tivoli Tourist Station – a rival attraction to Hale’s. A little later, the former Hale’s Tours venue at 532 Oxford Street also became a cinema. While they lasted, though, Hale’s Tours weren’t just about the films. They sold themselves on a full, immersive experience.
Christian Hayes, ‘Phantom Carriages: Reconstructing Hale’s Tours and the Virtual Travel Experience’, Early Popular Visual Culture, 7:2 (2009), 185-198.
Raymond Fielding, ‘Hale’s Tours: Ultrarealism in the Pre-1910 Motion Picture’, in John L. Fell (ed.), Film Before Griffith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 116-130.
Stroller, ‘Picture Shows As I See Them’, Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly (1 October 1908), 481.
Lauren Rabinovitz, Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies, and American Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).
I was reading George Pearson’s memoirs, Flashback, again recently because I wanted to know a bit more about the place where he first tried his hand as a film director: a film studio on, or rather underneath, Great Portland Street in central London (pictured above).
For a short while, this underground studio was the British production headquarters of Pathé Frères, who made films there under the brand names of ‘Britannia’ and later ‘Big Ben’, produced by one of Pathé’s subsidiaries, the Union Film Publishing Company (see Luke McKernan’s entry about Pathé on the BFI Screenonline website).
Great Portland Street in the 1910s
The studio seems to have been in action from 1912 to 1914, when the company moved away from the city centre to more spacious premises at Alexandra Palace. Other directors to work there during these years included H. O. Martinek and A. E. Coleby, whom Pearson remembered being taken to meet by Pathé execs in 1912 on the set of Peg Woffington. Pearson himself arrived there at the start of 1913, having left his former career as a schoolmaster. (The local historian Stephen Pewsey mentions that Pearson’s ex-pupils at Staples Road Boys’ School in Loughton were none too happy with his replacement, a strict Welshman named Williams, who found a chalked message waiting for him on the school’s brick gate-pillars: ‘We want Pearson back, down with Williams!’)
George Pearson, from britmovie.co.uk
Pearson described the studio when he got there as ‘a curious little place’, lit entirely by mercury-vapour tubes, under which ‘everyone looked as though suffering from acute heart disease’. The single camera was ‘mounted on a heavy capstan-head bolted rigidly to the floor’, so that the camera angle was always the same in every shot. Pearson took the camera off its mount and played around with close-ups. Given the experimentation that seems to have been going on under Pearson’s watch, it would be great if more of his early films survived.
Patricia Warren’s encyclopedic history of British film studios mentions the Union Film Publishing Company premises, but doesn’t give an exact location. So the challenge I set myself – as yet unfulfilled – was to find whereabouts on Great Portland Street this studio was situated. Sadly, Pearson doesn’t say, and, so far, Post Office directories, Ordnance Survey maps and fire insurance plans have yet to yield up a street address either (if you know any details, I’d love to hear from you).
A view looking south down Great Portland Street
But Pearson’s memoirs more than make up for this small omission. In fact, there’s one episode in Flashback that’s so surreal, it’s worth quoting at length:
we wanted a shot of a mounted huntsman about to ride from his country mansion, a painted and imposing doorway on a huge canvas drop-scene suspended from the ceiling. With great caution and wary pushes we had propelled a perplexed horse along a slippery stone passage that gave him no sure foothold, and gently urged him along much as an ocean liner is edged into harbour by little tugs. We got him at last on to the wooden stage floor, and into position by the ornate door, midway between the unlit mercury-light banks to his head and rear. The actor huntsman was hoisted into the saddle, and was all for the ‘take’, or as it happened, the ‘kill’, for when the signal for lights was given, and the light banks suddenly flashed on, that utterly bewildered horse saw red! He made one wild dash, and we were all mixed up with crashing mercury tubes, flying hooves, and the complete collapse of the country mansion, in the ruins of which the huntsmen was buried and lost to sight. We found the amazed horse seated on his hindquarters amid the debris of the painters’ pots and pans, probably wondering what was going to happen next! Truly they were the great days of adventure.
An out-of-focus Simon Callow unveils the Westminster City Council plaque on 27, Cecil Court, once home to the offices of early film companies Gaumont and James Williamson & Co., now Stephen Poole Fine Books:
Afterwards, James Williamson’s film The Big Swallow gets a warm reception in the basement of 5, Cecil Court, formerly the premises of the New Bioscope Trading Co., with Cyrus Gabrische providing musical accompaniment:
Cecil Court is a small thoroughfare that runs between St Martin’s Lane and Charing Cross Road. As reported last week by Silent London, the street is to get a special plaque from Westminster City Council this Thursday (13 December) to mark its place in film history. This will join the collection of commemorative signs already proudly on display in the street’s shop windows:
To people interested in early cinema, Cecil Court is better known by its Edwardian nickname, ‘Flicker Alley’. It’s a quaint name, a little like something out of Harry Potter, that’s liable to conjure up images of eccentric gentleman-inventors and dusty nitrate. It’s one that has been memorialized by film pioneers like Cecil Hepworth, who writes about the street in his autobiography, as well as lending itself to a company that specializes in silent film DVD releases.
Former resident of Cecil Court, Cecil Hepworth
Simon Brown’s careful study of ‘Flicker Alley’ paints a more complex picture, in which successive waves of film businesses gravitated to the street, made important connections with each other, then shipped out to larger premises, usually in Soho. In the early days, before 1907, the street was home to a number of ‘one-stop-shops’ like Hepworth’s and the British offices of the Gaumont Company. Later, more specialist businesses moved in, representing new branches of the industry – companies dealing in the sale of foreign films, film rental firms, and stockists supplying cinemas with equipment and accessories like tip-up seats, chocolates and ushers’ uniforms.
Advert for Climax Ticket Machine, Ltd., one of the companies trading on Cecil Court in the 1910s
The process of clustering, or ‘agglomeration’, that Brown traces, in which like-minded companies converge on the same location, had distinct advantages for the businesses involved and for their customers. Brown explains:
Most showmen would have to travel considerable distances to visit London, and almost all were buying their films from many producers, so agglomeration proved a benefit both to the showmen, and to their suppliers, who did not lose business because they were geographically distant from their colleagues.
This process wasn’t unique to the early film industry. Other notable examples in London over the years have included Clerkenwell for clocks, Spitalfields for silk, Savile Row for tailoring and Tottenham Court Road for furniture. Cecil Court itself is now home to a cluster of booksellers:
Books on sale in Cecil Court, from patternlondon.com
Thursday’s celebrations in Cecil Court begin at 2.30pm with a selection of films from the BFI, accompanied by the pianist John Sweeney. Tim Bryars, who runs a shop on the street, has written about its history, including its aristocratic origins and links with the book trade, for the Cecil Court website. The full version of Simon Brown’s essay, ‘Flicker Alley’, first published in the journal Film Studies is available to download free as a pdf.