Running Time: 85 minutes
Release Date: August 1st
In 1914, cinema was barely 20 years old but had already gone through some massive changes. It was no longer the fairground amusement showing workers leaving factories and bodybuilders flexing their muscles. By 1914, cinema as we know it today was beginning to emerge. Historical epics from Italy such as Cabiria were showing the scale that films can achieve. Meanwhile in Denmark, Benjamin Christensen’s debut The Mysterious X was using the techniques of camerawork, editing and lighting to tell its narrative in a new, exciting way.
However, for most people at that time, going to the cinema was a far different experience than what we have today. Back then cinema going was something like going to a variety show, featuring newsreels, comedy shorts and ongoing serials all accompanied by live music, most often on a piano or organ. The BFI have delved into their achieves to attempt to recreate this experience, only now presented on digital projection and a new score by Stephen Horne.
The opening segment, a piece on aviation called Looping the Loop at Hendon, immediately gives us an idea of the time period we are in. Lasting around a minute long and shot at ground level to modern eyes it looks quite unspectacular. For audiences at that time however, it would have come across as exciting, a chance to see this new feat of invention. It is a reminder how, like cinema, aviation development quickly as in a few months after that film was shot, planes would be developed for use in World War 1.
As to be expected given the year, WW1 plays a vital role in many of the newsreels. These feature footage of the Austro-Hungarian royal family after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the destruction of the Belgium town by Germany and troops receiving meals at Christmas. Also shown are propaganda pieces including a proto-Terry Gilliam animation by pioneering animator Lancelot Speed.
The main attractions for the audience however would have been the two-reeler comedies and serials. Some of these, such as music hall comedian Fred Evens’ Lieutenant Pimple short, in which much of the humour is derived from its cheap sets, still work today. Meanwhile in the short Daisy Doodad’s Dial, in which the main character, played by American star Florence Turner who made her own films in London, is arrested for pulling faces on her way to a face-pulling contest really starts to test your patience towards the end.
They are two segments that signal the future of cinema. The first, The Rollicking Rajah, a music hall song that would have been shown along with a synchronised disc (the original disc is now lost in the film it is recreated using the surviving sheet music) showcases that the origins of sound movies go way beyond that of The Jazz Singer.
The second is a Keystone comedy titled A Film Johnnie, one of the earliest films featuring Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp. Chaplin would soon gain complete creative control of the character, using pantomime, pathos and politics to express his sympathies with people who live in the same type of poverty that Chaplin himself grew up in. This film however is more of a showcase of the wonderful slapstick skills of Chaplin. It is incredible that at the age of 25, and only appearing in his sixth film, even today you can recognise the talent and charisma that Chaplin processed that would make him one of the most iconic and influential figure in the history of cinema.
A Night at the Cinema in 1914 would probably feel a bit too niche to appeal to a casual audience. However for anyone with a interest in the history of film and the changes in cinema over the years, there is plenty here to enjoy.