Early & Silent Film

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A Night at the Cinema in 1914

Posted by keith1942 on November 1, 2014











The Hyde Park Picture House celebrates 100 years during the Leeds International Film Festival: it opened to the public on November 7th 1914. So [along with other programmes] the cinema is screening a new compilation from the British Film Institute, A Night at the in Cinema 1914. Unfortunately, as has become the standard practice, the bfi appears to have only distributed this on a 2K DCP. Apart from questions about to what extent 2K digital equates with 35mm, the package screens at sound speed, 24 fps. This may be just because a musical soundtrack can be added. However, as yet, I have not come across any bfi issues that implement the FIAF specifications for alternative frame rates, from 16 to 24 fps. It is almost certain that all of the films will have originally been projected at 16 fps [more or less depending on the venue]. So the bfi will have added eight extra frames for every second of projection. The technique affects different films in different ways depending on the relationship of shots and editing. Even so this is a substantial [and for me unwelcome] change in the films. On the other hand there is the opportunity to see very rare films from the archives in appropriate surroundings.

The package offers a selection of films produced in the UK and the USA in 1914: there are ‘actualities’ [documentaries], newsreel, an episode from a serial and comedies. This digital transfer comes with a pre-recorded musical accompaniment played by Stephen Horne, a talented musician who performs regularly at the National Film Theatre and the prestigious Le Giornate de Cinema Muto.

The programme on the package offers a selection of fare typical of a visit to the Picture House in 1914. It is worth noting though that an evening would almost have certainly included a longer feature, a drama of three to four reels or even more. In June 1914 the Hepworth Manufacturing Company had released a version of David Copperfield comprising eight reels, running for about two hours. A four-reel film would have meant around an hour of screen time.

Whilst a record of the complete programme for the evening of November 7th does not survive, the main featured was billed as Their Only Son [‘a patriotic drama’. Released in October 1914 by Barker Motion Photography Ltd, the film comprised three reels and lasted about 40 minutes. No copy appears to have survived.

Barker Ltd was one of seven major production companies in the UK at that time. The Managing Director, W. G. Barker, had started out with the Warwick Trading Company and set up his own company in 1909. The firm built the first studio at Ealing. Their output included theatrical adaptations, but also ‘Topicals’. The films were also noted for the frequent use of location shooting.

The film was directed by Bert Haldane from a story by Rowland Talbot. The film starred two actors who worked regularly for Barker – Thomas H. MacDonald and Blanche Forsythe [‘a plump, demure English girl.]  This quartet all worked together again on a major production by Barker Ltd in 1915, Jane Shore, a six-reel film set during the Wars of the Roses. The company were relatively successful during the war years with a number of patriotic dramas set during the current conflict or earlier wars that probably offered some sort of parallel.

Apparently the plot involved a son who falls out with his father when he volunteers and becomes a despatch rider. Wounded, he is nursed back to health by his ex-wife, [fittingly following the literacy tradition of remarkable coincidence]. Presumably the film ended with husband and wife and father and son reconciled.

Purpose built cinemas like the Hyde Park were relatively new. Leeds first proper cinema had opened in 1905. The nearby Cottage Road cinema in Headingley opened in 1913. Purpose built cinemas both standardised film programmes and presentations and altered the composition of the audience. Early films were predominately a working class entertainment. By the teens of the last century middle class patrons were increasing in number. The prices at the opening ranged from 2 pence [children] to a shilling, [presumably for the balcony].


As well as production companies and a distribution system British cinema in 1914 already had a system of censorship, The British Board of Film Censors, set up in 1912. The slightly odd basis for this was 1909 Safety legislation passed to set standards, especially to prevent the fire hazards of early film inflammable nitrate. The safety enforcement was vested in Local Authorities, so the BBFC had to convince them of its effectiveness, a process that was only completed in the 1920s.  The Board initially issued two categories of Certificate – Adult or ‘A’ and Universal or ‘U’. Their Only Son received a ‘U’ certificate.

The major problem for this Industry was the growing power of the US imports. The BFI compilation includes an extract from a serial produced by the US arm of Pathé. The Perils of Pauline: and an early appearance of Charlie Chaplin in a Keystone comedy.

The Keystone comedy makes an interesting comparison with the British comedy starring the popular music-hall comedian Fred Evans as “Pimple”. These ‘Folly Films; were produced by the Phoenix Film Agency. Evans specialised in burlesques of popular straight or even artistic dramas. Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine is a one reeler which seems to satirise a series of one-reel dramas produced by the British & Colonial Kinematograph character featuring the heroic “Lt. Daring” of the Royal Navy.

I expect that the audience in 1914 was as impressed with the cinema and it auditorium and many members are today. It is [for me] the most delightful; film experience in Leeds. And, though not often in use now, the cinema still has 35mm projection. That would have been the format in 1914, with live music: the most frequent accompaniment to ‘silent’ movies.

A Night at the Cinema in 1914 

Looping the Loop at Hendon (March 1914)

Pioneering British aviators Gustav Hamel and Bentfield Hucks perform stunts at the legendary Hendon airfield. Although not hard news, this was a topical story.

Palace Pandemonium (May 1914)

The leading campaigner for votes for women, Emmeline Pankhurst, goes to petition the King in person at Buckingham Palace. The campaign for votes for women was very high-profile and often featured in the news. The suffragettes would stage appearances at events for maximum impact. 

Austrian Tragedy (July 1914)

Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, this newsreel shows footage of the Austro-Hungarian royal family, including the wedding of Archduke Karl who succeeded Franz Ferdinand as heir to the imperial throne.

Dogs for the Antarctic (August 1914)

Following the death of Captain Scott, Sir Ernest Shackleton plans another expedition to Antarctica, taking plenty of dogs. This is typical of the ‘magazine’ style film shorts of the time.

Daisy Doodad’s Dial

American Vitagraph studio star Florence Turner ran her own film company at the Hepworth studios on the Thames. In this comedy ‘dial’ means ‘face’. The ebullient Daisy Doodad practises for a face-pulling competition and ends up getting herself arrested.

Egypt and her Defenders

This travelogue of the famous sights of Egypt shows Lord Kitchener as British Consul General before he was made Secretary of State for War. In this film with colour tinting, he is seen reviewing the troops.

Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine

Fred Evans was the most popular British comedian of the age, turning out hundreds of ‘Pimple’ films which made a virtue of their low budgets. Here Pimple foils the plans of dastardly foreign spies. If Monty Python had made comedies in 1914 they would look like this.

Scouts’ Valuable Aid (August 1914)

As the nation gears up for war even the young are mobilised to help the war effort … Here a pair of Sea Scouts are on the look-out on the cliff tops for an invading fleet.

German Occupation of Historic Louvain (September 1914)

When Germany invades neutral Belgium, the destruction of the historic town of Louvain and its ancient university library provokes worldwide outrage. This newsreel was presumably filmed by a cameraman from a neutral country.

General French’s Contemptible Little Army

General French, commander of the British army in France, gets the better of the Germans in this lightning sketch by pioneering animator Lancelot Speed. Animation was popular and commonly distributed as part of the newsreels. Cartoons allowed Speed to be splendidly irreverent.

Christmas at the Front (December 1914)

Troops celebrate Christmas at the Front. We’re not told where for reasons of national security. But it’s good to see the boys being well fed before they return to the trenches.

The Perils of Pauline

American imports were always popular and serials were the latest sensation in 1914. In this excerpt, Pearl White stars as Pauline, a feisty heroine pursued by villains eager to get their hands on her fortune and features both an accidental hot air balloon trip and a spectacularly daring rescue from a burning building.

The Rollicking Rajah

Years before the arrival of the ‘talkies’, this Vitaphone song film (which wonderfully shows the ladies fashions and dance moves of the day) would have been accompanied by a synchronised sound disc, which is now lost. The song is recreated here from the surviving sheet music. The Vitaphone was a British sound on disc system pioneered by Cecil Hepworth.

A Film Johnnie

In 1914, Hollywood is born and British comedian Charles Chaplin is its greatest star. He explodes onto British screens in summer of that year. This is one of his very first films and is, appropriately, set in a cinema.

Note, the material on Their Only Son is garnered from Rachel Low;s The History of British Film 1906 – 1914, 1948 and from the IMDB.

One Response to “A Night at the Cinema in 1914

  1. […] Elaine appeared in short episodes, usually one reel running for about fifteen minutes. Fans who saw A Night at the Cinema in 1914 will have seen an episode of The Perils of Pauline, with a climatic ending in a quarry. The […]

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