Part of the appeal of silent-era movies is their ability to give today’s audiences a glimpse of lost worlds. With these newsreels, travelogues, animation, comedy, and adventure films, the British Film Institute provides a look at what average British moviegoers might have seen at their local picture show 100 years ago. While the program reveals a very different moviegoing experience from the single-feature approach film fans enjoy today, it’s not far-fetched to think of early cinema as the Internet of its day, offering a one-stop shop for visually exciting news, travel, and entertainment.
The British public began the year concerned with the women’s suffrage movement, which had taken on a shocking new militancy that March when a supporter of suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst entered the National Gallery and slashed Diego Velázquez’s nude Rokeby Venus seven times with a meat cleaver. The sensationalist story must have been on audiences’ minds later that May when a newsreel showed Mrs. Pankhurst being escorted by guards as she made her way to petition King George V for the vote. He was not moved and women did not achieve full suffrage until 1928.
More than merely shocking was the assassination in June of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophia in Sarajevo. The assassinations, reported in the July newsreel Austrian Tragedy, hung like an unfinished sentence over the political landscape. Audiences entertained earlier that spring by the derring-do of aviation pioneers Gustav Hamel and Bentfield C. Hucks in Looping the Loop at Hendon might have found it sobering to consider that Hamel vanished from the skies over the English Channel only two months later and that Hucks enlisted when war broke out in August. Unlike many of the men shown in the December newsreel Christmas at the Front, Hucks was discharged as an invalid after an attack of pleurisy in 1915. He died at home of pneumonia four days before the Armistice, never having flown a single combat mission.
After war was declared, audiences were eager for news from the frontlines but in 1914 such films were hard to come by. Critic Stephen Bush complained in the British film trade journal The Bioscope that the London market was “flooded with so-called war pictures which are nothing more or less than badly executed dupes of old and scratched positives that have been culled from weekly animated gazettes and pictures of maneuvers. The curious part of it all is the hunger with which even this poor stuff is swallowed by the public.” The reason for these deceptions was a ban on photography, still and moving, by newly occupying German forces in neutral Belgium, a ban enforced with the threat of execution. Civilians, ever on the lookout for spies, were quick to attack anyone with a camera. German Occupation of Historic Louvain, a newsreel taken of the war-pulverized Belgian town, was an unusual dispatch and a valuable piece of propaganda contributed by a cameraman who could have been shot for filming it.
Even in the first months of the war, spy obsession was ripe for parody, and a knowing British audience probably got a kick out of Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine. Pimple, the invention of brothers Fred and Joe Evans who operated the independent Folly Films studio, was lifted out of the circus ring and off the boards of the British music hall where the brothers’ father and grandfather were seasoned performers. Fred played the acrobatic, clown-faced bumbler who, in this short, foils some mustache-twirling spies on rickety sets that became a Pimple trademark, including a submarine from which divers passed through an ordinary hinged door.
From the beginnings of the war, too, propaganda filled the movie houses hoping to fan the flames of patriotism. Scouts’ Valuable Aid, released in August, showed that even youngsters could play their part by acting as lookouts and sounding the alarm should invading fleets be detected. Through stop-motion “lightning” animation, sketches by Lancelot Speed showed General John French, commander of the British army in France, trouncing the enemy before an amused and amazed audience. Speed, who made his name as an illustrator of Victorian novels, became a fixture of wartime cinema as he drew and animated his way through the end of the war with 1918’s Britain’s Effort.
Inevitably, the British public longed for an escape from the war and its attendant hardships, and adventure films filled the need. Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal expedition to the South Pole in 1912 had fueled the fascination with polar exploration and it continued with Sir Ernest Shackleton’s preparations for his own attempt to transverse Antarctica. A newsreel of Lord Kitchener reviewing troops in Egypt provided a vicarious experience for average British moviegoers who, in all likelihood, never traveled beyond their own borders. More excitement awaited in the American serial, The Perils of Pauline. Pauline (played by Pearl White), whose wealth put her in constant danger, kept audiences in suspense as she was variously stranded on a cliff face, menaced by sharks, and, in this installment, set adrift in a hot-air balloon and locked in a burning building. White, who did her own stunts, found the balloon incident genuinely hair-raising, as a sudden storm blew up and carried the intrepid actress miles away from the landing site.
In the end, comedies provided the greatest escape. American Vitagraph star Florence Turner, one of early cinema’s powerful women, set up her own production company at the Hepworth Studios in Surrey, a hub of British filmmaking founded by Cecil Hepworth, one of the fathers of the British film industry. In Daisy Doodad’s Dial, Turner used her agile face (the “dial” of the title) to hilariously frightening effect as her character practiced for a funny-face contest. Cecil Hepworth is connected to another short in the program, The Rollicking Rajah. This music-hall act brought sound to 1914 cinemas more than a decade before the arrival of talkies in the form of the Vivaphone, invented by Hepworth. Similar to the early Vitaphone sound-on-disc system in the United States, it allowed the rajah and his harem’s corny song to ring out in movie theaters.
The most auspicious film event of 1914 was the return of Charles Chaplin to his native land—if only on celluloid. Chaplin, whose Little Tramp debuted on-screen that year, appears in one of the rapid-fire, slapstick comedies he reluctantly churned out for Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, a backlot confection called A Film Johnnie, in which he plays a movie version of the so-called “stage-door Johnnies” who courted theater actresses. Although buried in Sennett’s maniacal silliness, Chaplin’s fluid movements and sly insolence are already on view, rough diamonds ready for a polish. Frontline troops, who watched films in makeshift battlefield theaters, waited with great anticipation for Chaplin’s comedies. Although the British press attacked him for not enlisting, his efforts to raise money for U.S. Liberty Bonds and his growing popularity as a diversion during the long, brutal war redeemed him in the public’s eyes.
Looping the Loop at Hendon Pioneering British aviators Gustav Hamel and Bentfield C. Hucks perform stunts at the legendary Hendon airfield.
Palace Pandemonium The leading campaigner for women’s suffrage, Emmeline Pankhurst, on her way to petition the king at Buckingham Palace in May. The suffragettes often staged appearances to keep their struggle in the news.
Austrian Tragedy Newsreel footage of the Austro-Hungarian royal family, including the wedding of Archduke Karl who became heir to the imperial throne after Franz Ferdinand’s assassination that July.
Dogs for the Antarctic An August newsreel shows Sir Ernest Shackleton preparing for his expedition to Antarctica, bringing along plenty of dogs.
Daisy Doodad’s Dial The ebullient Daisy Doodad, played by American Vitagraph star Florence Turner, practices for a face-pulling competition and ends up getting herself arrested.
Egypt and Her Defenders This color-tinted travelogue shows Lord Kitchener as British Consul General reviewing the troops against a backdrop of Egypt’s famous sights.
Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine Fred Evans, Britain’s most popular comedian of the time, foils the plans of dastardly foreign spies in one of hundreds of Pimple films that made a virtue of their low budgets.
Scouts’ Valuable Aid A pair of young Sea Scouts keep lookout for an invading fleet from the cliff tops.
German Occupation of Historic Louvain When the Kaiser invaded neutral Belgium in August, the destruction of the centuries-old town of Louvain and its ancient university library provoked worldwide outrage.
General French’s Contemptible Little Army General John French, commander of the British army in France, gets the better of the Germans in this lightning sketch by pioneering animator Lancelot Speed. Commonly distributed with newsreels, animation was popular with audiences and allowed Speed to be splendidly irreverent.
Christmas at the Front Troops are well fed before they return to the trenches in late December. National security issues prevent us from knowing where.
The Perils of Pauline American imports were always popular in England and serials were the latest sensation. This episode features an accidental hot-air balloon ride and a spectacular rescue from a burning building.
The Rollicking Rajah Ladies fashions and dance moves of the day are highlights of this Vivaphone song film, which was accompanied by a now-lost synchronized sound disc. The song has been recreated from the surviving sheet music.
A Film Johnnie In the summer of 1914, Charlie Chaplin exploded onto British screens. This Keystone Comedy is one of his very first films and is, appropriately, set in a cinema. Keep an eye out for Edgar Kennedy as the harried director and a cameo by Fatty Arbuckle.