Chris Hallam: The changing times of the silver screen

Empty red cinema seats with blank white screen for adding a picture. Empty cinema auditorium.

The magic of the silver screen - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Cinema was a very big business indeed in the first half of the 20th century. From the moment, audiences reportedly ducked at the sight of an approaching train while watching 1896’s 50-second Lumière Brothers’ film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, people were gripped by the new medium, often going to the cinema several times a week. Film actors like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford became massive stars overnight. The premature death of screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino in 1926 provoked such widespread mourning that he ended up having the biggest American funeral of the century.

This was the silent era but in 1927, the new era of ‘Talkies’ was heralded by Al Jolson as he could be clearly heard speaking in the film, The Jazz Singer stating “Wait a minute, wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothing yet!” The age of sound had begun. There would be no need for explanatory captions on screen ever again. This was the golden age of Hollywood. The vast majority of films were still in black and white but occasionally cinemagoers would be treated to full-length colour treats like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). It didn’t always work immediately, however. Though now considered a classic, the mostly full-colour The Wizard of Oz (1939) in fact flopped on its initial release, only making its money back a decade later.

The year 1939 in fact saw the release of the most successful film at the box office of all time, (when inflation is taken into account): the four-hour epic, Gone With The Wind. Although many of us baulk at the prospect of sitting through a very long film, in fact, five of the all-time top ten films are close to or over three hours in length including The Sound of Music, Titanic, The Ten Commandments and Doctor Zhivago. This suggests people are prepared to be patient when it comes to seeing a ‘must-see’ event movie like these (long films also represent good value for money). The list also suggests people like films about war: five of the ten listed are set during wars (Wind, Music, Commandments, Zhivago plus Star Wars). Incidentally, only two films in the top ten (Titanic and Star Wars) were not based on books and only three (E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws and The Exorcist) were not obviously set in the past. Star Wars is, of course, one of those set in the past (“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”)

The Second World War pushed cinema to new unforeseen heights of popularity. In the UK, in 1946, a record, 1.64 billion cinema admissions were recorded. These figures would never be as good again. In the 1950s, cinema attendance went into a steep decline. By 1957 and 1958, UK cinema admissions had halved. At this point, attendance began to plummet: admissions had more than halved again by 1962. By 1984, the figure reached an all-time low: 54 million, only 3.3% of the number of admissions in 1946. The medium of cinema seemed to be in terminal decline.

The obvious explanation for the fall of cinema was the rise of TV. This was undeniably the critical factor although other changes such as the rise of car ownership also made a difference. The film industry attempted a wide variety of measures: more colour, cinemascope, 3D movies, drive-in cinemas to combat the challenge, all to little avail. Even the release of blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars in the 1970s did not slow the decline.

After 1984, cinema in the UK made a good recovery. 2018 was the best year for admissions since 1970. But even when things are fully returned to normal, it seems unlikely we will ever again see the massive numbers attending cinemas that we saw in the 1930s and 1940s. The world has changed.