Cinema was not invented, it was, rather, a consequential development over three hundred years of various scientific and entertainment forms combining emerging types of technology, entertainment and popular culture with storytelling, business and education. During the 17th century, the projection of ‘moving pictures’ consisted of magic lantern shows which used a series of tricks such as overlaying, dissolving and superimposing slides over one another and the use of mechanical levers to provide the illusion of movement for the entertainment and amusement of audiences. However, from 1827 when the first still photograph was taken, numerous inventors across the globe began the quest to record a moving image. During this time various apparatus were designed to create the illusion of moving pictures (e.g. zoetrope, kinetoscope – see Early Cinema), but these did not cater for the projection of the image to a large audience. Many inventors including Edison, the Lumiere Brothers, RW Paul and many others were instrumental in the creation of what we know today as cinema, with the earliest recorded films dating from around 1895. With these moving image technologies developing during this time, it was at the fairgrounds and music halls that many Scots experienced this new attraction of moving pictures. The magic lantern shows had already been a popular feature of many fairgrounds and music halls for many years and therefore the foundation for early film performances had already been put into place.
At The Fairground (1895 – 1910)
Like the lantern showmen who would provide a live performance of music, sound, drama and storytelling to accompany the images, the early film showmen provided a similar experience with the notable attraction that their pictures really were moving or ‘living’.
From around 1895 to around 1910, films were screened at fairgrounds and music halls with a large number of Scots experiencing their first site of moving pictures in a large tent-like structure called the Bioscope or Cinematograph at the fairground amongst the coconut shies and rides such as the Whip and carousel. However, like all new attractions, whilst the Bioscope or Cinematograph proved popular, it was unknown whether it would last. During this time, it was regarded as just another attraction alongside the entertainers, waxworks and freak shows.
With the fairgrounds considered a cheaper option for many working class Scots, the travelling shows generally became regarded as entertainment for the working classes and arguably, early film going regarded as a working class pursuit. Conversely, it was the popularity of film shows at the travelling fairs that catapulted the production and exhibition of films for money into the worldwide phenomena we know today.
Being part of a fairground meant that the Bioscope and Cinematograph booths were travelling attractions that toured the highways and byways of Scotland and the UK, setting up on village greens and in local parks. With no electricity, the booths would be powered by a large traction engine, which whilst stationary would generate power for the projection equipment – also called the Bioscope or Cinematograph (and from which the show got its name). This traction engine would also be used to tour the booths from place to place (see Lord and Lady Overtoun's Visit to MacIndoe's Show).
Still from 'Lord and Lady Overtoun's Visit to MacIndoe's Show' (1908)
The Bioscope and Cinematograph booths were very elaborate affairs. Outside the booth was a stage upon which dancing girls would perform to encourage people to come and find out more about the attraction and spend their hard earned wages. There was also generally an organ built onto the frontage to provide the musical entertainment. Being the owner of a fairground attraction was a very competitive business and the showman aimed to encourage as many people as possible into his show.
The early film programme would comprise of a number of short items, music hall and comedy sketches (see MacNab’s Visit to London), local events (see Launch at Denny's: Shamrock III), news (see Gordon Highlanders) and often a ‘phantom ride’. The phantom ride involved either a camera being attached to the front of a train, tram or other form of transport or the camera operator filming the journey. The effect of which was to make the audience feel like they were actually experiencing the ride for themselves (see Railway Ride Over the Tay and Glasgow Trams 1902. These phantom rides were very dramatic for an audience witnessing moving pictures for the first time.
Still from 'Glasgow Trams' (c1902)
Additionally, early film showmen cleverly exploited a unique business opportunity to appeal to their local audiences by filming local events such as parades or marches, royal visits, stars coming to town and ordinary working class people leaving their work (for more on factory gate films see the Mitchell and Kenyon film collection). Rather than the focus being on the event or famous person, the showman would film the crowds of people attending the event, with the aim of trying to capture as many faces on film as possible. These crowds were effectively the target audience for the film showman and this unique marketing strategy is something people still crave today – their five minutes of fame. These films become known as actuality or local topical films.
To drum up business for his attraction, the film showman, who was usually the owner of the Bioscope or Cinematograph, would often stand outside shouting theatrical persuasions. “Roll up, roll up – come and see the new amazing attraction of moving pictures. Be wowed and stunned as a moving train appears to come out the screen, watch hilarious comedy sketches and especially for this week only, see your local boys - the Gordon Highlanders marching through Aberdeen (see Gordon Highlanders). Were you at the march? Then come and spot yourself, your neighbours, your friends and family on screen and don’t think I didn’t spot all you naughty boys misbehaving for my camera! Don’t miss these astounding moving pictures - all for your delectation and delight today.”
Question: What kinds of attractions does your local travelling fair have today?
At The Cinema (1910 – 1950s)
Film shows proved more and more popular with the fairgrounds, reaching a far wider audience than the music halls. A demand and thirst for film had been created and with the fairs only being a temporary fixture, there were no dedicated buildings for the screening of films all year round. From around 1910 some of the traveling film showmen recognised this demand and decided to set up buildings dedicated to the screening of films.
A number of these travelling showmen in Scotland, such as George Kemp and his son Harry inadvertently became pioneers of Scotland’s first cinemas (see The Kemp Family biography on the Scottish Screen Archive website). In the early days, the cinema as we know it today was called the ‘Kinema’ or ‘Kinematograph’ or ‘Electric Picture Palace’ and many of Scotland’s cinemas were built during the period between 1910 to 1938. (Look up The Hippodrome, Bo’ness – Scotland’s oldest working cinema). Cinema proved incredibly popular in Scotland and Glasgow during 1930s had the most cinemas per head of the population in the whole of Europe – in 1929 there were 113. Most cinemas generally contained just the one screen with the larger cinemas seating up to 2,000 people for one showing.
Question/Activity: Find out how many cinemas your local town had – what were they called, how many screens did they have, how many people could they seat and how many are left today. (Look at the Scottish Cinemas website and then research whether any films survive on the Scottish Screen Archive website.) What do you think it would have been like to watch a film with 2,000 people?
Much like they had done in the fairgrounds, the showmen – now cinema managers, continued to make local films for screening in their cinemas. The Hollywood film industry was emerging at a growing rate with stars such as Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino and Douglas Fairbanks popular during the period 1910 – 1920. With dramatic fiction films and comedies being made and distributed across the UK and imported from America, the film industry was a booming business.
However, the cinema managers did not forget their local audience – in fact they embraced them. They continued to film local topical events such sports days, galas and fairs, news items, visits by royalty, dignitaries, stars and politicians. Again, whilst these events were the subject of the film, the focus remained very much on the crowds of people attending with the local people having far more time on screen than the ‘star’.
Still from 'Sir Harry Lauder visits the Regent Picture House, Glasgow to View Huntingtower' (05 October 1928)
This focus on the crowds and therefore the target audience for the film was the feature that made these local topical films unique. The topicals were completely different from newsreel films in that the local topical was intended to entertain - the newsreel to inform. (See comparison activity below). The local topical film, alongside a local or national newsreel, formed part of the regular cinema experience for many years until approximately the 1950’s and would have been shown before the main feature film of the day.
Still from 'Lochgelly Old Age Pensioner's Drive to the Crook O' Devon' (c1928)
Today, these cinema programmes containing a variety of films are a thing of the past, with the predominance of the multiplexes screening only advertising with their main features. Gone are the local topicals, newsreels and B-movies that were the staple diet of many cinema programmes for the first 50 years in the history of cinema exhibition. Is cinema better today or was the experience better in the bygone years? You can decide for yourself.
Local Topicals at the Fairground:
Railway Ride Over the Tay
Glasgow Trams 1902
Launch at Denny's: Shamrock III
Lord and Lady Overtoun's Visit to MacIndoe's Show
Local Topicals at the Cinema:
Glasgow's Yesterdays (clip 1)
Glasgow's Yesterdays (clip 2)
Glasgow's Yesterdays (clip 3)
Glasgow's Yesterdays (clip 4)
Glasgow's Yesterdays (clip 5)
Harry Lauder visits the Regent Cinema, Glasgow to view Huntingtower
Lochgelly Old Age Pensioner's Drive to Crook O' Devon
Stan and Ollie
Aberdeen's Black Friday
Flicks of Aberdeen's Territorial Week
Comparison Activity (Local Topical v Local Newsreel)
Create a table with three columns and nine rows. Label the first column ‘Question’, the second column, ‘Local Topical – Harry Lauder visits the Regent Cinema, Glasgow’ and the third column ‘Newsreel – Vera Reynolds visits the Regent Cinema, Glasgow’.
Now write the following questions under the ‘Question’ column – one row for each question.
- What is the film about?
- Where is the camera positioned?
- What are the camera angles?
- Who do we see in the film?
- How long is Harry on screen?
- Where is he located within the screen frame (e.g. middle or side of the side)?
- Who else do we see?
- Who or what does the film direct your attention to?
- What do the inter-title cards tell you?
Watch Harry Lauder visits the Regent Cinema, Glasgow to view Huntingtower and then complete the grid.
Then watch Vera Reynolds visits the Regent Cinema, Glasgow and complete the grid.
Ask the class to feedback and compare the similarities and differences between the two films. Can the class describe why a newsreel is different from a local topical?
Create your own Local Topical and Newsreel Film
Storyboard and film a local event or activity in your school for screening at school that could be regarded as a local topical. Then storyboard and film a newsreel film about the same event. Present to other classes and/or the whole school explaining the differences between the two films and reasons for this.
Further Newsreel/Propaganda Analysis
Watch The Other Man’s Job’, a wartime newsreel propaganda film, informing people what Scotland was doing for the war effort during World War II. Divide a piece of paper/whiteboard/flipchart into four boxes by drawing a line down and across the middle of the page – write the following at the top of each particular box 'Sound', 'Story', 'Tone', 'People'.
Screen the film to the class once. Then divide the class into four groups. Ask one group to look at all the different sounds heard in the film; one group to look at what the film is about and how the story is told; one group to note down how the film makes them feel – the emotions felt and how the information is put across – authoritative/ informative/ instructional or from a particular person’s point of view; the last group is to look at the people featured in the film – who are they, what is unusual about them.
Screen the film again and then ask the four groups to feedback. Note down the answers on the paper/board/chart.
- What is the film about?
- Who made the film?
- Why did they make the film?
- Who is the film aimed at?
- Where do you think it was seen?
Then discuss in general how all these elements combine to make you read the film in a particular way.
Next, create a plan to make a film about the same subject, but this time from the point of view of one of the people in the film. Think about the elements you used to deconstruct the propaganda film and use these to construct your new film. Then discuss how different the film would be and why.
Feature resource prepared by Ruth Washbrook, Education and Outreach Officer, Scottish Screen Archive, National Library of Scotland