The Cult of the Cinema

Paper delivered by J. J. Bennell to the Rotary Club, Glasgow in September 1917, reminiscing about his career.


A few personal references by way of introduction may perhaps be permitted. I have not the honour of being a Glaswegian by birth; I am a Southron whom Glasgow has adopted. I have, however, known Glasgow for a very long time. Some forty-five years ago I paid my first visit to this city by taking a two days' excursion from Bradford, Yorks, where I then resided. I learned to admire Glasgow then, I have never ceased to admire it, and to-day my admiration is greater than ever, heightened, as it is, by the innumerable kindnesses I have received at the hands of its citizens, one of the latest manifestations of which is your election of me as a rotarian to represent the city's cinema industry. Forty years ago I gave my first series of concerts in this city as a public entertainer. They were given in Hengler's Cirque, West Nile Street, a building now used as Henderson's Garage. I then made friendships I still cherish, notably that of Mr. Walter Freer, the curator of the City Halls. I have kept in touch with Glasgow ever since.
Early Associations
Having been associated with the entertainment world for so many years, and toured every city and town in the United Kingdom, I early turned my attention to the cinematograph when that marvellous invention loomed up before the entertainment industry. In 1896 Mr. R. W. Paul placed on the British market a projector which he called the animatograph. About the same time Mr. Edison, in America, produced the kinetoscope, and Messrs. Lumiere, in Paris, the cinematograph. In 1897 I hired a machine, films, and operator, and took a show on tour. My early efforts were not financially successful - the public were not educated up to the cinema twenty years ago. Later on I toured on one-night stands, showing in a different town each night - six towns a week.
To arrange and control the newspaper, window billing, and circular advertising, fix up trains, secure luggage accommodation in them and reserved compartments for the staff, transport the luggage to and from the halls, secure apartments, money-takers, stewards, and fit up a new hall every day was strenuous work, and my friends often remarked, "How nice it must be to travel about the country as we did." At any rate, we were not ungrateful for a Sunday off. Later on the touring picture show became popular, and we could stay three days, a week, or two weeks in the same town. Thirteen years ago I associated myself with the New Century Pictures and toured Scotland and all the North of England, visiting all the large centres of population about twice a year. We occupied the largest halls in each city and town for two or more weeks. Twice I visited Glasgow and occupied St. Andrew's Hall for seven weeks on each occasion, drawing immense audiences.
His First Hall
In 1907 I saw the coming of what we then called the permanent shows - that is, an exhibition continued in the same hall not only for weeks, but for months and years, and I enquired about the country for a suitable hall which could be adapted for the purpose. These enquiries brought me to Wellington Palace, Commercial Road, Glasgow, then owned and occupied by the Good Templars' Harmonic Society, and used mainly for Saturday night "busts" - tea and entertainment for 4d. or 6d. By the advice and with the assistance of my good friend, Mr. Walter Freer, I secured that hall for six weeks as an experiment; this was extended to a further three months, again to a further lease of three years, and before the three years expired I bought it and am still running it. It is almost ten years since that experiment commenced. It was the first all-picture show in Glasgow. Pictures were shown in connection with varieties in many other halls in the city, but Wellington Palace was the first hall used exclusively for pictures, so that I am the pioneer of the modern cinema in Glasgow, and am by the common consensus of my fellow exhibitors designated "The Father of the Trade." They have twice elected me as Chairman of the Exhibitors' Association, a position I hold at the present time.
Glasgow's Original
The first modern cinema in Glasgow - that is, a building specially erected or adapted for the business, and run as a continuous show - was the Charing Cross Electric Theatre, which is still running. I personally had grave doubts about its success. I had pinned my faith to the working classes and the twice nightly house, and I did not dream that the palatial picture house, as we know it to-day, drawing its tens of thousands of well-to-d- patrons, would ever become a reality. I was entirely wrong. A picture enthusiast, I had only a limited faith in pictures. Cinema House, Renfield Stsreet, followed Charing Cross; then the Picture House, Sauchiehall Street, which after a couple of years' successful working was enlarged to its present palatial proportions. Then La Scala opposite was opened, and quickly gathered a clientele of its own. Glasgow has now over 100 cinemas in town and suburbs. So far as I know, they are all paying their way, but it seems to me that demand is fully met, at any rate in the centre of the city, and it is very doubtful if any further developments would be remunerative.
I myself have no central house, but I opened, five years ago, a house in Victoria Road, large and airy, and comfortably equipped, and have had no reason to complain of lack of patronage.
The cult of the cinema has developed not only in Glasgow, but in every city, town, and village in Great Britain.
In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland statistics quoted to the Cinema Commission by Mr. F. R. Goodwon, Chairman of the London Branch of the Cinematograph Exhibitors' Association, show that over £17,000,000 was invested in registered cinema companies; probably private enterprises would bring that amount up to more than £20,000,000. There are about 4,500 cinemas in the country, and the attendances for one year were 1,056 millions, or an average of three and three-quarter millions per day. These figures represent a visit to the cinema on the part of every inhabitant of the British Isles twenty-four times a year, or, roughly speaking, half the entire population - men, women, and children - visit a cinematograph hall once every week.
Stupendous Figures
The number of persons engaged in the manufacture, distribution, and exhibition of films might be estimated at from 80,000 to 100,000.
In the United States, where the cult of the cinema took on earlier than it did here, and has obtained a firmer hold, it bids fair to become a national industry. American producers and manufacturers supply not only their own country, but the whole world with films.
The exports from the U.S. during the year ending June 30th, 1916, were 158,751,786 feet of film, valued at $6,757,658, or about £1,351,330. These are colossal figures. British manufacturers of films - that is, producers of pictures - are far behind the Americans, but the manufacturing industry is developing in this country very rapidly, and after the war will develop more rapidly still, but it is always handicapped by having, in comparison with America, a very limited home market. In the United States the film business ranks fifth in importance amongst the industries of the nation. But it is not merely in Great Britain and America and amongst English-speaking races that the cult of the cinema has developed, but it has covered the whole inhabitable globe. The cinema is a great democratic institution. It breaks down all barriers of class and colour. Pictures speak a universal language, known and read of all men, understood alike by gentle and simple, philosopher or boor, learned or ignorant, rich or poor, old or young, Hottentot, Hindoo, Greek, or Chinese, the aristocrat of Mayfair, the uneducated peasant of Russia, or the native of Timbuctoo [sic]. They are the "one touch of Nature that makes the whole world kin," and they have won popularity and success throughout the whole habitable globe.
The prestige gained by the cinema has silenced for ever the idea that it was a distraction only suitable for the ignorant. The King upon his throne and the peasant in his cot have alike fallen as devotees to its invincible and all-conquering charm.
Lay Press Opinion
The Liverpool Courier put the matter very well when a week or two since it said: -
"You view in pictures the events of the day, wherever they may have happened, you are enabled to understand what modern war is like through the representation on the screen, of movements in the trenches and on the field of battle; all the wonders of the world are brought before your eyes. More, you have romance in myriad phases, exemplified in the cinematographed action of the 'star' actors and actresses, comedy, tragedy, and marvels of all sorts. Your mental horizon is broadened and your knowledge increased, whilst almost paradoxically your mind and body are refreshed. All that for a few coppers."
These are not my words, although I endorse them. They are from a Conservative newspaper, a staid, sober exponent of public opinion, and yet we still sometimes hear from Bench, Bar, and Pulpit the exclamation, "Oh, those awful pictures!" When in London a few weeks ago I took lunch with the London Rotary Club at Holborn Restaurant. On that occasion Sir Chas. W. Starmer, a member of the London Rotary, and a large newspaper proprietor, gave an address to the Press, which he claimed was the greatest influence in the world to-day; preaching as it did in Great Britain alone to 17,000,000 people daily, and the cinema, said he, was the next greatest influence. From a newspaper man I thought this was valuable testimony. As a cinematograph man I should be inclined to reverse the order, especially if a world outlook is taken, for the cinema has penetrated where the newspaper has not, and it is doubtless the most powerful and potential force in the world.
Government Recognition
The Government have given it a tardy recognition, and begin to realise its value as a publicity agent, and it has helped ungrudgingly every patriotic movement, recruiting, war savings, food economy, National Service, Red Cross, and has done it all without any monetary consideration. Some eighteen months ago the cinemas gave a complete ambulance unit to the nation consisting of 50 motor ambulances, 3 baggage wagons, 1 travelling workshop, 4 officers' cars, 7 motor bicycles with side-cars, and the necessary outfit of spare parts.
It cost about £28,000 and is working in Mesopotamia, and in three months made 5,125 journeys, covering approximately 100,000 miles and carrying 25,625 patients.
From subscriptions received £9,000 was left over, and this has been given to war charities, as, for instance, £3,500 to the British Red Cross, £1,500 to the Roehampton Home for Maimed Soldiers, £2,000 to Maxillo Home for Dental and Facial Cases, £500 to the Star and Garter Home. The beneficent results of that effort have thus been very far-reaching, and there still remains in hand £1,300 for future distribution.
In a hundred minor ways in helping local charities, in entertaining the wounded, etc., the cinema has played a patriotic part.
I have only touched a few general considerations affecting the cult of the cinema. There are many side issues which are worthy of special study, such as the technical triumphs achieved in the production of film and in the perfecting of the machinery for their projection, the wonderful developments in the equipment of the theatres, and its arrangements for the comfort and safety of the public, the effects of its moral influence, and its educational possibilities.
The fact is even those of us who are in the business, whilst we wonder at and admire what has been done, cannot forecast the potentialities of the future. Let me close by quoting form a recent article in our Trade paper, The Bioscope: -
"The truth is that the epoch-making invention of cinematography was essentially an instrument and not of itself an end. The methods of its employment are still in process of discovery. Like the printing press, the moving picture is applicable to almost every phase of the world's affairs, and to every form of social and artistic energy. It is a new medium for the wide and unfettered comunication of human thought and experience."

TitleThe Cult of the Cinema
Date1917-09-20
Comments
SourceThe Bioscope