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'The Power of the Cinema': Film in the 1920s and 1930s

The rise of "talkies" from the late 1920s onwards led to a radical shake-up of the entertainment industry. Live entertainment went into decline and variety theatres became movie palaces, where eager punters could see exactly the same entertainment as their fellows in Los Angeles, Berlin or Bombay. The belief that films could influence behaviour was seen by some as an opportunity to get their message across to a mass audience, others feared that the next generation of children would be warped by the immorality of gangster flicks and movie violence. In Britain, the dominance of Hollywood at the box office led to concerns about a loss of national identity and the "Americanisation" of British culture.

The documents shown here reflect these concerns and show the growing influence of film as both a method of communication and form of entertainment. They are all taken from the archive of the Trades Union Congress - this includes over 100 files on aspects of the film industry.

More information about archives relating to the history of film and the cinema is included in our online subject guide. Try searching our online catalogue to find more documents relating to these subjects.

Click on the thumbnails to see a larger version of each document.

     

    Report of the League of Nations Child Welfare Committee, 1928Report of the League of Nations Child Welfare Committee, 1928
    Report of the League of Nations Child Welfare Committee, 1928

    The report examines the conditions of children employed in the film industry and looks at the effects of cinema on children’s physical health and morals. The extracts reproduced here focus on "effects of the cinematograph on the mentality and morality of children", including concern over promiscuous behaviour in dark cinemas and the role of cinema as "one of the principal causes of crime among children".

    [Included in a file on 'Film Industry: Employment of Children', from the archive of the TUC; document reference: MSS.292/675.1/5]

    Westminster Photographic Exchange Ltd brochure, advertising ‘amateur cine apparatus’, season 1927-8
    Westminster Photographic Exchange Ltd brochure, advertising ‘amateur cine apparatus’, season 1927-8

    The brochure contains a range of essential equipment, including cine-cameras and projectors.

    [Document reference: MSS.292/675.5/3]

    Photographs of mobile cinema, undated [1929?]

    Photographs of mobile cinema, undated [1929?]

    Photographs of mobile cinema, undated [1929?]

    The "mobile cinema" was an adapted two ton lorry, which allowed "propaganda films" to be shown across the country. In 1929 a "daylight cinema van" from Thornycroft & Co. Ltd would have cost £896 for the vehicle alone (the cinema apparatus would have cost an additional £350-£400). The photographs are included with other related documents, including a blueprint plan for a mobile cinema, brochures for suitable lorries, estimates and correspondence. The vans in these photographs were used by the Conservative and Unionist Central Office (the 'Touring Conservative Unionist Cinema') and the Labour Party (the 'Touring Talkie Daylight Cinema Saloon').

    [Included in a file on 'Film Industry: Cinema Van'; document reference: MSS.292/675.5/5]
    ‘The New Spirit in the Cinema’, promotional leaflet for book by Huntly Carter, c1930‘The New Spirit in the Cinema’, promotional leaflet for book by Huntly Carter, c1930
    ‘The New Spirit in the Cinema’, promotional leaflet for book by Huntly Carter, c1930

    Carter's book contrasted the "planned commercial movement" of the Hollywood film industry with the "unplanned" European movement of "sociological humanism". He argued that the apocalyptic final battle between the two ("the good and evil seed") had begun. Carter's argument that European film is more humanist and morally good is perhaps undermined by his use of a still from 'The Sacred Mountain', a 1926 film featuring Leni Reifenstahl. Reifenstahl is now better known for her production of Nazi propaganda films during the 1930s.

    [Included in a file on 'Film: Huntly Carter', from the archive of the TUC; document reference: MSS.292/674.94/4]

    Fifth annual report of the Film Society, 1930Fifth annual report of the Film Society, 1930
    Fifth annual report of the Film Society, 1930

    The Film Society in London was established to enable "people interested in the cinema an opportunity of seeing films which were not otherwise available to them" through the commercial cinema. As well as screenings of European, US and Japanese films, the Society also ran study-groups on aspects of film theory - this year the guest lecturers had been S.M. Eisenstein and Hans Richter.

    [Included in a file on 'Cinematograph Industry: Propaganda and Education Films', from the archive of the TUC; document reference: MSS.292/675.63/2]

    Suggested amendment to the Cinematograph Films Act, 1930Suggested amendment to the Cinematograph Films Act, 1930
    Suggested amendment to the Cinematograph Films Act, 1930

    This statement by the National Association of Theatrical Employees supports the Trades Union Congress proposal to require 50% of films shown to be "of British character". It argues that a quota system is needed to combat "iron monopoly", and prevent the majority of takings going to "American Syndicates". The statement also comments on the unemployment of artistes, orchestra members and stage staff caused by the "innovation and development of the Sound Film", and the decline of Variety.

    [Document reference: MSS.292/675.8/2]
    Wages sheet for cinema employees, 1931Wages sheet for cinema employees, 1931
    Wages sheet for cinema employees, 1931

    This sheet lists all staff employed by the Palace Cinema, Gateshead; including male and female attendants, chocolate sellers, musicians and the person who pasted up the bill-posters. Statistics relating to rates of pay in 17 movie theatres in the North East of England were compiled for an inquiry into cinema conditions of employment (the majority of theatres employed a smaller staff).

    [Included in a file on 'Cinematograph Industry: Conditions', from the archive of the TUC; document reference: MSS.292/675.1/1]
    ‘Movieland goes Roman’, 1931
    ‘Movieland goes Roman’, 1931

    Text of article by Robert Wagner, editor of the film magazine 'Script', condemning the cruel methods used in the production of "jungle" pictures such as 'Trader Horn'. This was reproduced together with copies of letters between the Performing and Captive Animals’ Defence League and the BBC (the PCADL requested airtime to talk about cruelty in the film industry, the BBC refused).

    [Included in a file on 'Cinematograph Industry: Cruelty in Films', from the archive of the TUC; document reference: MSS.292/675.12/5]

    Still from the 1931 “Barkies” film ‘The Big Dog House’
    Still from the 1931 “Barkies” film ‘The Big Dog House’

    The photograph accompanied copies of correspondence between the Performing and Captive Animals’ Defence League and the British Board of Film Censors. Several films in the "Barkies" series had been banned by the censor due to the cruel methods used to make the dogs perform.

    [Included in a file on 'Cinematograph Industry: Cruelty in Films', from the archive of the TUC; document reference: MSS.292/675.12/5]

    Letter from the New Zealand Alliance of Labour, on the differences in popularity between British and US films, 1931Letter from the New Zealand Alliance of Labour, on the differences in popularity between British and US films, 1931
    Letter from the New Zealand Alliance of Labour, on the differences in popularity between British and US films, 1931

    James Roberts, the Secretary of the NZAL, expresses his appreciation of British pictures, but suggests "that one of the great difficulties of the British Film Industry will be that the American picture people seem to have control of many of the theatres overseas".

    [Included in a file on 'Entertainment Industry: Cinematograph Industry', from the archive of the TUC; document reference: MSS.292/674.94/3]

    Memorandum on the state of the British film industry, to be submitted jointly to the government by the Federation of British Industries and the Trades Union Congress, 1932Memorandum on the state of the British film industry, to be submitted jointly to the government by the Federation of British Industries and the Trades Union Congress, 1932
    Memorandum on the state of the British film industry, to be submitted jointly to the government by the Federation of British Industries and the Trades Union Congress, 1932

    The memorandum expresses great concern about "the menace of Americanisation by means of the film". It argues that Hollywood imports act as a threat to both Britain's financial interests and to "English speech, customs, and cultural standards". The archives of the FBI include minutes of an earlier conference on the crisis of the British film industry - in 1925 [MSS.200/F/1/1/159].

    [Included in a file on 'Film Industry: Enquiry 1930', from the archive of the TUC; document reference: MSS.292/675.8/2]

    Outline of talk on ‘The power of cinema as a cultural and propagandist force’, 1935Outline of talk on ‘The power of cinema as a cultural and propagandist force’, 1935
    Outline of talk on ‘The power of cinema as a cultural and propagandist force’, 1935

    The sculptor John Skeaping argues that "cinema is, in fact, one of the most potent instruments for good or evil that man has invented" - "so powerful are the emotional re-actions of the Cinema that it has been said to have driven people to commit suicide, to rob and to murder" - therefore, the progressive artist needs to work within film "to release a cultural force of unrivalled possibilities" and create political propaganda.

    [Document reference: MSS.292/675.752/4]
    Circular on the question of labour cinema propaganda, 1936
    Circular on the question of labour cinema propaganda, 1936

    The circular was issued jointly by the Labour Party and the Trades Union Congress. They argue that, since the First World War, "film has become a weapon that can affect the minds of the multitude" and "can create bias against which neither reason nor rhetoric can prevail". Therefore, "in the interests of the Labour Movement, and of the working-class generally, it is imperative that Labour should organise its own Film Propaganda without delay", and form local film societies to spread the political message.

    [Document reference: MSS.292/675.752/4]

    Letter enquiring about the Charlie Chaplin film ‘Modern Times’, 1936 

    Letter enquiring about the Charlie Chaplin film ‘Modern Times’, 1936

    The General Secretary of the Amalgamated Society of Wire Drawers and Kindred Workers contacted the Trades Union Congress to request a showing of 'Modern Times' during the annual congress. The film is recommended, not for its comedy value, but for its ideologically sound view of the Bedaux system of labour management - for example "one of the workers, Charlie Chaplin, shows unmistakable signs of distress in the course of his employment and faints away under pressure of the new system".

    [Included in a file on 'Cinematograph Industry: Propaganda and Education Films', from the archive of the TUC; document reference: MSS.292/675.63/2]

    Leaflets from Gaumont British Equipment Ltd, promoting up and coming films, 1938Leaflets from Gaumont British Equipment Ltd, promoting up and coming films, 1938
    Leaflets from Gaumont British Equipment Ltd, promoting up and coming films, 1938

    These leaflets advertise new films available for hire for private exhibition - in this case an 11 minute reel featuring the popular comedian Will Hay ("with a guaranteed laugh in every ten seconds"), combined with 'Chamberlain the Peacemaker' - a 15 minute film about the Munich agreement with Hitler ("the arduous and anxious negotiations that finally culminated in peace instead of war").

    [Included in a file on 'Cinematograph Industry: Hire of Films & Equipment', from the archive of the TUC; document reference: MSS.292/675.5/3]

    Leaflets from Gaumont British Equipment Ltd, promoting up and coming films, 1938-9Leaflets from Gaumont British Equipment Ltd, promoting up and coming films, 1938-9
    Leaflets from Gaumont British Equipment Ltd, promoting up and coming films, 1938-9

    These leaflets advertise new 16mm reels available for private exhibition, in this case new Mickey Mouse cartoons and a cinematic 'News Review of 1937', featuring events such as the coronation of George VI and the Hindenburg disaster.

    [Included in a file on 'Films: Hire of Gaumont British Equipment Ltd', from the archive of the TUC; document reference: MSS.292/675.63/1]

    Publicity material for ‘Better Pictures’, a group campaigning for “clean, moral films”, c1940
    Publicity material for ‘Better Pictures’, a group campaigning for “clean, moral films”, c1940

    The organisation (based in Canada) was set up to protect children from the "devastating evil" of crime, underworld and gangster films. The campaign was suspended "owing to the unsettled condition of the world".

    [Included in a file on 'Cinematograph Film Industry 1937', from the archive of the TUC; document reference: MSS.292/674.94/7]