27 Nov

What do film reports tell us about the past?

Archive, Jan Silver

The film reports held by the Picture House archive offer an incredible glimpse back in time to a period when political correctness had more to do with dressing appropriately for the occasion rather than our present day concerns of who we may offend by our actions.

From yellowing papers haphazardly crammed into bags and boxes, as I began methodically sifting through pile upon pile of these old documents, there gradually emerged some sense of order. It wasn’t long before I realised what a treasure trove of social and cultural information I was holding: the papers themselves were film reports which the cinema had received on a regular basis and which gave descriptions and critiques of the films available for showing. But far from being mere film reviews, each film described also came with a rather pompous observation as to what class of audience it was most liable to appeal to!

To our modern way of thinking, this is unthinkable. Could you imagine anyone recommending Batman as being “unsuitable for the lower classes of clientele”? And Titanic as “having appeal for a better class of audience”?

My mind fairly boggled, but there was worse to come – in the course of our researches into the very early materials held in the archive, we discovered numerous casual references to “coloured entertainers”, “minstrels” and worse. Political correctness had yet to visit the British Isles.

Apart from finding the descriptions of what was available to the early cinema going public, as I opened further boxes I came upon what I personally consider to be an absolute treasure trove of information about early media-based efforts to influence public behaviour and thinking. Throughout the entire country, cinemas were being quite blatantly being used to influence a captive and paying audience and to disseminate the government’s political messages!

This was arguably a very sensible use of resources, especially as Britain had just entered WW2. The awful memories of “the war to end all wars” had barely begun to fade from the public conscience, and – thanks to the emergence of war poetry which did nothing to disguise the true horrors of trench warfare, the public now had a much better idea of what to expect as the war in Europe raged on apace.

Newspapers then were not given to showing the true facts which today we can access at the click of a mouse. The unpalatable results of grotesquely scarred young men were still something to be kept hidden in case their dreadfully damaged faces scared women and children, and in London, special park benches were set aside solely for these young mens’ use in order to spare the feelings of the public. Shell shock was misunderstood, and men had been routinely shot for “cowardice”.

It was only logical for the government to utilise the cinema’s drawing power to spread, not fear and revulsion for the war wounded, but a carefully engineered mix of compassion, tempered with righteous anger and a pride in one’s country. The British Bulldog spirit flourished as the Ministry of Information’s influence grew.

The Ministry of Information, or MOI, was a government formed body created to specifically identify and address maintaining the public’s co-operation in all things that influenced the war effort. To this end, films were produced and shown which ensured we knew how bravely our boys were fighting the Hun on both land, sea and in the air.

Drives were held to help solve shortages of materials vital to the war effort: paper, bones, and metals were collected, all waste food was to be used for pig swill or fed to hens, all spare land was to be put to use growing food, clothing coupons and ration books for foodstuffs were all subjects which the MOI made documentary films about.

In addition, the MOI used cartoons to get their message across, with Arthur Askey as the comic in one which warned of the dire consequences of spreading germs by sneezing. The outbreak of Spanish Flu which had claimed so many lives was still fresh in people’s memory, so this would have been a sharp reminder that sudden death lurked, not just in the skies above, or in faraway locations but right here – among the public! Added to this was the fact that highly contagious diseases such as scarlet fever and diphtheria still claimed the lives of so many children, so of course the MOI made films about ensuring all children were vaccinated and all infectious diseases contained by isolation.

As well as telling audiences how to control the spread of airborne germs, the MOI also played a vital role in protecting the nation’s sexual health, in particular, that of the troops serving abroad. The dangers of venereal diseases were real, and worse – they were insidious, so films were used to get this message across as forcibly as possible.

As can be seen from looking at the titles and variety in content of the films shown by the MOI in cinemas, a great deal of thought and foresight was being used to get their messages across. This was necessary propaganda for the war effort and where better to get the populace on side that in the safe, warm ambience of the local picture house.

Besides showing patrons a regular diet of MOI films, the cinema was used to publicise good causes and raise funds. The Red Cross frequently asked for donations to help POW’s, the Churchill Fund sought support for the Russians, and almost weekly there were appeals to obtain support for the war effort and warnings about wasting scarce resources.

Practical lifesaving advice also came via the MOI. They made an instructional film on how to deal with the German’s latest device – the incendiary bomb.

And all the while, the cinema also offered much needed respite – it gave audiences entertainment and transported them to another world where bad guys always got caught, and lovers were always reunited, where women wore stockings and sipped champagne, and the fear and drudgery imposed by the war years was, albeit briefly, a distant memory.

My next task will be reading through the more recent film reviews from the 1970s – already the few I have looked at suggest a huge step forward in how the cinema reflects social norms and a growing desire to seek boundaries to push.

‘A Warning’, Cinematograph Exhibitors Association of Great Britain & Ireland, 15th Sept 1944.

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