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Cinemas & Cinemagoing: Proliferation by Allen Eyles


Astoria, Finsbury Park

Astoria, Finsbury Park

During the 1930s, virtually every town, suburb and major new housing development gained one or more new cinemas, often relegating existing picture houses to secondary status. Many older cinemas were modernised or virtually rebuilt in order to compete with the newcomers. Some outmoded and surplus cinemas closed, especially in city centres where they were replaced by expanding chain stores.

By the end of the 1930s, three national cinema chains had emerged to dominate British film exhibition.

Associated British Cinemas opened 93 new cinemas in the decade, reconstructed several others, took over existing circuits (including a major competitor, Union Cinemas in 1937), and at maximum operated around 460 cinemas, the largest total of any company in this country. Its cinemas used a variety of names, with Regal, Rex and Savoy being the favourites.

Gaumont entered the decade with a larger number of properties than ABC (including the PCT circuit) and had less need to expand. Nevertheless, it constructed 51 new cinemas, including many opulent Gaumont Palaces. It had 303 cinemas by the end of the decade.

Odeon, Kingstanding, 1935

Odeon, Kingstanding, 1935

The Odeon circuit opened its first sites in 1933, but rapidly expanded, adding 136 new cinemas and taking over nearly as many existing properties, reaching a total of 255 properties by 1940. The brainchild of entrepreneur Oscar Deutsch, it particularly epitomised the modern, streamlined look in architecture and fittings and had little interest in organ interludes, stage shows, restaurants and ballrooms that were prevalent elsewhere, particularly in the first half of the decade.

Many smaller regional circuits emerged, erecting some of the largest individual cinemas. Granada Theatres, for example, built the huge Granada Tooting (1931), south London, with its cathedral-like interior, while the Green brothers in Scotland followed the Playhouse Glasgow with another huge Playhouse at Dundee (1936). The Hyams brothers, in association with Gaumont, were responsible for the largest cinema in England: the State Kilburn, north London (1937, 4004 seats).

Odeon, Leicester Square, 1937

Odeon, Leicester Square, 1937

These super cinemas flourished particularly in poorer areas, where the warm and luxurious surroundings were most appreciated. Some patrons walked on carpet for the first time; others, particularly the unemployed, would sometimes take refuge for an entire afternoon and evening, watching the continuous performances repeatedly.

Although ABC, Gaumont and Odeon between them owned just over one fifth of British cinemas, they controlled the release of mainstream films in Britain through their large cinemas in the major cities and through the selection of the weekly release to be shown throughout each circuit. This was usually a double bill of main feature and 'B' feature, supported by a newsreel. The choice of films reflected the ties that each chain had established with particular distributors and, in the case of ABC and Gaumont, gave priority to the output of an associated production company and distributor. The one major restraint on the film bookers was the legal obligation to show a certain 'quota' of new British films. This was helpful to British producers as it was essential to obtain a release on one of the three major circuits to show a profit. Where the three main chains lacked an outlet, an independent or small circuit cinema would usually step in if it had sufficient seating capacity to satisfy distributors.

Odeon, Leicester Square, 1937 (int. gutted & partly reinstated)

Odeon, Leicester Square, 1937 (int. gutted & partly reinstated)

Sunday opening usually was not allowed in Scotland and normally required a local poll to come out in favour before it was permitted in England. Sunday opening time was widely restricted to 4.30pm and a donation to charity was required. Most circuit-release cinemas played revival double-bills on Sundays rather than new films.

New releases were shown Monday to Saturday for six days at most locations, but often played half the week in smaller towns with only one or two cinemas. These films would subsequently be played by other cinemas without access to a circuit release as 'second runs', 'third runs', etc., often taking a year or more to complete their initial round.

Children's shows had been presented from the cinema's early days, but during the 1930s the idea of Saturday morning shows really took hold, and each of the major circuits established its own club with special badge and song. These clubs encouraged charitable activities and good citizenship but were, of course, primarily intended to sow the cinemagoing habit.

Granada, Tooting

Granada, Tooting

Certain types of specialised cinemas were also established. The 'art house' evolved from The Film Society and gave a new lease of life to an old cinema, renamed the Academy, in London's Oxford Street. Other old cinemas followed suit and a few ultra-modern art houses were purpose-built, including the Cosmo in Glasgow. The newsreel cinema was an American phenomenon imported to Britain in 1931: these tiny halls provided an hour-long show in busy city centres, particularly at main railways stations, to amuse delayed passengers and weary shoppers. Newsreel cinemas were often conversions of early, struggling picture houses, sometimes completely rebuilt; but many were specially constructed. Additionally, there were picture houses specialising in the revival of old films, notably those of the Classic circuit, which built its own flagship cinema in London's Baker Street.

Waterloo Station News Theatre, 1934 (demolished)

Waterloo Station News Theatre, 1934 (demolished)

Cinemagoing was never as pervasive as watching television later became. A newspaper survey in 1938 concluded that only 31% of the population went to the cinema once a week, 13% attended twice, 3% three times, and 2% four or more times. 12% never went, the rest occasionally. Only 4% of twelve-year-olds never visited the cinema, rising to 25% at age 50. RKO Radio estimated that its huge hit, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (US, d. David Hand, 1937), was seen by a third of the UK population.

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