The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly
The act of criticism played little part in the earliest British print coverage of cinema.
Local and national newspapers carried news reports as projected moving pictures began to be
publicly exhibited early in 1896. "The movements of the people leaving the carriages and the
bustle on the platform are reproduced with lifelike fidelity," proclaimed The Times
on 22 Feb 1896 after viewing Lumière's Cinématographe. Photographic
and scientific journals, which already gave coverage to magic lantern shows, also noted the new
arrival, as did The Showman, a publication aimed at the fairground community. But in both arenas,
the artistic possibilities of moving pictures, beyond the straight recording of reality, were
never sensed. Even the most thoughtful early commentator, O. Winter,
writing in the February 1896 New Review, stuck fast to cinema as a recording tool, and one with
no artistic future. Winter allied the Cinématographe to the realism and "fecklessly impartial eye"
of the French novelist Emile Zola and Britain's minutely detailed
Pre-Raphaelite paintings; the Lumière presentation, Winter declared, showed us "life moving without
purpose, without beauty, with no better impulse than a foolish curiosity.... it proves the complete
despair of modern realism". If beauty was found in the Cinématographe, Winter insisted, it would
only be by accident.
Feckless or not, moving pictures steadily increased their hold on both public
and the entertainment showmen. Founded in 1889, The Optical Magic Lantern
Journal acknowledged cinema's inexorable rise by changing its name in 1904 to
The Optical Lantern and Cinematograph Journal. Rudimentary film reviews were
featured. Three years later, the journal, published by E. T. Heron,
became The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly - Britain's first cinema trade paper and,
through several mergers and further name changes, the ancestor of today's Screen
International. "Everyone in the profession should obtain the latest data of what
is practically a new business," declared the first editorial on 16 May, 1907.
Regular coverage of new films appeared from the start. "Our representatives,"
the paper explained, "will make a call upon all of the makers on the Monday and
Tuesday of each week, and particulars of the subjects shown will appear in the
issue of the paper on Thursday." As with The Optical Lantern and Cinematograph
Journal, the particulars were mostly plot descriptions, sometimes with an
approving phrase added, like "another good comic subject", or "one of the
prettiest child studies we have seen for many a long day". The paragraphs
emerged between pages lavish with advertisements for films, projectors, cameras
and other equipment, crucial for the paper's finances. The reviews functioned
essentially as advertisements themselves: in the issue of 28 October 1909, for
example, there was little to choose in purpose and material between Charles
Urban's full-page advert for his special effects spectacular The Airship
Destroyer and the review coverage 22 pages earlier.
By 1908, The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly had a rival, The Bioscope,
formed from the bones of two other trade papers for showmen, The Amusement World
and The Novelty News. The new publication, edited by John Cabourn
until 1929, continued until 1931. Both journals shared the same brief to boost the new
industry and its wares, and the Bioscope film commentators, equally dependent on
trade advertising, didn't hesitate to look on the bright side. "Walturdaw's have
touched the top notch with this number," the paper declared about what now
sounds a routine comedy, The Troublesome Trombone Player (1908). Nonetheless,
The Bioscope under Cabourn also showed an independent spirit,
and wasn't beyond negative criticism, especially of topographical and interest shorts. Witness
Nordisk's A Day in York, covered in March 1909: "A rather
commonplace travel subject, the quality of which does little to relieve its drabness. Nordisk can
do better than this." This is not yet rigorous film criticism; but it
shows some sign of a commentator standing back, observing, and weighing in the
Throughout the 20th century's first decade, newspapers continued to treat the
medium as a source of news, rather than critical comment. Cinema fires and the
shifting regulations of local councils regularly reached the columns; so did the
presentation of new technical marvels, like the Kinemacolor films presented by
Charles Urban and George Albert Smith.
Viewing the scenes of Cannes, Nice, Brighton beach, troops, and animals at the Palace Theatre in
February 1909, The Times noted a "lack of brilliancy" in the colour, but still found the pictures
"more restful to the eye than those of the ordinary bioscope". Most observers,
however, were content to praise without quibbles: for the Daily Telegraph, the
results were "of the most beautiful and amazingly realistic description". Over
ten years after Winter's comments, cinema's value to British journalists still
lay in its ability to record, not invent or transform.