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Criticism: The development of newspaper criticism by Geoff Brown


cartoon of woman reading the Evening News

If cinema's artistic possibilities lay largely undetected in print, the medium's educational worth sparked increasing attention at the start of the century's second decade. In 1911 The Bioscope widened and sharpened its film reviews, chiefly written by L. Yglesias, and mounted a campaign for the wider recognition of cinema as an educational tool. In the campaign's wake, the London newspaper Evening News began promoting dedicated screenings of actuality films for schoolchildren, beginning with the Urban Kinemacolor survey of George V's Coronation (June 1911). W. G. Faulkner's reports of these screenings paved the way for regular film reviews in the Evening News - the first such feature in a Fleet Street publication.

Other newspapers followed. Initially items of educational interest predominated, like the spectacular Kinemacolor Delhi Durbar film (1911), or Herbert Ponting's lecture-film show about Scott's Antarctic expedition (1914). But as exhibited items grew longer, more ambitious and spectacular, the value of film as entertainment became harder to ignore. In March 1916 The Times bowed before Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (US, 1915), unveiled at the Drury Lane Theatre: "Extraordinarily fine entertainment, instructive, thrilling, amusing, pathetic. It has grandeur. It makes one realize more than any film before - more than The Miracle, more than Cabiria - the amazing things that this machine, with an ambitious and skilled producer, can achieve." So far, so perceptive; though one relishes less the anonymous reviewer's easy absorption of the film's racial views and the seeming lure of "that strange, romantic, somehow intensely American affair, the Ku Klux Klan".

Further encouragement to take cinema's product seriously came with the campaign films generated during the First World War. From the beginning the trade papers - there was now a third, The Cinema (later To-Day's Cinema), launched in 1913 - urged the Government to use films to promote national propaganda and stir the fighting spirit; The Times echoed the call in April 1915, seeing such films as a valuable advertisement for recruitment. The Battle of the Somme (1916) was the first to document a specific battle; it was given fervent and extensive coverage, and the images' vivid, painful details shook reviewers and public alike. "The real thing at last," proclaimed the Manchester Guardian; the Daily Sketch observed "It is war, grim, red war; the real thing". Press commentators suggested the public almost had a national duty to see the campaign films; by the time of The Battle of Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917), The Bioscope clear-sightedly realised that such product was "doing more good to the whole industry than thousands of pounds' worth of advertising".

Enthusiasm for the campaign films subsequently declined; but by the war's end in 1918, cinema's standing as a form of entertainment, and perhaps even art, had still been considerably boosted. Looking into the future, The Times in March 1919 saw golden opportunities for British producers to develop their art and satisfy what it identified - wrongly - as a public fatigue with American films. Not for the first time, or the last, critics let patriotic zeal exaggerate the artistic prospects and success of British productions. For The Times early in 1919, the film to boost was Maurice Elvey's lavishly appointed Nelson: The Story of England's Immortal Naval Hero: "one of the best things that English producers have attained to as yet. If there were any faults, the shade of Nelson would doubtless turn his blind eye to the screen." The Times began a regular weekly film column, 'The Film World', in 1920.

There were certainly no signs of public fatigue with America in the fan magazines that developed during the decade. These were manufactured after the American recipe: star gossip, adoring glamour photographs, readers' letters and verses, retellings of plots in beckoning prose. Launched in 1911, Pictures and the Picturegoer, forerunner of The Picturegoer, offered descriptive paragraphs in the trade manner, but no serious criticism.

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