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Politics and Film 1903-1935

The politicians discover the power of cinema

Main image of Politics and Film 1903-1935

Political cinema is more usually associated with the 1930s, but a nascent political cinema did exist in the early years of the 20th century. Contemporary journals, such as The Bioscope, made occasional references to screenings of political films, usually at elections. Some political organisations and politicians had used the lantern slide lecture to enhance their political message; showing film was a natural extension to such lectures. In 1907 the Kinematograph Weekly referred to such a lecture for the London County Council elections along with what was, the magazine claimed for the first time, a screening of a film. While the name of the film is not stated, it may well have been something along the lines of the 'political pantomimes' which were produced as a satire on a particular political issue or event. Such pantomimes probably began with A Prize Fight or Glove Fight Between John Bull & President Kruger (1900), a skit on the Boer War. Other examples include Political Favourites (1903) and The Voter's Guide (1906). There are also a handful of films dealing with the free trade issue (for example, John Bull's Hearth, 1903; The International Exchange, 1905; and John Bull's Foolish Hospitality, 1910). Free trade was one of the fault lines in British politics, hence its popularity and comparative longevity as a satirical topic.

In spite of these fledging beginnings, political propaganda did not really develop. Films were relatively expensive to produce, and as political films would only be used at elections, their shelf-life was limited, as was their audience. Cinema audiences went to the cinema to be entertained and to socialise rather then to be preached to (hence the comedy and caricature elements in the early political films). In addition, few among the working class, who made up the greater part of film audiences, had the vote. Furthermore, political meetings usually took place in town halls or hired premises, which may not have been able to obtain the licence required to show films after the 1909 Cinematograph Act.

The January 1910 election, however, did see a number of examples of such films. A handful of enterprising political agents and politicians held screenings, usually mixing entertainment and political films. One particular agent in that campaign screened films outdoors, thereby avoiding the licensing requirements. The unfortunate Member of Parliament for Hull, Sir H. Seymour King, held a screening of entertainment films for a group of children in his constituency just before the election. Although he won the seat, a subsequent court case overturned the result, judging the screening a form of bribery.

The second 1910 general election (in December) does not seem to have been so well reported in the cinema trade press. Indeed, the election's main issue, the power of the House of Lords and the budget, does not seem to have warranted a film. Other issues of the day, such as women's suffrage and the role of trade unions, similarly were not capitalised upon. It took a world war for political propaganda to really emerge, and even then it took a number of years of total war for the political benefits of film to be fully appreciated.

World War I advanced the need for propaganda. The British government soon responded, setting up its own propaganda machinery, and found itself supporting filmmaking efforts, either through its military departments, such as the Admiralty, or through its own Ministry of Information, which was set up in 1917. Eventually the government took over the newsreel company Topical Budget, renaming it War Office Official Topical Budget in May 1917. 'Official' films of the war were produced, along with propaganda trailers improving morale on the home front.

While the war had advanced the cause of propaganda, the political arena had become more complex. The national coalition government of Lloyd George, its eventual collapse, the rise of the Labour Party and the fear of Bolshevism contributed to an unstable political era. Few political films seem to have been produced immediately after the war. The most noteworthy are a hagiographic portrayal of Lloyd George in Landmarks in the Life of Lloyd George (1919) and a film outlining the dangers of the Soviet Union in Bolshevism (1919). The film industry itself wished to maintain the status quo and resisted involvement in politics. This strategy was reinforced by the censorship of the period which made any political film difficult to distribute. However, a number of politically-minded and independent organisations began to explore filmmaking and distribution, among them the Progressive Film Institute and the Workers' Film and Photo League.

While these organisations and their films are important, the focus here is the political parties' response to film propaganda. The Conservative Party seem to have been at the forefront of party political propaganda, producing a series of films in support of the national governments in the 1930s. Indeed, documentarist John Grierson was impressed by the Conservative Party's propaganda organisation. The party had its own film production unit, the Conservative and Unionist Film Association, and a fleet of mobile cinema vans which, during the 1935 election, showed films to over 1 1/2 million people. The 1931 election featured films with Stanley Baldwin and his national government partner, Ramsay MacDonald, as well as the perennial issue of free trade, now referred to as 'safeguarding'. Similar films were made for the 1935 election, alongside a comic film featuring Stanley Holloway supporting the national government. However, the real strength of these films was their consistency. Films continued to be produced and shown when elections were not looming, under the series Aims of the National Government, covering topics such as empire trade and the recovery of the economy. Government departments too became involved in propaganda, as in the Ministry of Health's The Great Crusade (1936), about slum clearance, and the Ministry of Labour's Workers and Jobs (1935), promoting the new Labour Exchanges.

Both the Labour and Liberal parties failed to capitalise on film propaganda. The Labour Party was politically at odds with itself, a situation made even more complicated by its effective split with the formation of the National Government in 1931. There were also a number of independent socialist filmmakers and companies who perhaps stole Labour's thunder in the propaganda arena. The Liberal Party, with its loss of political power and popular support, was equally ineffectual in political cinema.

Politicians and political parties grew more sophisticated in using moving images to communicate, particularly in the post World War II era, when Harold Macmillan, for one, proved himself a very astute television performer. But these films, however crude they might seem to modern eyes, show the roots of party political advertising, as well as providing a fascinating glimpse of Britain's political past.

Simon Baker

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Thumbnail image of International Exchange, The  (1905)International Exchange, The (1905)

Political pantomime on the perils of Free Trade for Britain and its colonies

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Political sketch presenting arguments for trade reform

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Propagandist cartoon animation promoting British beef

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Daft comedy lampooning the suffragette movement

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The nursery rhyme reworked to urge citizens to support the war effort

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Anti-Free Trade film for the Conservative and Unionist Association

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An appeal for support for the National Government by the Prime Minister

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Stanley Holloway delivers a monologue in support of the National Government

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Early political advert for a local politician in Ayrshire

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