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A Year in Film: 1909

Another eventful year for British film

Main image of A Year in Film: 1909

1909 was a watershed year for the British film industry, with two events that would change cinema forever: the passing of the first ever Cinematograph Act and a great gathering at the International Congress of Film Manufacturers held in Paris, attended by nearly every international filmmaker of note (pictured here).

Like much legislation, the Act was merely catching up with reality, but it was constructive in giving clear guidelines on safety, particularly on the risks of nitrate fire, in the cinema-building spree that followed on the heels of the skating rink craze. We can also be grateful that the application of the Act left us a good deal of information about these early film theatres in the form of plans submitted to local authorities. It also had a long term impact on film censorship.

February's Paris Congress - there was a second in April - was a concerted effort by the film producers to institute some kind of regulation over an industry that was no longer favouring them against the competition or against the renters (more or less what we now call distributors). The slashing of prices to 4d a foot by Charles Pathé sliced in to the producers' profit margins, just as exhibitors and renters were making money hand over fist by sharing prints among a number of venues now committed solely to showing films.

Thomas Edison's cartel, the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), had blocked off the large American market to British and European films. In response, the British producers tried to form their own cartel, and met with their European counterparts in Paris hoping to force the renters to lease prints and return them within 4 months, so that tatty secondhand prints were not endlessly circulated, to the detriment of the business as a whole. The spectacular failure of this effort was significant. It marked the shift in power to the distributors, who were well organised and reacted by inviting a consortium of US producers to supply films - a guaranteed 90,000ft a week, quality no issue.

From this we can see that the British cinema business was hungry for product, with demand outstripping supply despite an increase in production - at least 650 films were produced in Britain in 1909. The cinema boom began as a phase, but quickly established itself as something more permanent - a relatively classless place, with no set entrance times and no need to dress up, warm, comfortable (up to a point), private yet sociable, with cheap entertainment and music - a joy and a refuge for stressed workers, children, nursing mothers and courting youngsters. From this year onwards we say goodbye to the pioneer period and instead of 'film' we talk about the 'cinema'.

The films of 1909 were produced very much along the lines of the previous two or three years and in similar proportions. Non-fiction dominated, with production values increasing for the interest film and actualities as can be seen by Manufacture of a Railway Engine, North Sea Fisheries and Great Naval Review at Spithead. Fiction films saw a modest growth in sophistication of comedy, and dramas tended to increase in length and ambition. Airship Destroyer, for all its cheap effects, is structurally ambitious. Several topical obsessions of the year 1909 are reflected in the films in this selection. The race for the Poles, aviation and a series of invasion scares.

The heroic era of polar exploration coincided neatly with the early years of cinema. From the 1890s, explorers took moving picture cameras to both the Arctic and the Antarctic. 1909 saw polar fever grip the world's press - with Frederick Cook and Robert Peary arguing about who had discovered the North Pole and Shackleton failing to quite make the South pole (although he made 88 degrees 23 minutes south and found the magnetic pole). His film of 1909 does not seem to survive but was hugely popular. To cash in on this success, Charles Urban released Anthony Fiala's film of his 1903-05 expedition as A Dash for the North Pole.

On 25 July 1909, the pioneer aeronaut Louis Blériot made history by becoming the first pilot to cross the English Channel by aeroplane. The 37-minute flight won a £1,000 prize offered by Lord Northcliffe, the owner of the London Daily Mail, who recognised the aviator's achievement with the prophetic words, "England is no longer an island." One side effect of this realisation was to instill or exacerbate a public paranoia about foreign invasion. Sightings of phantom airships on the east coast were reported regularly in the summer of that year and the paranoia was reflected in the establishment of the Secret Service by the Navy and the War Office - what we now know as MI5 and MI6. The rounding up of real German spies commenced. The reaction of the German high command to Britain's new Dreadnought battleships and fast torpedo boats was to step up production of its own fighting ships - and, of course, the terrifying Zeppelins which symbolised a direct challenge to the primacy of the British Navy. The Airship Destroyer and Peril of the Fleet can be seen as direct visualisations of these anxieties.

Bryony Dixon

The photograph (above) shows the delegates attending the Congrès International des Editeurs du Film, held in Paris in February 1909. Charles Urban is seated in the front row, second from the right. To his left are Léon Gaumont, Georges Meliès, George Eastman, Charles Pathé and George Rogers (manager of Urban's French company Eclipse). Others in the rows behind include Will Barker, Cecil Hepworth, A.C. Bromhead, Robert Paul, George Cricks and James Williamson).

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Airship Destroyer, The (1909)Airship Destroyer, The (1909)

Sci-fi drama about an airship invasion of England

Thumbnail image of Bee's Eviction, The (1909)Bee's Eviction, The (1909)

Short film documenting the relocation of two bee colonies on a Sussex farm

Thumbnail image of City of Westminster (1909)City of Westminster (1909)

Evocative phantom ride through Edwardian London

Thumbnail image of Gaiety Duet, A (1909)Gaiety Duet, A (1909)

Music hall comedians Grossmith and Payne perform two sketches

Thumbnail image of Glasgow and the Clyde Coast (1909)Glasgow and the Clyde Coast (1909)

Glasgow holidaymakers in the early 20th Century

Thumbnail image of Glass of Goat's Milk, A (1909)Glass of Goat's Milk, A (1909)

Comic cautionary tale about the dangers of drinking goat's milk

Thumbnail image of Great Naval Review at Spithead, The (1909)Great Naval Review at Spithead, The (1909)

HMS Dreadnought and torpedo destroyers parade for the camera

Thumbnail image of Invaders, The (1909)Invaders, The (1909)

A foreign invasion is averted - thanks to pigeon power

Thumbnail image of Invasion of England (1909)Invasion of England (1909)

Troops are rushed from London to Hastings in a military exercise

Thumbnail image of Peril of The Fleet, The (1909)Peril of The Fleet, The (1909)

Foreign spies attempt to destroy the British fleet

Thumbnail image of To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly (1909)To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly (1909)

Extraordinary educational animation

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