“A Night at the Cinema in 1914” with the help of Maestro Will Pickvance in his time machine disguised as a grand piano, takes everyone in the audience at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh back to the very early days of cinema, whilst outside these time streamed walls everyone else is at the 71st Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2017.
For an audience that for generations has grown up used to the moving images of films and television, it is impossible for us to grasp just what a wonder this new form of entertainment must have been to early cinema goers, but through a carefully compiled selection of short films (we are still some years away from anything that we would recognise as a full length feature film), we get some idea of these early days through a collection that includes scenes of suffragettes protesting at Buckingham Palace, a comic short about a face-pulling competition (with some interesting early special effects), Allied troops celebrating Christmas at the Front, the American film serial The Perils of Pauline (although its content was most unfortunate in light ofÂ the recent tragic events in London), an anti-German animation film, Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine, and from the early days of his career, Charlie Chaplin.
We imagine nowadays that the “Silent Films” meant a “Silent Cinema”, but this was far from the case. Early cinemas were full of music and noise. A pianist accompanying films (as Will Pickvance does tonight) was standard ... in fact the cinema was the largest employer of musicians in its day and people also chatted during films, sang along to songs (some films even had a synchronised audio record playing to accompany them) and of course shouted for their favourites and booed the villains.
These short films give us a small insight into what people in 1914 might have been watching at their local cinema, and also a glimpse of not only people long gone, but a world around them that has also disappeared into the mists of time. To over-estimate the impact cinemas had on the population of the early years of the 20th century is almost impossible to do¦in only a few short years the UK moved from only 7 cinema theatres to over 5,000. Cinema was also one of the first mass social entertainments that knew no class boundaries (theatre goers of the day were still very class segregated). Anyone could go to a cinema dressed in their everyday clothes, and everyone was sharing the same visual experiences on screen. The coming of sound might have been a great technical advancement, but silent cinema films knew no language barriers, they crossed all class and cultural boundaries world-wide. With the talkies all of that changed forever, and for 90 minutes it was nice just to sit back and “imagine” that the outside world of 2017 had not yet happened,¦even if there was that feeling of somehow feeling a certain sadness that no one in these films could have foreseen the full length or full scale of the horrors of the 1914-1918 war and that their world and social structures were just about to disappear forever.
Review by Tom King