The BFI National Archive has compiled a series of shorts, news reels and travelogues, in order to show the audiences of 2014, what an evening spent at the cinema 100 years ago was like.
Cinema has always been a fascinating medium. From the very beginning, the arrival of the moving image on the big screen challenged creative people to tell stories and document the world around them. In 1914, narrative feature films were quite rare, so a night at the cinema comprised a series of shorts, newsreels and odysseys around the world, as filmmakers experimented with the possibilities of film.
A Night at the Cinema in 1914 starts with newsreels, showing us the important issues of the year; Archduke Franz Ferdinand had just been assassinated, and Mrs Pankhurst was arrested for promoting women’s suffrage at Buckingham Palace. We are then taken on a journey through Egypt, complete with views of the Giza pyramids and panoramas of the Nile, before the narrative shorts begin.
The stories of the short films are actually rather simple, there is one about a woman entering a face pulling competition – desperate to outdo her husband – but is arrested for disturbing the peace, a rather fun and silly piece from the Lieutenant Pimple series, which completely disregards the laws of physics, and an early Charlie Chaplin short. As well as this, filmmakers experiment with using sound discs to accompany their films, with a rather racy musical number about a ‘Rollicking Rajah’.
The compilation of these shorts and newsreels makes for entertaining and interesting viewing, not only are we getting a glimpse into the past, the historical time and the comedic wants of audiences at the time, but we are also treated to an insight into the evolution of cinema, and just how we got from a silent comedy about a submarine to giant robots wrecking up China.
A Night at the Cinema is a charming glimpse into the early days of cinema, and the world in the early days of World War I. The Chaplin short and the Lieutenant Pimple sketch are endearingly funny, and the newsreels offer us a view of the world as it was 100 years ago. The film may not be anything we don’t know, but it is a sweet and engaging watch.