The following article is reprinted from the December 3, 1932 issue of Pictorial Weekly, a British publication focused primarily on popular culture and sports. The cover caught the eye of Olivia Gilmer while antique shopping in Brighton over the summer; the now-famous image of spooked filmgoers fleeing as a cinematic train pulls into the station was apparently already a trope at this early date. I have always been fascinated by retrospective articles written not long after the birth of the moving picture, and this cover story fit the bill exactly. Focusing on Mr. Ernest Blake, Pictorial Weekly presents a fascinating account of the earliest days of cinema in the British Isles.
The article is presented here in its entirety, with original images, and only minor stylistic changes made. This is the first time it has been made available to a wide audience in 86 years.
Remember the thrill of the first movie you ever saw? Here are some fascinating pages from Britain’s cinema history re-told, with the adventures of a man who showed thousands of people their first “living pictures.”
By SHIRLEY LONG.
“YOU are now about to see, ladies and gentlemen, living pictures. Pictures which move. The figures themselves will walk and move. There is no moving of the camera. These are real animated pictures!
“First of all we are going to show you a wonderful scene, taken with a moving picture camera at Dover. We are going to show you a storm at sea. You will see waves breaking over the Admiralty Pier at Dover. These waves, ladies and gentlemen, were remarkable. They were no less than sixty feet high. But the moving picture camera has captured them for you, and we shall now show you the result.”
Remember that scene?
It took place thirty-five years ago, in various parts of Britain, in fair grounds, circuses, village halls, church rooms, empty theatres, empty shops.
It was the birth of the cinema industry. The beginning of “the pictures.” A good many of the men who took part in those scenes are still alive. Some are still in the business.
Here is the story of one of them, and a good many readers will smile to themselves as they see the events of their youth recalled. For those who have been accustomed to films and cinemas as they have been accustomed to running water and motor buses, there is a lesson in the story of the start of moving pictures. It is the lesson of men who had foresight, courage, and enthusiasm.
Meet, then, a cinema veteran, Mr. Ernest E. Blake. Today he is the managing director of the great firm of Kodak Ltd., with an office in Kingsway, London. The huge modern, efficient Kodak headquarters itself stands for what was on a wonder, but is now an everyday occurrence. Opposite is a great super cinema. Mr. Blake must chuckle every time he sees the crowds going into it, for thirty-five years ago he was in the movie game, and has retained active interest ever since.
He was one of the men who showed that film, then so breathtaking, so marvelous, of the sixty-foot waves breaking over the Admiralty Pier at Dover. People in the front row, Mr. Blake says, used to duck their heads when they saw the wall of water rising upon the screen.
According to Mr. Blake, the only thing that has not changed in the cinema world are the holes along the sides of a strip of film, the perforations. Apart from that—well, here are two random facts just picked out of the tale:
The first films were sixty or seventy feet long, and took about a minute to run through.
There were no sub-titles or captions.
But let us get to the beginning of Mr. Blake’s story. Thirty-five years ago, with his late brother William, he was working in his father’s photographic business in Bedford. When the new photographic marvel of living pictures came into being it naturally appealed to them.
So they bought some strips of this new “film,” a projector for it, and with their horse-drawn dogcart, their magic-lantern screen, some cylinders of gas, and lots of enthusiasm, they entered the cinema world. Unknowingly they were paving the way to talkies and Hollywood and Elstree.
All over the Bedfordshire countryside the Blake cinema dogcart travelled, giving shows. They went on tour with circuses and fairs, and people flocked to see the “animated” pictures.
The entertainment lasted for an hour.
To quote Mr. Blake, it was “Five minutes talk and explanation from my brother about the marvels we were going to show, one minute of moving picture, a magic-lantern slide, another talk, more film, and so on.” There were then only half-a-dozen films for exhibition, for very few were made in those days.
The first screen subject Mr. Blake ever showed was a picture of a man burning weeds. From that has sprung Grand Hotel and Jack’s the Boy!
Other screen epics then were the Gordon Highlanders marching into Khartoum (very popular), the previously mentioned storm at Dover, French Cavalry on parade, and the Diamond Jubilee Procession of Queen Victoria (terrific hit).
These pictures were shown all over the country, and Queen Victoria had a command performance in her drawing-room at Osborne. Robert Paul, another famous pioneer of Mr. Blake’s day, and the man who established the first studio for the making of moving pictures at New Southgate, London—this is your seed, O Hollywood!—put on a special exhibition of living pictures at the Alhambra Theatre London, at this time.
He had actually taken a film of the Derby! Quite unbelievable! Well, the living pictures were booked for a two-week run as a daring novelty. They stayed at the same place for four and a half years. The old Empire Theatre, now rebuilt as the home of Greta Garbo, Laurel and Hardy, and all the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stars, also dabbled in films at that time. Thus does history repeat itself.
Meanwhile Mr. Blake was advancing the cause of films in the country. The first big success he achieved was with a news film, a camera record of an event which hushed the whole British Empire —the funeral of Queen Victoria.
Mr. Blake and his brother were cameramen at the procession and took their own film. In fact, they made movies of all the big topical events of that day. Not only were they pioneer newsreel men, but they were among the first cameramen taking topicals for their own shows. Yet curiously enough their apparatus was much smaller and less cumbersome than the gear and tackle of a modern sound news man.
The Blake brothers knew that the public would be interested in their film, so they hired the small Corn Exchange in Bedford, and rigged up their screen and projector. Three shows a day, they thought, would surely be patronized sufficiently to give them a return on their outlay.
They advertised the first performance for twelve noon. At eleven o’clock several hundred people were lined up outside. The two film men held a quick conference and decided to let the crowd in and start away at once. So they opened the doors and did not shut them again till eleven that night.
Mr. Blake thinks that must have been the first continuous film performance. The only pause in the proceedings was one between each showing, just long enough for Mr. Ernest Blake to wind up the film again and put it back into the cinema machine. In those days rewinding had to be done like that. The film came snaking through into a large bag and had to be laboriously coiled up again by hand.
Another thing that the operators had to watch during the sensational success of the Queen Victoria film was their lantern. It was made of wood, and pretty soon it began to char a little owing to the heat arising from the prolonged projections. After the first day they had to line it with asbestos.
The enormous success of this film convinced Messrs. Blake that moving pictures had come to stay, and soon they were busier than ever. In between their ordinary photographic work and their side line of magic-lantern lecturing they took their moving pictures all over the district. (Incidentally Mr. Blake has operated the magic lantern for quite a number of famous men, including Nansen, the explorer, and Winston Churchill, when he was giving his stories of the Boer War. Now, of course, Mr. Churchill is a familiar figure on the Movietone Newsreels!)
It meant long journeys by dogcart at all sorts of hours, and it meant a search for suitable premises, for halls were always booked up for the other social activities of the day. That is why the moving picture flourished in fairs and circuses.
These two film pioneers had to buy all their films outright, renting not having been introduced then, so every inch was precious. In those days France seemed to produce most of the animated pictures, and when playlets and special film subjects were prepared Britain and Italy joined in. At that time these countries held the whole field of films and supplied the world market. A Trip to the Moon was a notable early success.
In the first years of this century—doesn’t that sound a long time ago?—living pictures became a craze. Any old shop, room, or hall was seized on and converted into a temporary cinema. Naturally there arose the awful danger of fire, and after one or two fatalities the authorities stepped in with the Kinematograph Act of 1909, which drew up regulations for prevention of fire.
It is the safety of modern cinemas which impresses Mr. Blake, who remembers his early struggles with the fire demon lurking round the corner.
After the Act came the first picture palaces or cinemas. The Blake brothers opened the first cinema in Bedford, and they have been connected with the business ever since.