When the lights went out: cinemas during World War II

The outbreak of war saw many UK cinemas shuttered in the same way they have been by Covid. How did film culture fare back then?

Queen Elizabeth and King George VI visit the ruins of a cinema in Baker Street, London, during the BlitzGetty Images

There has been nothing quite like the lockdown of 2020-21 in the history of cinema, but it echoes what happened to art cinemas during World War II. In Britain, all cinemas were ordered closed at the outbreak in September 1939 – then were allowed to reopen within the month. Most of them continued even through the Blitz a year later, in 1940-41, but art cinemas – sometimes called ‘continental’ cinemas – were a different case. Some simply never reopened, others went into hibernation; a couple held out. Post-war recovery took a few years, but when it came film culture thrived in Britain as never before.

Continental cinemas were a phenomenon of the 1930s. By the summer of 1939 there were five in central London, and others in Glasgow and Cambridge. Another, the Bristol Academy, had the misfortune to open just after the declaration of war, on 23 September. By then they were almost completely reliant on French films, with so much of the continent being under dictatorship even before the war.

The Paris Cinema was a permanent casualty of war

The two major venues, the Curzon, a purpose-built modernist structure in Mayfair, and the Academy, on Oxford Street, closed for the duration. The Curzon’s owner, the Marquis de Casa Maury – Cuban-born pilot, yachtsman and racing-car driver – enlisted in the RAF at the start of the war, and the building went into government service. The Academy stuck it out till October 1940, when it was damaged in the bombing; afterwards its manager Elsie Cohen also joined the war effort, in forces entertainment. Both of these venues would return under new management, but others – the Berkeley, the Paris, the Embassy – never did.

One exception was Studio One, on Oxford Circus, which reopened as the Blitz was winding down, in March 1941, with Charles de Gaulle in attendance. There were of course no new films to import, and Studio One relied on revivals, played for long runs. Plenty of continental films of the 1930s had never been released, however, so that the British debut of Marcel Carné’s Le Jour se lève (1939) came in April 1944. The other exception was the Tatler, near Cambridge Circus, which began showing Russian films from October 1941, starting with Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) – never before shown in public in the UK.

The film societies, which in the 1930s typically used cinemas for their occasional shows, were thrown into disarray by the war, but many kept going. As early as 1941, Norman Wilson, chairman of the Edinburgh Film Guild, described a renaissance of retrospective programming, made possible partly by the opening up of the British Film Institute’s archive to borrowers – bookings doubled that year and kept rising. By the war’s end some of the film societies were flourishing. The Merseyside Film Institute Society, whose rooms in Bluecoat Chambers were destroyed in an air raid in May 1941, had 1,000 members by 1945.

The Academy Cinema on Oxford Street, London, in 1945

The Academy on Oxford Street reopened in March 1944, a few months before D-Day, mostly making do with revivals. That autumn the Sunday Times critic Dilys Powell visited Paris to be shown a batch of films made under German occupation, one of the highlights being Robert Bresson’s debut feature Les Anges du péché (1943). The newly liberated French studios were back at work, but the revival of European cinema did not begin in earnest for at least another year, its most obvious sign being the first Cannes Film Festival, in September 1946. A year later came the first Edinburgh International Festival of Documentary Films, as the city’s annual film festival was initially called. Both of these showcased major works from a country whose films had barely been seen in Britain since the 1910s – Italy.

The Curzon Mayfair cinema, London, in 1946

A crisis like a war or pandemic is not always an accelerant of existing trends, and the war caused a change in the direction and character of British film culture. The film society movement was made up of volunteers, sustained by a missionary zeal that was inflamed not so much by war but by the prospect of social reconstruction afterwards. Its flavour is best captured in Roger Manvell’s bestselling paperback Film, published in the spring of 1944, which condemned “remote expression and recondite technique” as luxuries, and asked: “Do we go back to pre-war dope and depression, or do we go forward to recreation and actuality, to a vigorous international art in a vigorous international community?” But that zeal brought in all kinds of films, and that large audience was more open-minded than its tribunes, like Manvell and the documentary filmmaker John Grierson, were or pretended to be.

One explanation for the vitality of film culture after 1945 might be the deprivation that preceded it. Another is technological change, a shift from 35mm to 16mm, which made possible a wider distribution of a greater variety of films. There are obvious analogues for both now: nobody wants to go back to streaming and nothing-but, any more than anyone prefers 16mm to 35mm; but it does open up possibilities.

Further reading

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