Although the tradition of going to the cinema at Christmas may seem like a relatively modern phenomenon, Christmas has been a time for families gathering together to watch moving and projected images since at least the 1840s. Initially audiences would have viewed 3D images through a stereoscope, attended magic lantern shows or events where large panoramic images of journeys or distant lands would have been shown.
These early innovations would have toured to all types of venues in Norfolk towns, villages and cities with seasonal themed imagery. Dr Plunkett from the University of Exeter in a recent study on early moving image entertainment reveals the extent of the Christmas cinematic tradition
‘As well as going out to see a touring panorama or pantomime, there were numerous local magic lantern exhibitors who could be hired to come to your house and give a private show for your family and friends, or children might even make their own shadow show to perform’. Seasonal shows, were therefore seen as a treat for children and adults alike at Christmas time and were a way of bringing people together.
One of the first moving pictures was actually a Christmas themed film. Santa Claus was produced in 1898 by George Albert Smith and even has a few innovations for a short film of this period featuring simultaneous action of a child being put to bed and Santa Claus delivering a tree and presents projected in the same frame.
The works of Charles Dickens became the source for Christmas films as early as 1901 when Scrooge was first released. This silent film directed by Walter Booth is under 4 minutes long and features Scrooge scolding Bob Cratchit followed by a series of encounters with the ghost of Marley.
Disney made one of its first Christmas themed animated films in 1927 with Empty Socks. The animation features an early character called Oswald the Rabbit who dresses up as Santa Claus and shares Christmas with a group of orphans.
In Norfolk and across the country, the Gaumont and Odeon Cinema chains, would have special festive activities at their kids clubs. Some cinemas even had a choir and would enter into the annual carol singing competition. This tradition can be seen in the image at the top of the article from the Haymarket cinema in the 1940’s.
The main tradition associated with the cinema has been going to see a family film on Boxing day, which continues to this day. This was not necessarily a Christmas themed film. At the very least, cinemas would feature a seasonal message from the management to patrons before a screening.
As the Christmas period has extended, cinemas have been quick to screen an ever widening array of entertainment from old classics and seasonal modern favourites like It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Gremlins, Elf to encore screenings of the Royal Opera House’s Nutcracker Live.
For our Christmas screening we are showing a film from the East Anglian Film Archive of the 25th Bomber Group from Watton entertaining a group of orphans at a Christmas Party in 1944. The screening will be accompanied by a local choir singing carols in a nod to this past tradition. We are also following this with It’s a Wonderful Life. Set shortly after WWII, the film reflects on the effects of the Great Depression on local communities and families.
WWII halted the boom years of cinemagoing, but only briefly. After war was declared on the 3rd September 1939, cinemas were closed for fear of the publics safety. In Norwich they were re-opened again within a week as the government realised the positive effect cinema could have on informing the public and on morale. Stephen Peart in his book The Picture House in East Anglia states’ After closing on the 4th September the cinemas in Norwich re-opened by the 11th but with a strict blackout; lights would not be allowed on facades for the duration of the hostilities’. Some cinema buildings in Norfolk like the Gem in Great Yarmouth were even re-purposed as staging points for evacuees or for use by the army.
Ironically, when it was first released in December 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life was seen as a commercial failure and received mixed reviews. It wasn’t until 1970, when the film became a staple of Christmas viewing through endless repeats on Television. More recently it has been recognised in many polls as one of the greatest films ever made.
Cinema City is screening It’s a Wonderful life on the 21st, 22nd and 24th Dec