- As a window into the world of a century ago, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s program “A Night at the Cinema in 1914” was the second best thing to a time machine.
San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s ‘A Night at the Cinema in 1914’: Audiences transported to the world as it was at the onset of World War I
Imagine, if you will, that you can go back 100 years in time, when people were enjoying a new and pervasive art form: Motion pictures.
In 1914, the movies had already been around for a while, in peep shows, nickelodeons, and small screening rooms. But now movie theaters were springing up in every community large and small, where families could flock together and watch flickering images in comfort, with live musical accompaniment.
This past Sept. 20, such was the experience provided by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival – Silent Autumn: “A Night at the Cinema in 1914.” For a history buff like me, this was second best to getting into a time machine.
True, the program consisted mostly of shorts from the British Film Institute, but the variety of newsreels, comedies, and travel documentaries – set in a world just before and just after the outset of The Great War – could be enjoyed by American audiences as well.
‘A Night at the Cinema in 1914’ titles
In brief, “A Night at the Cinema in 1914” included the following titles (in alphabetical order):
The Austrian Tragedy
The Austrian Tragedy had the biggest impact for me, as the world was creeping closer and closer to a global conflagration in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.
Christmas at the Front
Just as the title suggests, Christmas at the Front was a brief shot of the troops being fed from a steaming cauldron. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of food was in the pot.
Daisy Doodad’s Dial
A bit of nonsense, Daisy Doodad’s Dial is important only for the fact that it was produced by an American woman, Florence Turner, at Britain’s Hepworth Studios. Turner, who is also the film’s lead, happened to be one of the first movie stars on the other side of the Atlantic.
Note from the editor: Before movie stars had “names,” Florence Turner was known as The Vitagraph Girl, as she was associated with that Brooklyn-based studio. Among her credits are short versions of Twelfth Night and A Tale of Two Cities.
Dog for the Antarctic
Dog for the Antarctic was just a short clip of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s fateful expedition to the South Pole.
Egypt and Her Defenders
Egypt and Her Defenders returned us to war reporting, as it shows British Consul General Lord Kitchener. Here we get to see how The Sphinx and the Great Pyramids looked in 1914.
A Film Johnnie
From Mack Sennett’s U.S.-based Keystone Studios, A Film Johnnie ended the program – appropriately enough – with Charles Chaplin, who made his first appearances as the Little Tramp – in both Kid Auto Races at Venice and Mabel’s Strange Predicament – in this celebrated year.
Directed by George Nichols, A Film Johnnie also features Roscoe Arbuckle (a.k.a. ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle), Mabel Normand, and Ford Sterling.
General French’s Contemptible Little Army
A wartime animated bit of fluff, General French’s Contemptible Little Army must have kept those with short attention spans very happy.
As found on the BFI website, the title refers to Kaiser Wilhelm having allegedly dismissed as “contemptible” the British Expeditionary Force led by Commander-in-Chief Sir John French.
German Occupation of Historic Louvain
German Occupation of Historic Louvain provided some compelling propaganda footage of the German troops’ destruction of Belgium.
Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine
The only things I found funny in the low-comedy short Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine were the cheap sets and phony special effects.
Music hall-performing brothers Fred Evans and Joe Evans directed and were featured in the film, with Fred as the titular lieutenant – a role he played in dozens of shorts from 1912 to 1922.
Looping the Loop at Hendon
The first movie screened at “A Night at the Cinema in 1914,” Looping the Loop at Hendon features significant aviation footage in connection to Europe’s brewing war, including the effect that the newly developed air power would play in that conflict.
Palace Pandemonium may seem funny to us today, but in 1914 women were not allowed to vote, either in Britain or the U.S. The suffragette movement was a driving force felt on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Perils of Pauline
One episode of The Perils of Pauline was screened at “A Night at the Cinema in 1914.” The epoch-making serial starred superstar Pearl White as the heroine who could get out of the most hazardous situations.
At Paramount, Betty Hutton would play White in a highly fictionalized 1947 biopic also named The Perils of Pauline. George Marshall directed.
And in 1967, Universal released Herbert B. Leonard and Joshua Shelley’s The Perils of Pauline, which, inspired by the 1914 serial, was to have been a pilot for a new TV series that failed to find sponsors. Pamela Austin and Pat Boone starred.
The Rollicking Rajah
My favorite entry was another Hepworth production, The Rollicking Rajah, an early example of sound-on-disc – Vivaphone – that could be seen as a proto-version of what Warner Bros.’ Vitaphone would become 12 years later.
Since the original disc is lost, the soundtrack was “restored” by using the sheet music. The singing was so out of sync that I could understand why audiences wanted nothing to do with talking pictures at the time.
Yet it was a lot of fun to hear the singing and to watch the clumsy chorus girls dancing out of step to the bad lipsynching.
Harry Buss and ascending movie star Violet Hopson (The Irresistible Flapper, A Daughter of Eve) were the leads.
Scout’s Valuable Aid
Scout’s Valuable Aid was notable in that it showed how civilians could, by their vigilance, participate in the war effort.
A final word: The San Francisco Silent Film Festival should be congratulated for its presentation of “A Night at the Cinema in 1914.”
This entertaining “time capsule” thrilled the Castro Theatre audience, who enthusiastically applauded every short.
The live musical accompaniment was provided by the ever capable Donald Sosin.
“A Night at the Cinema in 1914” endnotes
Charles Chaplin A Film Johnnie image: Courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Pearl White The Perils of Pauline serial image: Pathé Frères.
“‘A Night at the Cinema in 1914’: WWI & Chaplin” last updated in December 2021.