The Celluloid Circus
The Heyday of the New Zealand Picture Theatre
1925 – 1970
By Wayne Brittenden
Reviewed by Dorothy - 17/12/08
This book is not only well-researched and informative but also provides entertaining reading.
The title, “The Celluloid Circus”, immediately attracted my interest. A circus suggests to me many-faceted entertainment and this book covers in an entertaining fashion many facets of the film industry in its heyday - from 1925 to 1970.
The eye-catching cover features a photo of the crowd outside the Regent in Masterton in the 1940s surrounded by a brilliantly coloured frame depicting the grand architectural features and plush seating of the large movie theatres at the peak of their success in the middle of the twentieth century. This blends two aspects of the industry – real people as audience and fake grandeur in the architecture creating a sense of the audience moving into a world of luxury as often depicted in the films.
Wayne Brittenden had an early introduction to the world of movie theatres as his father, Cedric Brittenden, was a theatre manager. He gained a firsthand knowledge of what went on “backstage” and in this book introduces readers to a world peopled by the theatre companies, the theatre manager, the censors, the projectionists, the ticket sellers, the usherettes, the ice cream boys and the people employed temporarily to assist in promotion of films - actors, commercial artists and others with imaginative flair.
I thought that I had a fair knowledge of being a picture goer from the late 1930s until the 1970s and less frequently since then. However it was only after reading “The Celluloid Circus” that I understood that what I experienced was only there to enjoy because of the efforts of others.
Brittenden has chapters on the audiences and the films and brightly coloured advertisements and posters for a large number of popular films accompany the text.
In his account of the impact of films and the growing audiences and the wide age range of those who regularly escaped from monotony and anxieties by becoming involved in the imaginative world of movies he builds a social history of New Zealanders’ concerns through the years of the Depression of the thirties and World War 2 and the more prosperous years that followed. Reading about what movie going meant to audiences of that time serves as a powerful recall to those who were involved and for those who are too young to have experienced what is described it lets them share in some of the more meaningful memories of many older people.
Among the popular and ground-breaking films mentioned is Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. I well remember the magic and the sense of involvement that came with ‘going to the pictures.’ My first visit to a movie theatre was in Dunedin in 1938 when I was seven years old to see that film. I became totally involved in the action and when the witch appeared I hid my face in my mother’s lap and did not watch again until she assured me that the witch had gone. Little did I know that for a whole generation this film was the introduction to the world of fantasy movies and the songs that became so popular.
The same sense of involvement has continued over the years. At twelve years old I saw the 1939 version of “Good-bye, Mr Chips” and had my first experience of weeping copiously at a film. It was also the first time I took a special interest in film actors and looked for further films in which Robert Donat or Greer Garson appeared. I especially enjoyed “Pride and Prejudice” and ”Mrs. Miniver” starring Greer Garson. Interest in film stars and music from films led to a new industry to satisfy the appetites of the enthusiasts for information, photographs, sheet music, or records.
For me these films opened the door to the magic of the movie theatre. For others it was the excitement of action films – war films, Westerns featuring cowboys and Indians, cartoons or the weekly serials at the children’s sessions on Saturday mornings or afternoons. In “The Celluloid Circus” there is a photo of the youthful audiences pouring out of the adjacent theatres in Cathedral Square in Christchurch.
The book provides a stimulus to memories of the format of the programmes – watching the advertisements, standing to sing the National Anthem, watching the newsreels (usually several months out of date), perhaps viewing a travel film if the main feature was not long, buying an ice cream or sweets from the ice cream boys or the Nibble Nook during the interval, and then viewing the main feature. A favourite choice of confectionery was Jaffas – chocolate balls with orange coating – dropped accidentally or intentionally to roll noisily down the uncarpeted floor under the seats, often during a tense emotional scene.
Whatever films captured the interest of these children, most became dedicated movie buffs and as they grew up they joined the adults who filled the theatres to capacity until television led many of the older members of the audience to depend on the TV programmes for their entertainment.
I well remember that after World War 2 any young man wanting to take a girlfriend to a movie on Saturday night had to book seats by Wednesday. The women went to great trouble to dress well for such a night out.
It was the task of the theatre managers to cash in on the people’s enthusiasm and draw a larger audience than other movie theatres in the city, often by displays or original advertising features. Theatre companies responded to this need by building more and more elaborate theatres in the larger towns, though such was the popularity of seeing films that in the country districts small, often uncomfortable and stuffy theatres still drew good audiences.
Wayne Brittenden has collected over 150 photographs which are appropriately placed to add to the vivid descriptions in the text. Many of them have not been published before. Sourcing them must have been a huge task. Those of the buildings’ interiors and exteriors are of particular interest.
Interviews with his father provided the stimulus for writing this book and that rich source of information was expanded by interviews with survivors from every type of work in the industry. One chapter of especial interest describes the role of the projectionists and the areas in which they worked. These key people, so crucial in the movie industry, often worked in cramped and stuffy conditions, yet audiences took them for granted.
I recommend this book as providing enjoyable reading for all ages and as a classic work of historical authenticity which will be a valuable point of reference and an asset to a public library or a private collection.
The Celluloid Circus
The Heyday of the New Zealand Picture Theatre 1925 – 1970
by Wayne Brittenden
is published by Random House New Zealand and is for sale at $NZ49.99