The sound of the silents
Although there were no sound tracks recorded, or played, on films made during the First World War, audiences never watched films silently. In cinemas across Australia and New Zealand orchestras (which could mean anything from a single pianist to a full instrumental ensemble) provided music to accompany movies, and played as the audience entered and exited the cinema.
Violet Donaldson (nee Capstick) worked for many years as a pianist at three cinemas in Timaru. In this extract she recalls the “primitive conditions” in the theatres and also how she wrote and played tunes based on sheet music she listened to at the music shop she worked at, surprising returned servicemen who weren’t expecting to hear the latest in European music back home.
Short films, audiences and nitrate fires
Harry Kennedy was a long-time picture theatre manager in Timaru. In this interview, recorded on his retirement after decades working in showbiz, he recalls the types of films shown to cinema-goers, the enthusiastic applause and appreciation of the audience to films shown to them, as well as one of the hazards of film at the time: a nitrate fire in the biobox (projection booth).
Projectionists, orchestras & silent films
Harry Kennedy was a long-time picture theatre manager in Timaru. In this interview, recorded on his retirement after decades working in showbiz, he recalls some of the challenges projectionists faced as well as the sounds that accompanied “silent films”. Sound effects were supplied by staff watching the action on screen, and orchestras, made up of “tip top” musicians”, played music to bring the movies to life.
Early newsreels: A 1915 Pathé Animated Gazette
People went to cinemas during the war to be entertained, but moving-pictures also played an important role in providing cinema-goers with news and information from abroad. Early newsreels, or topical films, were an important part of the typical cinema programme of the time.
This film is an example of a full-length Pathé Animated Gazette newsreel that was shown during the war. It demonstrates the contents of these types of films and how they mixed serious topics with more light-hearted footage: scenes of the Algerian Native Cavalry in Flanders, a brief glimpse of King George V and Queen Mary making their way through packed London Streets to a service at St Paul’s Cathedral, the opening of a New Zealand military hospital, and Zouaves (Algerian French Infantry).
Bringing the audience into the picture
The experience of the cinema-going public remains perhaps the most challenging aspect of understanding film and audiences in New Zealand and Australia during the Great War. This image, taken circa 1910 in an unknown New Zealand cinema, is a rare glimpse back at a packed house.