My Dad, Fred, and the Hollywood cinema of yesteryear

When he was a little boy, perhaps around ten or twelve years of age, around 1933, my Dad, Fred along with some friends, walked the mile or so to nearby Swadlincote, to go to the cinema. Here is the cinema:

That’s not the best of views, so here is the “Empire” but in later years:

Swadlincote has always had two cinemas but never at the same time. The sequence is usually

Cinema 1 open

Cinema 1 goes bust

Interval of five years

Cinema 2 open

Cinema 2 goes bust

Interval of five years

Cinema 1 is reopened by over-optimistic idiot

Cinema 1 goes bust

Cinema 2 is eventually reopened by another over-optimistic idiot

And so on

Anyway, Fred and his pals, all around ten to twelve years old, weren’t there to see any old film. They were there to see Boris Karloff in “The Mummy”, one of the most frightening horror films of that decade. Feeling extremely brave, they sneaked in and settled down, waiting to be frightened:

Fred was not, of course, like the modern child, immured to fear by hour after hour of relentless television, and he came out chilled to the core by Karloff, completely terrified by the whole film. And so did the rest of them.

There could be no sharper contrast, however, than that between this Karloff chiller and Fred’s favourite, and funniest, Laurel and Hardy film. The latter was “Fra Diavolo”, which, again, he would have seen at the cinema in Swadlincote:

One other tiny detail that I can remember my Dad supplying, which must have come from this era, was how, when watching silent films at the cinema, however old you were, you were expected to read the words of the dialogue for yourself. Nobody would help you. If you asked for assistance, you would be told contemptuously, “Learn to read !”

Overall, Fred must have been very interested in the cinema. His collection of old magazines, kept for thirty or more years in the glass fronted bookcase in the front room of his parents’ house, contained ones which featured German expressionist cinema of the 1920s, including both Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” and “The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari”. The stills featured included Rotwang’s house, Maria the Robot and the somnambulist Conrad Veidt carrying his victim high above the rooftops.

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On one occasion, Fred was actually able to meet a real, genuine Hollywood star. Just after the war ended, he was in Brighton for some long forgotten reason. He decided to visit a very distant cousin who worked in a local cinema, and who may well have been one of the Sussex branch of the Knifton family.

At the time, this particular cinema was the centre of all attention, as it was being visited by Charles Laughton, the world famous English and Hollywood film actor. Laughton was there to give a little publicity to one of his less famous films, a rather unloved feature entitled “The Beachcomber”, made with his then wife Elsa Lanchester in 1938. All of the cinema employees lined up to meet their famous guest, and Fred, at the urgent bidding of his cousin, joined on to the very end of the line, thereby managing, eventually, to shake hands with the great man:

Years earlier, of course, Fred had watched the inimitable Laughton in the 1933 film, “The Private Life of Henry VIII”. In common with countless thousands of other cinema goers, he had particularly vivid memories of the greedy king eating a whole chicken with his bare hands, and then throwing bits of meat and bone over his shoulder to the waiting hounds:

Who said that table manners were a thing of the past?

But, please be aware. Restaurants of all types seem to frown on throwing bits of meat and bone over your shoulder, and there are very seldom any waiting hounds to tidy up the mess.

19 Comments

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19 responses to “My Dad, Fred, and the Hollywood cinema of yesteryear

  1. We too enjoyed movies, this was in the seventies. My father would take us to movies like Roman Holiday and Sound of Music, he felt that they should not be missed. We lived in New Delhi at that time. There was a Karnataka organization. They procured Kannada movies and were screened twice a day for a week. We saw most of them 😊
    But now it has been a long time. I do not even feel like watching a movie. It seems such a waste of time.

    • I’m not so sure that many modern films are worth watching! It took me a long time to get hold of a copy, but some of my favourite films are the “Apu Trilogy” by Satyajit Ray. They portray an India which must by now have disappeared for ever. Superb films.

  2. Great collection of memories. About 5 years ago I took my Mum to the cinema to see “Stan and Ollie”. On the way out I asked if she liked it “Oh yes” she said “but I didn’t know they were still making films”. I was obliged to explain.

    • That reminds me of the only football match my mother ever watched. Derby County v Tottenham Hotspur around 1977. Derby annihilated Spurs 8-2 but my mother missed one goal because she was faffing around with her seat and her handbag strap. My Dad spoke to her about it, but she just said, “Don’t worry, Fred, I shall see it on the replay”. There was a laugh went up!
      Ironically, many grounds now have the facilities to replay goals, of course.

  3. Those were the days, John. A couple of decades later it was Hammer horrors that drew me, but I was more interested in Christopher Lee’s victims than being scared by Dracula 🙂

    • In actual fact, when I was one of three fifteen year olds who sneaked into the very same cinema as my Dad had all those years before, it was to watch Christopher Lee continue his unending battle to get the better of Peter Cushing in what is still my favourite Hammer film. That was “The Mummy” when Christopher Lee proved that he could still act well with only his eyes visible through what must have been about three miles of old bandages.

  4. GP

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone NOT mention going to the movies when they were young.

    • You are absolutely right of course. But back in the 1930s, the films that people watched must have had a huge impact on them, especially if they lived in what Marlon Brando later christened “Palookaville”.
      The cinema would have lifted people into fantastic other worlds such as “The Wizard of Oz”, or, as in the case of my Dad, scared them to death by seeing Boris Karloff on the screen as a creature made from bits of corpses sewed together, or an Egyptian reanimated after two thousand years in his coffin.
      I suppose it was a way to invite people to walk around inside somebody else’s imagination.

  5. Jan

    In the 1960s going to the pictures (never, ever the movies!) was a bit of an event. I remember queuing round the block to get into the Nottingham Odeon to see the latest blockbuster. My parents must have had rather funny ideas of what is suitable for a child under 10 because the pictures I remember most vividly are Zulu, Lawrence of Arabia and Waterloo.

    • Funny ideas? You were allowed to watch three of the greatest films of the sixties. Zulu, which I bought recently, remastered, remixed and absolutely stunning as a Blu-ray. Lawrence of Arabia? Not as much sand as when the tide is out at Skegness, admittedly, but one of David Lean’s best with that superb anti-racism episode in the officers’ mess. And Waterloo with most of the Yugoslavian army on 5p a day, and that shot from above, with the French cavalry surging round the unbreakable British squares.
      I’m jealous. I went to Samson and Delilah, and Dinosaurus and The Alamo. Have you ever heard any of them mentioned in a discussion on great films?

  6. I spent a lot of time in my youth in the 60’s and 70’s going to the movies. I love going. Sadly, none of those cinemas still exist. There all gone, victims of changing times and tastes.

    • And so did I. 2001 A Space Odyssey. Taxi Driver. Alien. All of them so wonderful on the big screen.
      But I haven’t been for years. All we have over here now are huge cinemas out of town with a £15+ entry fee, and they are full of loud teenagers shouting and arguing, or eating something spicy that stinks the place out.
      In fact, the last films we went to see were the various Jurassic Park ones, where the roars of the dinosaurs were louder than anybody in the audience, thank goodness!!

  7. I guess standing at the end of the line and shaking hands with the famous was a bit like us hanging round the stage door of our rock stars waiting for the chance to get an autograph. I did that once or twice and did indeed get to meet a couple!

    • Well don’t leave it there! Who was it?
      A friend of mine was at Leeds University and after a particular concert given by a then fairly obscure artist he went to the Gents toilets, only to find that the artist himself, still largely in his stage clothes, was having a wee in the stall right next to him. It was Elton John.
      Talking of “before they were famous” our school caretaker went to a concert in Newark, and afterwards went to chat to the artists in the pub. One was a young guitarist called Eric Clapton, and he had with him a mixed race lad, very tall with a bandanna, who also played the guitar quite well, although apparently not well enough to risk him on stage with Clapton. The young man was signing beermats and giving them away in case he ever became famous.

      • Sadly no one as famous as Eric Clapton but ‘UFO’ a rock band of the 70s was one, Gordon Giltrap the guitarist was another. Some were far more accommodating than others, the more famous they were the more reluctant they were.

  8. Oh boy your post today, John, evoked such fond memories for me. We were not allowed to watch TV growing up yet as a teen I and my friends would end up at the theatre every chance we got. Good days!!! Of course the silent films are before my time however.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed this post, Amy and that it brought back a few pleasant memories. I don’t think that anywhere in life are we ever as free of serious responsibilities as in our early teenage years. How sweet they were!

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