Media, Modernity and the Middlebrow

‘Secrets of the Film World’: Archives, Cinema Writing and Interwar Intermedia

Lisa Stead, Tuesday 1 Mar 2016, CEIR Seminar Series

The Centre was delighted to host Dr Lisa Stead earlier this month, whose paper addressed how women’s fictional writing, primarily from the 1930s, and other media forms, such as film and fan magazines, collectively produce a fascinating account of women’s experience of the cinema and of cinema-going in the interwar period.

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Dr Carrie Smith introduces Lisa’s paper

Lisa began by emphasizing the degree to which ‘the Pictures’ were, for many British women, a central part of their engagement with modernity. The cinema was a space that was open to women to encounter representations of feminine identity that were being played out on-screen, but which would have a corresponding immediacy outside of it as well, in the interwar milieux of modernity. At the same time, British cinemas were themselves undergoing a great change, both in terms of décor and attitude. This reconfiguration has been characterized as a move from the ‘flea pit’ to the ‘picture palace’, with an attendant development in film culture which increasingly targeted more women and more middle-class consumers.

Outside of the cinema, there was a parallel with an increasing market for women-centred popular fiction and consumer culture, examples of which include Edith Maude Hull’s The Sheik (1919) and Elinor Glyn’s The Philosophy of Love (1923). This consumer culture constructed the idea of subjectivity as something playful, to be played out and explored, as opposed to something stable or fixed which would delineate feminine identity in too constrictive a manner. In particular, we can look to the fictional writing of this period to find an alternative, positive account of the idea of the ‘movie-struck girl’, a formulation which emerged earlier in the century. As a character, the idea of the film-struck girl covers a variety of figures of anxiety, such as the flapper’ and ‘the old maid’, both of which escape, and so challenge, the constraints of traditional conceptions of femininity. Lisa displayed some postcards from the period which satirized these figures, demonstrating the range of ways in which interwar media responded to the practice of women’s cinema attendance.

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The ‘cinema-struck’ girl and the ‘old maid’

Lisa then shifted her attention to discuss middlebrow fiction, and how it feeds into conceptions of women as consumers of cinema. The cinema-going narratives from feminine middlebrow literature of the period largely articulates a middle-class perspective or experience, with middle-class identity being presented to readers as something which could be acquired or learned, as opposed to something determined and fixed simply by one’s social or economic status. An example would be Elizabeth Bowen’s 1938 novel The Death of the Heart, which provides a gendered template for exploring the rituals of women interacting within cinematic spaces (the blurb for the reissued Penguin Random House edition of the text, published in 2015, speaks of a key moment in the text, in which ‘the flash of a cigarette lighter in a darkened cinema illuminates a stunning romantic betrayal’.)

Addressing the discerning female cinema-goer was not solely the prerogative of middlebrow fiction though: other, more ephemeral forms, such as novelettes, short-story magazines, and film and fan magazines, all did the same to some degree. Indeed, these different forms frequently addressed their readers with a familiar, of-the-moment narration and treated their consumers like fans, a move which recognized the fact that women’s cinema attendance had a notable cultural value. Lisa pointed out that one of the recurrent features of this collected writing about the cinema was the emergence of the female star. One of the key features of stardom that was articulated in the 1930s was the idea of being self-made: in other words, success in the world of the cinema was not determined by ‘inheritance’, either familial or social, but through ‘selling oneself’ as someone with immense cultural cachet. Unsurprisingly perhaps, this idea had more traction in the United States than it did in Britain, although it did carry a generally popular appeal. Another interesting fact is that these stars would often change their names, and these stories of transformation would be relayed to female consumers through fan magazines. Again, this plays up the degree to which the cinema provided a productive site of reconfiguration for female identities that were playful and performative, as opposed to stable and fixed.

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The print culture of moviegoing

The filmgoing experience that is represented in the literature and writing of this period tells us something about cinema culture that films themselves cannot. Interwar writing and media contextualize and explicate the ways in which women responded to the cinema and its representations of femininity, engaging with such questions as why women went to the pictures in the first place. Films from the time cannot tell us about how their audiences responded to them, and it is within this lacuna that cinema writing and interwar intermedia have a particularly important and productive function in diagnosing the phenomenon of the cinema-going woman.

As a conclusion to her paper, Lisa provided us with an overview of her most recent research on archival film material, a project undertaken in collaboration with The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in Exeter. The project, called Object Stories, comprises a series of short films showcasing artefacts from the museum’s collections, and how they might be used for academic research. Lisa stressed the need to examine the archive and to do archival work, and the associated importance of disseminating stories about the kind of analysis that it produces, and how this feeds back into teaching and researching film.

You can read Lisa’s posts on the Object Stories project and watch her video on female audiences and interwar cinema here.

— Robert Lloyd


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