A new “high society” was developing and promising the dawn of a golden age of culture, but against this background of optimism and with one eye on Hitler’s Germany that the Empire and the people of Southampton entered into the new year of 1939.
It was common place at this time for the larger theatres in the Gaumont chain to have some flexibility in booking and often the circuit release would be paired with another main feature when playing houses such as the Southampton Empire. The opening feature of 1939 “Three Men And A Girl”, was a Hollywood showcase for The Ritz Brothers and some fans compared them to the Marx Brothers, but unlike the Marxes the boisterous Ritzes frequently behaved identically, making it harder for audiences to tell them apart. In complete contrast it was paired with the Victor McLaglen vehicle “Devil’s Party” a hard-hitting gang crime story set in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. The pairing was typical of the programming of the day – one light and cheerful and the other dark and serious.
Because of the struggling British quota system it was very unusual to have two British or two American films playing in the same programme. British films were typically almost always paired with an American offering, meaning that the British programme content was spread across the year to maximise the number of weeks played by British quota films. In fact, in 1939 there was no all-British programme that played the Empire.
The three main circuits had firmly established themselves. Odeon, Gaumont and ABC had become the driving force in British cinema exhibition having created the circuit release system for films, each having their own weekly release and whereby cinemas in each chain would be grouped and play the same film programme at the same time. Typically a film would premiere in London’s West End and for Gaumont, this could be the New Gallery in Regent Street, the Gaumont Haymarket, Marble Arch Pavilion, Astoria Charing Cross Road, Tivoli in The Strand or the Dominion Tottenham Court Road and run for some three weeks before embarking on its London general release. The London general release for all circuits was spread over three weeks in order to minimise the number of prints required. The first week would be the North West, the second North East and the third week would be South London. It would then play regionally across the country. In Southampton, the Empire would typically play a film the week before its first week of London release and would then hold a bar over nearby cinemas playing the film for a number of weeks. It would then play second run at houses such as the Plaza, Palladium and Atherley, often just for three days.
Each circuit had also cemented ties with the major production/distribution companies. The largest circuit ABC, who by now had 438 cinemas having built and opened 98 in the 1930s had strong ties with MGM, Warner Bros and Columbia as well as their own product through ABPC. In the decade, Odeon had seen the largest growth now operating 263 halls, which included 136 completely new ones. Odeon’s product came mainly from Paramount, Universal and United Artists. Gaumont which had experienced problems on the production front had only opened 51 new cinemas and ended the decade with 302 houses which played product from Fox, RKO, London and General as well as some from Warner, Universal, Paramount and Columbia. Although the distributors had ties with the circuits, they each wanted the best cinemas to play their films and as Gaumont had the biggest halls they could often offer better box-office potential, hence the varied source of product on the Gaumont circuit. The withdrawal from film production also led to Gaumont to seek product from other distributors as there was not the 15 to 20 home grown products lining up for release on the Gaumont circuit.
The levels of economic optimism were tempered by the growing political unrest and the overt aggression being reported from within Germany. Though not all the unrest came from that quarter, as the Irish Republican Army continued their bombing campaigns. June is the month best remembered as when Britain really began it’s preparations for what most considered to be an inevitable war. Military conscription became effective, not because the services lacked recruits, but because there was a diplomatic necessity to demonstrate that Britain was serious about its new European commitments. As we moved into July, Britain stepped up its defence preparations, at night the southern third of England (excepting London) was darkened for an air raid test. A group of Royal Air Force bombers flew from London to Marseilles and back as a demonstration of British air power. It was not lost on the public that the distance from London to Marseilles was about the same as the distance from London to Berlin.
At the Empire, July opened with what Variety called ‘a virtual cavalcade of early 20th-century American history’ and added, ‘Bette Davis turns in one of her most scintillating performances. Flynn’s happy-go-lucky reporter is a vivid portrayal although his slight English accent seems incongruous’ – Warner’s “The Sisters” was an American drama produced and directed by Anatole Litvak. On the Saturday of that week the Pan American Airways Boeing 314 flying boat Yankee Clipper inaugurated the world’s first heavier-than-air North Atlantic air passenger service between the United States and Southampton, beginning something that would make the town the premiere location for flights world-wide for a number of years.
Whether it was intentional or not the next day, 9th July, Fox’s “Tail Spin” opened; a 1939 American aviation film based on the book, “Women with Wings: A novel of the modern day aviatrix” starred Alice Faye, Constance Bennett, Nancy Kelly, Joan Davis, Charles Farrell and Jane Wyman.
A big hit in Southampton opened on the 23rd July RKO’s “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” based on the stories by Irene Castle and was adapted by Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Yost and Richard Sherman and provided audiences with some light relief from all the worries in the press and the radio news.
On 30th July the first of the fourteen Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson opened at the Empire – “The Hound Of The Baskervilles”, the earliest known Sherlock Holmes film to be set in the Victorian period of the original stories. In Southampton some bright news emerged on Saturday when weekly transatlantic flights scheduled by Imperial Airways (the forerunner of British Airways) commenced from Southampton Docks.
The Empire provided its own shocks when it screened “Son Of Frankenstein” the third entry in Universal Studios’ Frankenstein series and the last to feature Boris Karloff as the Monster. It was also the first to feature Bela Lugosi as Ygor and was a huge success with the public
By the beginning of September 1939, close to two and a half million Britons were volunteering part or all of their time – paid and unpaid – to get ready for war. On 1st September as Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Britain accelerated ‘Operation Pied Piper’ a 4-day evacuation of children from London and other major U.K. cities. A blackout was imposed across Britain as the Army was officially mobilised. The BBC was placed on a war footing and a singular radio station, BBC Home Service, began broadcasting while the BBC Television service is shut down.
On the 3rd September the Empire was set to open a week’s run of “Gunga Din” RKO’s adventure film. However, events at 11.15 in the morning overtook the film’s opening, as at 11.15 in the morning, a dejected Neville Chamberlain broke the news to the nation on BBC Radio, speaking from 10 Downing Street, that Britain’s request for Germany to withdraw its forces from Poland had been ignored, with words that would echo through history. ‘I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.’ Twenty minutes later, air raid sirens sounded in London (a false alarm).
Instructions to all operators of places of public entertainment were issued for immediate closure. The Empire, like every other cinema and theatre across the country was shut and the staff turned away as they arrived that evening for work (it was a Sunday and the theatre wouldn’t normally open until 7.30). There was no indication as to whether and when they would be able to reopen.
With most of the children having been evacuated from the most vulnerable towns and cities including Southampton, to the countryside, without their parents and often split from their siblings a strange and lonesome life began.
So, Southampton braced itself for the worst. With many of it’s menfolk called up and in military training, the children shipped off to the safety of the country, no pets for comfort (there had been a voluntary killing programme prompted by government sponsored fears of starvation, bombing and of abandonment – hundreds of thousands of pet dogs and cats were ‘put to sleep’) and no place to go for entertainment, the women of the town prepared themselves to contribute to the war effort and get to work.
On the 15th September, in the event that no bombing raids had been made on Britain, cinemas were allowed to reopen; as were theatres the following Monday. Restrictions were placed on the hours of opening. The Empire reopened on the 15th with “Gunga Din” the film it never got to show on the 3rd September and ran it until 30th September. The cinema would operate from 2.00pm to 10.00pm daily and from 6.00pm to 9.00pm on Sundays. The longer run was partly necessitated to allow the distributors time to introduce emergency delivery and collection services for films. The call up of men for military service had left most companies in disarray, as they didn’t have sufficient employees to operate to normal business levels.
On the 1st October at the Empire, Gainsborough opened their picture “A Girl Must Live” a British romantic comedy directed by Carol Reed and starring Margaret Lockwood, about a group of chorus line girls who compete for the affection of a distinguished bachelor; the support was Fox’s “Mr Moto On Danger Island”. One of the biggest films of the year started a two week run at the Empire on 15th October, MGM’s British production “Goodbye Mr. Chips” a romantic drama film directed by Sam Wood and starring Robert Donat and Greer Garson. Based on the 1934 novella, Donat’s performance won him the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1939. It would be nominated for 7 Academy Awards but lost out as it was up against ‘Gone With The Wind’. In 2003, the American Film Institute ranked Mr. Chipping the 41st greatest film hero of all time. October ended with another British film, this time from a small independent company Butchers, “Music Hall Parade” was exactly what the public wanted and as the title suggested a parade of music hall stars performing numbers from their routines. It featured Billy Cotton, Hughie Green and Freddie Forbes. The support came in the form of “Wolf Call” from the US producer Monogram, a slight American drama of little note.