A look back to our moviegoing past

John Cairns

Last week, we were rummaging through some back issues from our newspaper archives.

We were going through the yellowed pages of the North Battleford News, one of the predecessor papers of the News-Optimist, looking at all the stories of the day from way back in 1935. There were the usual stories about municipal taxes and all that, but one thing caught my eye - the entertainment section.

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There was a huge full-page ad in the February 7th 1935 edition of the News, promoting the coming week's lineup of movies at the Empress Theatre.

It was a fascinating glimpse into what moviegoing would have been like during an earlier era. Back in those days, there was no television to watch at home - and the Internet? Ha! We were a long way from DVDs or movie rentals or any of that. In those days, there were two main ways to get your news entertainment: by listening to the radio at home, or by going to the movie theater.

In fact, a lot of cutting-edge technology could be found at the theatres in 1935. Talking pictures had just been introduced in the past decade, and colour had just being introduced.

Because you didn't have TV in those days, the movie theater always had a jam-packed lineup of entertainment on display, with plenty of double-features. Here's what was playing at the Empress on Friday and Saturday, February 8 and 9: the headline attraction was a Western called The Star Packer, starring an up-and-coming star named John Wayne.

The second part of the double bill was a cheesy-looking movie called Sea Killers, which looked like a cheap horror flick. You are reminded that this was the era of the cheaply-made "B movie." In those days, theatres all over North America needed something for the second part of a weekend double-bill, so the "B movie" fit that requirement. At your local theater, then, you got the "A" picture starring John Wayne and a "B" picture thrown in for good measure. Fun stuff.

Also on the lineup was Fox News, an "Our Gang" comedy and a Silly Symphony cartoon from the Walt Disney studio.

Just reading the words "Fox News" reminded me that this wasn't the era of Bill O'Reilly and 24-hour cable TV news, but the era of black-and-white newsreels. You could read about it in the paper or hear about it on the radio, but if you also wanted to see film footage of what was going on in the world, newsreels like "Fox Movietone News" or the "March of Time" were an available option.

That was the weekend lineup at the Empress. On the following Monday and Tuesday, the Empress promised a "First National dramatic production" called A Lost Lady, starring Barbara Stanwyck and an all-star cast. Even back then, the star system was evident. (First National was one of those pioneering movie companies in operation in those days, soon to be swallowed up by Warner Bros.) Also on the card: more comedies and Paramount News.

On Wednesday and Thursday, a "big double program" was promised, with two Warner Bros. pictures: Desirable, starring Jean Muir, George Brent and Verree Teasdale, and The St. Louis Kid starring James Cagney.

I can imagine what it would have been like in those old days, going to the old theater and watching the cartoons and newsreels and the big double-feature, and eating the popcorn of the day. I imagine they showed plenty of "Coming Attractions" reels as well, promoting the coming movies.

The screen was a lot smaller in those days. They didn't have the wide screens associated with movies of today. Those came in during the 1950s as a way to do battle with television. The novelty of 3-D was also still to come in the Fifties.

You also saw very little on screen in colour back in the Thirties. The cartoons were all in colour, and it wouldn't be long before studios rolled out some big musicals in colour, but the vast majority of the film output in the Thirties was in black and white.

I know much of the current generation of young movie goers are repelled by the thought of watching any movie not in full living color. The era of black and white must truly seem like the Dark Ages to most of them.

I don't think folks who lived in that era would feel the same way. I imagine there are a lot of fond memories for folks who were around for those great old days when motion pictures truly were the main source of entertainment in the community.

It's a different era today. There is a lot more competition for the audience from television and other options. The downtown single-screen theatre is pretty much gone, replaced by suburban multiplexes. The newsreels are long gone, and so are most of the cartoons. The double feature is also history, rendering the "B movie" obsolete.

Nowadays, you stand in line at a multi-screen cinema and pay sky-high ticket and food prices, and you must sit and endure a ton of ads while waiting for the main feature to show up on the screen. Things have entirely changed for the better.

But other things have changed for the better. Hollywood continues to out-do itself with technological achievements, looking for ways to bring people to the theatre with big stars and bigger screens, surround-sounds and special effects, digital technology, CGI, 3-D and so on.

Even in the Thirties they were doing this. You have to remember -- back in 1935, talking pictures were still new. Colour was still brand new. The best was yet to come: a mere few years later, you started seeing a lot of colour feature films like The Wizard of Oz and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs showing up in theaters.

Indeed, those was exciting times for people interested in motion pictures. For Depression-era folks looking for an escape from all their problems, the Empress must have been an exciting place to be. For movie fans those were indeed the good old days.

© Copyright Battlefords News Optimist


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