Henry K. Miller
Monday 8 May
Graham Cutts’s Cocaine opens – or is advertised as opening – at a number of cinemas including the Rivoli, a 2,500 seater in Whitechapel.
The Rivoli, converted from a previous entertainment palace, Wonderland, in August 1921, had come under the management of Walter Wanger a week earlier, immediately following his season at Covent Garden. The Evening Standard put it this way: ‘During his managership of the Opera House he has achieved the task of getting Society to go to “the pictures.” And now Mr. Wanger tells me that he intends to popularise good film entertainment in the East End.’
The press was full of cocaine stories in 1922. To open a British film at a venue as big as the Rivoli, seen as a white elephant, was bold, but Wanger must have calculated that Cocaine’s topicality would see it through. Cocaine was an exploitation film that had come together quickly, so quickly that it arrived on screen before Cutts’s first film as director, The Wonderful Story, shot a few months earlier. It was shot in a matter of weeks in March and April, at Teddington, and was trade shown at the Alhambra on the morning of 3 May.
According to its distributor Herbert Wilcox, speaking in the 6 May issue of Film Renter, Wanger ‘had made several brilliant suggestions, which were readily adopted by that master of showmanship, Mr. Grahame Cutts’. Cutts and Wilcox were novice filmmakers but, indeed, experienced showmen, Wilcox as a distributor in Leeds, Cutts as a cinema manager in Birmingham and Newcastle. Given the timeline, it seems likely that Wilcox had sold the film to Wanger before the trade show.
Cocaine won raves from the critics, but was then banned by the BBFC, even after it had opened to the public, enraging the trade press.
The BBFC’s president T. P. O’Connor did not see the film until Tuesday 9th. It was still advertised as being shown at the Empire Kinema in Willesden, part of Sidney Bernstein’s chain, on Wednesday 10th, the day on which O’Connor met Wilcox to discuss the situation. From Thursday 11th the Willesden venue’s listings adverted to the next week’s programme, not the current one. It is not completely clear whether it was ever shown at the Rivoli, which, being outside the West End, or, more particularly, outside the area deemed within the pale by middle-class newspaper readers, was not listed in the main London papers, but it seems likely that it was shown at the start of the week. At the end of the week Wanger let it be known that the film had been ‘withheld’.
In theory, the BBFC’s job was advisory. Actual power of censorship lay with local authorities, and several major cities including Manchester, whose Watch Committee (i.e. censorship panel) was reputedly stricter than the BBFC, had approved Cocaine. Wilcox placed sympathetic articles in the main newspapers including the Daily Mail and Daily Express. The film was still listed at least two London cinemas – the King’s Cross Cinema and the Globe in Acton – after the BBFC made its judgement. But the ban was a problem that Cutts and Wilcox had to surmount by retitling Cocaine as While London Sleeps, and giving it a second trade show on 3 July.
One thing that is striking about the episode is that reportedly 300 cinemas booked Cocaine, and at least a significant proportion of them booked it to be shown immediately. The Globe cinema, for example, was a major suburban venue. While there was much agitation against block booking from British film producers, evidently there was some flexibility within the release system if the product was in demand.