Henry K. Miller
Monday 9 January
British release of The Great Day, the first British FP-L film, and assumed to be the first film Hitchcock worked on.
Walter Wanger, years later, gave this version of the story: Hitchcock, employed in the advertising department of Henley’s, a cable manufacturing company in the City, ‘spent five days and nights lettering art title cards using the announced title of the first Famous Players-London film’, The Sorrows of Satan. ‘After running the gamut of secretaries and assistants Hitchcock reached the “head man,” interested him in his work and shortly thereafter shifted his activities from the cable advertising department to the Famous Players title department.’
The ‘head man’ was probably Eve Unsell of the scenario department. The Great Day, a late substitution for The Sorrows of Satan, was shot in mid-1920, and had its first private screening together with the second Poole Street film, The Call of Youth, that November.
The provenance of both films was typical of Famous Players-Lasky, which had an especially close relationship with Broadway and West End theatre, epitomized by its purchase of the rights to the James Barrie catalogue. The Great Day was a topical melodrama, its title a reference to Armistice Day, which had occupied Drury Lane for the autumn season of 1919, the work George R. Sims and Louis N. Parker, fixtures of the West End stage since the Victorian era, while The Call of Youth was adapted from an original story by Henry Arthur Jones, an even more prominent playwright of the same generation. Both films were written by Eve Unsell and directed by Hugh Ford.
Fourteen months separated The Great Day’s first screening – a ‘trade show’ for potential exhibitors – and release. The calendar was blocked out with films which the cinemas had to book in order to get the ones they wanted to book without paying a premium, and 9 January 1922 was inked in even before the trade show. Block-booking had helped make Famous Players-Lasky a behemoth, and was one of the pillars of the increasingly oligopolistic and increasingly global Hollywood system, which squeezed out native competition by such means.
No British firm could provide a steady weekly flow of films into cinemas, guaranteed months into the future, of comparable quality or star power, and the overwhelming majority of films shown on British screens were American. From the point of view of the American studios and distributors, of British cinema owners, and British audiences, the system worked; but for those who wanted to make, or see, British films, the prospects were dim. Hitchcock had never applied to work for a British firm, though Alma Reville had worked for a couple of them.
Most films were released much as they are a hundred years later – very widely and all at once – but the system was evolving into the shape it would hold for most of the rest of the twentieth century, which was based on what Wanger, later in 1922, called ‘the pre-release idea’, whereby the big films would be shown exclusively at a prominent West End house, with much attendant publicity, before being generally released, in stages, from greater to lesser venues.
As Wanger said, London had nothing to compare with the big cinemas of Broadway, and the ‘five relatively bijou houses’ that had sufficient prestige to launch a film in London were lacking in seats. The Great War had interrupted a boom in cinema-building, and no new venues of note had been built since it ended, so the pre-releases went into established entertainment venues instead, usually large variety halls like the Alhambra.
T. S. Eliot, in his London Letter, was not really in mourning for the West End. ‘An optimist might even affirm that when everything that is bad and expensive is removed,’ he continued, ‘its place may be supplied by something good and cheap; on the other hand it is more likely to be supplied by what is called, in the language of the day, the “super-cinema.”’ Wanger’s showing of The Three Musketeers at Covent Garden was the most prominent instance to date. At the time it opened, D. W. Griffith’s Way Down East was already playing at the Empire, across Leicester Square from the Alhambra, and there had been other precedents. Within half a decade, Paramount and MGM, the two biggest American companies, had built or bought large cinemas in the West End, and in late 1928 the Empire was reopened as MGM’s new ‘shop window’.
The Great Day opened as a supporting or second feature – double-bills of this kind were commonplace – in at least one of the ‘bijou’ cinemas on 9 January: the West End Cinema (later called the Rialto), in Coventry Street, near Leicester Square, as well as the Stoll Picture Theatre, previously the London Opera House, in Kingsway, debatably one of the five. The London papers’ listings column show that The Great Day also opened at numerous venues outside the West End.
Cinemas changed programmes on Mondays and Thursdays, and after three days The Great Day had disappeared from most of the listed venues, including the Stoll Picture Theatre, though it was retained by the West End Cinema, and had opened at another of the bijou cinemas, the New Gallery on Regent Street, again as a supporting feature. By Thursday 19th it had disappeared from the listings altogether. While it may be presumed to have continued its journey around the lower tiers of the exhibition circuit, its life cycle in the big London houses – like that of most films in 1922 – was less than two weeks.
Neither of the first two British FP-L films had been especially well reviewed. On its first screening in late 1920, the Daily Express had called The Great Day ‘efficient without being distinguished’, and the trade press was divided. Cinema News and Film Renter were full of praise, but Bioscope and Kinematograph Weekly were scathing, with the latter casting a nativist eye at ‘the big Islington building’ the Americans had built for themselves. ‘It rather seems that British producers, with the Lasky facilities behind them, would do better work,’ wrote the paper’s reviews editor.