- Paying for Love:Women's Work and Love in Popular Film in Interwar Britain
In the 1920s and 1930s the relatively new media of film attracted millions of viewers in Britain. At the outset of this period in 1917 20 million men and women attended the cinema per week, and the ninety-minute feature film was firmly in place.1 By 1934 a total of 903 million people went to the movies, and in 1940 audiences reached over 1 billion, making British audiences even more committed than their American counterparts.2 Clearly, cinema occupied a newly powerful position in British society after World War I and continued to occupy this position during a period of considerable economic and social upheaval. The immense influence of this medium raises two deceptively simple questions that lie at the heart of this article: what did ordinary British people see on the screen when they went to the cinema in the 1920s and 1930s, and, in particular, what images of work and gender were presented in these films? This article examines the construction of women's work in Britain during a time when women workers were gaining visibility in the economy through the press by considering images of women's work within a range of films that were popular with British audiences between the two world wars.
The small number of films used here are representative of a larger body that have been identified as top films with British audiences by John Sedgwick, Sue Harper, and Christine Gledhill. Their efforts to compile comprehensive [End Page 483] listings of the films that British audiences paid to see between the two world wars form the backbone of this article. Sue Harper's attendance figures for the Regent Cinema, one of eleven cinemas in Portsmouth, are the only figures of their kind that pair film titles with ticket sales for the 1930s.3 John Sedgwick's identification of popular films is based on the earning power of a particular cinema house, the billing of the film, the number of theaters exhibiting the film, and the duration of the film's exhibition.4 Christine Gledhill's work on film in the 1920s does not benefit from the concrete existence of admission figures or the evidence of theater runs. Rather, her identification of popular films in the 1920s is largely dependent upon informal lists in film magazines as well as the production of sequels.5 We can presume, as she has done, that films like The Rat (1925), starring popular actor Ivor Novello, the Squibs series, starring Betty Balfour, as well as The Sheik (1921) were well attended because one or more sequels followed the initial film. Together the work of these historians has brought much-needed definition to the term "popular" in the cultural history of film.
Sedgwick's, Harper's, and Gledhill's identification of hit films with British audiences may offer up the occasional surprise to readers familiar with works from the period, and it is important to dispense with contemporary assumptions about film popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. Audiences at the Regent Cinema, for instance, generally rejected the critically acclaimed All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), since only 9,711 people attended it, while the runaway hit of the interwar period was Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), which drew 35,671 patrons in July 1938 and another 18,298 only two months later.6 This evidence highlights the gap between the modern canon of film criticism and audience taste.
A study of the most popular films with British audiences also demands that historians move beyond tidy geographic studies of film that conceive only of British films as neatly reflecting the concerns of British audiences.7 By far the most popular films with British filmgoers throughout the 1920s and 1930s were American films. The survey conducted in Bolton in 1938 by Mass-Observation, a social survey group, demonstrates as much, with [End Page 484] 64 percent of the 559 respondents indicating that they preferred American films over British and one audience member saying somewhat bluntly: "As regards British Pictures candidly I think they are awful. I don...