‘Going to the pictures is nothing to be ashamed of,’ insisted the film writer Iris Barry in 1926. But it certainly wasn’t something to be proud of, either. To the cultural cognoscenti of the 1920s, Barry admitted, the cinema was barely an art at all – about as aesthetically significant as ‘passport photography’. And for much of polite society, seeing a film was done in secret, if at all.
So it was a considerable boost for the fledgling medium when, 100 years ago, the word ‘cinema’ began to appear for the first time in this country above its own regular column, with its own dedicated critic, in the arts pages of The Spectator. Attending to this young art form was the even younger Barry. The 28-year-old was, according to Ivor Montagu, the ‘first film critic on a serious British journal’. At this stage it was not the dream job it would become. At its heart was an impossible task: to cajole readers to reckon with an ill-bred, upstart endeavour.
Silent cinema was considered vulgar, childish, simple-minded – the bastard offspring of the circus arts. That it was also obscenely popular – the British were spending as much on films in 1916 ‘as on all other plays, shows, concerts and organised sports events put together’, according to Picture Palace News – made it all the more reprehensible. Barry spent half her first column in February 1924 pleading with Britons to take it more seriously: ‘In Germany and Austria… they have realised that cinematography is no mere animated photography, but a new popular art-form with its own conventions, not yet defined, its own canon and standards… British producers would do well seriously to study… the Continental school.’
These conventions and standards were by and large being constructed in real time by Barry herself.