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An essay on the psychological impact of cinema’s and interacting with film culture

1 Feb

Let's Talk About Feelings The late 1930s attempted to impose an architecture which would be appreciated by the masses through its use of architectural ‘social realism’. They were aware of the psychological effects of colour and decoration on cinema patrons moods and feelings. It will be shown in this essay that these architects, their intentions and their buildings have implications for what Architecture and its meaning is in modern cinema.

 With the hindsight of just about ninety years it could seem that the awe-inspiring theatre/cinema architects were trying to use contemporary psychological theories to make suitable environments available for the showing of moving pictures and in my opinion, their endeavor obviously worked in every way. It shaped impressive places of enormous appeal to viewers, who came in their thousands. As we shall see, they were to create an escape from reality not just for the lower classes but especially for middle and upper classes. Burris-Meyer and Cole (1949), in directing architects how to design cinemas, demonstrated a sense of place by outlining the importance of the entire experience of theatre.

The showman’s first contact with any member of his audience occurs when that individual comes in sight of the theatre. From that moment until the patron is on the highway or subway headed for home, his every movement is the showman’s concern. The easier and pleasanter the patron’s progress from home to theatre seat and back again, the better the showman’s chances of making and holding a repeat customer. (Burris-Meyer and Cole, 1949:16)

The movie theatre architects wished to articulate a number of attributes, in their designs. They wanted the viewers from all classes to feel important; they wanted to provide all the visual design elements usually accessible only to the wealthy, and to create a total environment consistent with the make-believe, escapist content of films.


Though much written by cinema historians overlooks information regarding the venues in which films were shown and the audiences who watched them, some writing on the escapist “dreamworld” is available. To its writers, it is where disadvantaged patrons with supposedly boring, unfulfilled lives could whittle away a number of hours in an extravagant atmosphere, secretly living out emotions portrayed on the screen.

According to Handel (1950) no studies of theatre/cinema audiences were made until approximately World War II, although Jowett (1976) discovered a small amount of earlier studies which attempt to evaluate the suspected influence of movies on children and young adults. The Regent Theatre,Sydney,Australia, programme of the official opening in 1928 supplied the following commitment:

Today at wish we conjure up glories that are gone; they live again in tense reality upon our screens. There too, we leave a record of ourselves – the mighty and the meek, our prayers and strange despairs. The dreams we have may crystallise and stay for ever.

In the same year, at the opening of the State Theatre,Sydney, the venue released this statement:

 To that priceless, peerless, and enduring spirit of High Romance that uncalled leaps to flame in the hearts of all; that divine spark that perpetually gilds this drab world anew with the glowing fairy web of adventure, courage, endeavour, and fancy free; that primal urge of imagination that shone in the flashing eyes of Jeanne d’Arc….

 “The story of the golden age of the movie palace” includes a chapter titled “An Acre of Seats in aGardenofDreams” describing the architects and their designs. It explains that not only did these theatres increase the dreams of the audience but, according to Hall (1961), were the outcome of dreams of the architects:

 “these pleasure domes gave expression to the most secret and polychrome dreams of a whole group of architects who might otherwise have gone through life doomed to turning out churches, hotels, banks and high schools. The architecture of the movie palace was a triumph of suppressed desire and its practitioners range in style from the purely classic to a wildly abandoned eclectic’. (Hall, 1961:93)

On the topic of audiences, Sexton’s and Betts’ writing of 1927 in American Theatres Today recalls “The masses, revelling in luxury and costly beauty, went to be thrilled by the gorgeousness of their surroundings which they could not afford in their home life”. And I believe audiences are disappointed if they don’t discover the thrills they have come to the cinema for. Their favorite cinema is one which gives them the largest thrill. The theatre owners must take this into consideration for the largest part of the audience must come from the masses. Goodlad (1971) lists four effects of escapist, popular mass media which function with reference to social structure. Relaxation, encouraging imagination and providing interaction – especially for people in social isolation.


In 1908 The Moving Picture World, stated that two million patrons, one third of which were children, attended cinemas every day. Additionally, people with higher education would visit more often than the low educated  (Handel 1950/1976).

Visits to old theatres today, and an illustrations of theatres, show a huge difference in the quality constructed for the different classes. The stairs and hallways to the cheap seats have little decoration and floor covering (see photographs of entries to Theatre Royal, Sydney); with unmarked benches and little leg room. During the 19th century the only ‘service’ administered to patrons in the cheap seats were ‘packers’ employed to guarantee that everyone was restricted as tightly as possible occupying approximately 2½ sq. feet per person (Thorne, 1971; 1979, citing Royal Commission of NSW, 1887).

19th century gallery seats: Her Majestys, Auckland, NZ -- demolished.

 In 1923, when describing the design of large cinemas, George Rapp stated that the

Purchaser of the cheapest ticket (for the gallery) dislikes the feeling that he is isolated from the rest of the auditorium. And so there has been introduced broad and gradually ascending staircases leading up from lofty and impressive lobbies making the way to the upper levels of the auditorium attractive and inviting (Rapp, 1923).

Thus the classless cinema design was formed. However, this plan did not only articulate a social change: both the architects and the cinema owners wished to improve the psychological state of well-being. The new design allowed all classes to experience the footmen employed to open doors and usher patrons. This created an affect so that for a few hours all patrons could be kings and queens in pseudo opera houses or royal halls. The architects goal being to design environments which communicated to the viewer the feelings of importance (Herzog, 1980). And so the cinema environments were more stage sets where members of the audience were the real performers.


Most of the cinemas which architects claim used psychological concepts functioned much more than just as a place to show silent, black and white movies. Indeed, the movie theatre was rather complicated, far more so than a present-day cinema.

Today cimeas sell sophisticated movies with wide-screen, colour and stereophonic sound, but Marcus Loew, head of MGM says: “We sell tickets to theatres, not movies”. (Herzog , 1980, citing Freeman, 1977). And the cinema supplied an environment of entertainment rather than an environment for entertainment. The showing of a movie was only a small part of these theatres.

Of course the picture is important, and we could not do without it; but what we have tried to do is to build around it an atmospheric program that is colourful, entertaining and interesting. This type of program, with its ballets, musical presentations, stage settings and lighting effects, calculated to form a series of pictures sometimes contrasting and sometimes gracefully merging into one another, was originated by ourselves. (Rothafel, 1925: 362-363)


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