On Thursday 12th September, Maryanna and I went on a trip, organised jointly by West Norfolk National Trust and the King’s Lynn branch of the U3A, to the Electric Picture Palace in Southwold — I could hardly believe what I saw.
This tiny cinema (right), opened in 2002, is owned and run by Southwold Film Society and is named after the town’s first cinema which began in 1912 and is in the style of the period. Remarkably, it is not a restored cinema but has been created from scratch in a building that was formerly a stable and coach house. It has sixty-six authentic cinema seats (fairly generous and comfortable) as well as a box-office, kiosk, circle, organ and air conditioning.
The first film in the programme was Cops, an 18 minute, 1922 silent comedy starring Buster Keaton and directed by Keaton and Edward F Cline. It is about a young man (Keaton) who accidentally falls foul of the Los Angeles Police Department during a parade, and is chased all over town. It has been described as a ‘Kafkaesque response to the Fatty Arbuckle scandal’ where, even though the central character’s intentions are good, he cannot win no matter how inventively he tries. The US Library of Congress has deemed Cops ‘…culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant’ and it is preserved in the National Film Registry.
The feature was director Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, made in 1939 and starring Greta Garbo (in her first full comedy), The Three Stooges and the rather underwhelming Melvyn Douglas. The plot, about stolen jewels, was insignificant but the film was important at the time as a vehicle, under cover of a light satirical romance, for America to depict the Soviet Union under Stalin as rigid and grey compared with the free society of pre-war Paris. To this end the Russians were given lines such as: “The last mass trials have been a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” Funny, perhaps, if it weren’t so horribly true.
About half way through the main feature was an interval with an usher who sold ice cream. What we didn’t perhaps expect was the stage to open up in front of the screen and a Wurlitzer, with organist, to rise slowly out of the floor. She played a selection of well-known titles from the early to mid-twentieth-century. The performance ended with the National Anthem and footage of the Coronation; so small is this cinema, that when the circle stood up their silhouettes obscured a part of the screen!
The whole experience was really enjoyable and if you haven’t been to this cinema I can recommend it as a thoroughly entertaining and worth-while nostalgia trip. rh