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James McKissack - Cinema Architect
by Tom Widdows

0. Introduction
1. Early Works
2. The First Cinemas
3. The Search for Style: Cinemas of the 1920s
4. Art Deco and Jazz Moderne
5. Streamlining in the latter 1930s
6. New Design Directions: the Aldwych and Cosmo
7. Conclusion

Kingsway, Glasgow. 1929.

The Search for Style: Cinemas of the 1920s [Part 2]

One such project was the Caley cinema, opposite the Caledonian Railway’s Princes Street Station and Caledonian Hotel, at the foot of Edinburgh’s Lothian Road (1923). This had a Renaissance-style fašade of Craigleith stone and was entered through a Venetian arch.

The local architects James S. Richardson and John R. McKay had designed it for a syndicate headed by the Edinburgh businessmen Robert McLaughlin and Captain W.M Cameron. Within, it initially seated 900 in a lofty auditorium the style of which reflected the exterior.

Such was its good reputation that after only four years, it was closed for a major reconstruction supervised by McKissack. Property was acquired behind shop units to the left of the Caley, and so its direction was changed to run parallel to the rear of these.

The existing auditorium was incorporated to form the back section of the new one, which could accommodate 1,800 and which was also heightened with a mansard roof. Such radical rebuilding works were not uncommon and time was of the essence for each day of closure lost the owners money, so specialist cinema architects, such as McKissack, building contractors and decorators became highly skilled at planning construction work to cause a minimum of disruption. Cinema owners often insisted upon penalty clauses to recoup losses suffered by delays, but contractors were usually very careful to guard their reputations in what was a lucrative and close-knit business. Evidently McLaughlin and Cameron were well pleased with McKissack’s work on the Caley for he went on to design a whole series of suburban cinemas for their firm during the 1930s.

In Glasgow, meanwhile, McKissack was employed by George Smith and James Welsh to design a new cinema at Cathcart on the city’s South Side. Both Smith and Welsh were staunch Labourites - indeed George Smith was the Corporation’s housing convenor and he believed that cinemas were important social amenities, which greatly enhanced such new housing developments. Smith was also an entrepreneurial businessman and a cinema pioneer. He had first organised cinema shows in 1910 in Corporation-owned halls around the city.

For this project, McKissack abandoned his earlier neo-classical vocabulary in favour of a themed approach, no doubt influenced by the suddenly popular American influence of ‘atmospheric’ design. John Eberson, an American interior designer, was the greatest exponent of the style. Within, an ‘atmospheric’ cinema would attempt to create the illusion that the seated audience was in a wondrous courtyard, with internally-lit three-dimensional plaster buildings and foliage adorning the walls and a smooth blue plaster sky above, complete with projected cloud effects and twinkling stars. The almost exclusively American films shown within their fake plaster walls of such cinemas may frequently have been filmed in exotic locations, but they were silent and in black and white. The ‘atmospheric’ cinema brought the fantasy world of the movies alive in three-dimensional colour and the exciting architecture became a part of the film-going experience.

The Kingsway opened in 1929. It had a long, gently curving facade in a fairly convincing Spanish American style, yet when it came to the interior, McKissack appears to have run out either of inspiration or of money for it was rather plain, albeit with Spanish-inspired details such as the door architraves.

The advent of ‘talkies’ in 1928 gave the industry new impetus and, thereafter, it expanded rapidly. Technically, films with added sound were not a new idea as in 1907 a film of the variety star Harry Lauder with a synchronised sound track on a record had been shown at the Hippodrome Theatre in London’s Charing Cross Road. Warner Brothers used their Vitaphone system to add sound to The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson (1927), which was released in Britain the following year, and The Singing Fool (1929).  ‘Talkies’ gave the cinema new potential and audiences grew bigger than ever. The advent of talking films in 1929 led to a vast expansion of interest in cinema and new buildings proliferated throughout the country.

Consequently, it was from 1927 until his death in 1940 that McKissack designed most of his cinemas. The majority were in Glasgow and its environs, although a few were built further afield, as far away as Stranraer, Dundee, Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh. In the 1920s, his output was rather varied as he, like so many other cinema architects, struggled to find a new and appropriate aesthetic for what was a fast-moving medium in every sense.

Scotland had a particular affinity with cinemas in the 1930s and Glasgow eventually had more per head of population than any other city in the world.  For a cinema proprietor, it was vital to attract clients to their particular premises, and so the frontage of the cinema was crucially important. This was not to be wondered at for the cinema’s architectural expression originated in the fairgrounds of the late-Victorian era and much of the carnival razzmatazz clung to it as it developed from show booth to city to suburb. Consequently, ‘facadism’ prevailed with vivid colours, ornate columns and canopies, advertisements and brightly tiled entrances attempting to emphasise the elegance, luxury and modernity of a venue to passers by.  At night, when most people were likely to attend, facades were enhanced by floodlighting and by strips of coloured neon. As cinemas tended to occupy prominent high street locations, surrounded by other buildings, their rear quarters were less visible. Thus, their vast auditoria, while ornate inside, outwardly were usually little more than an undecorated, windowless, brick clad sheds. There was desperation to find a new and appropriate look to distinguish cinemas properly from theatres and to signal their growing importance as venues of the fastest-growing and most progressive entertainment of the period.

The prominence and decorative eclecticism of cinemas certainly made them vulnerable to criticism and they incurred the wrath of pro-modernist critics, such as Philip Morton Shand, Maxwell Fry and others who were already looking to the recent German developments of the Bauhausler and the expressionists, such as Eric Mendelsohn, and demanding a purer architecture which would amply reflect and emphasise the modernity of the cinema medium. Shand, in particular was so incensed by what he considered the inability of British architects to follow the trends set by continental modernists that in 1930 he published a book, The Architecture of Pleasure: Modern Theatres and Cinemas to show how much better he felt contemporary German cinema design in particular was than its British counterpart:

‘The newer ad-hoc buildings often vie with one another in that nouveau-riche ostentation which their patrons are invited to envisage as ‘the last word in luxury’... The design of our cinemas is part of the heavy price we pay for our public neglect of architecture…The desire of the film exhibitor being usually to disguise his picture theatre as a showman’s booth, it is not surprising that British architects have so far had no adequate chance of trying to discover the cinema’s most logical and satisfactory structural form…’ 

While his chosen illustrations with hindsight show that he was a man of advanced taste, at the time it was perhaps too advanced for the majority of the British audience. However, Shand’s book demonstrates the influence of 1920s German cinemas on British buildings of the 1930s; as it contributes to architectural desire to improve such designs.
While Shand was clearly a man of advanced taste, it was perhaps too advanced for a popular audience in an industrial city such as Glasgow. While he advocated purity, a large cinema aiming to attract a ‘mainstream’ audience required to offer vivid colour and decoration, so as to transport its patrons away from the possibly harsh reality of life out with its walls. Thus, Art Deco and its derivative, the Jazz Moderne style became popular for many cinemas (and, indeed, cafes, bars and shops) in the early-1930s.

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