The Proper Place: Cinema going in the 1920s

Advert for The Cinema House, The Citizen, 16 October 1926.In 1926 the Scottish novelist (and sister of John) Anna Buchan published The Proper Place, a novel set on the Fife coast in the aftermath of the Great War. Written under the pseudonym O. Douglas, the novel contains a short passage in which two boys embark on a day trip by train to St Andrews.  ‘After the dungeons had been gloated over’, Buchan writes, ‘the rain drove them into a cinema for an hour before tea.’

The passage contains a rare, short fictional account of cinemagoing in St Andrews in the 1920s. For one of the two boys, six year old Alistair, it is his first trip to a cinema, prompting his friend Arthur to explain ‘They’re not real people, you know, they’re only pictures.’  Arthur’s frustrations continue at his friend’s ‘too spontaneous behaviour’ as he insists on talking to the actors on screen.

“I don’t like the look of you,” he told the villain. Against the driver who did not stop the train as quickly as seemed necessary when the hero and his horse lay helpless on the line his rage knew no bounds. Standing on his feet, with his hands clenched, he muttered against him. Towards the heroine he felt nothing but disgust. When in the “close-up” she was shown with large tears in her eyes, he could hardly bear it, and when the hero clasped her in a close and prolonged embrace, he nudged Arthur crossly to know what they were doing. “Kissing,” hissed Arthur shamefacedly, adding “the silly assess.” (P.180)

The scenario described within the passage – the hero and his horse on the train tracks – is a largely generic one, while the boys’ reactions similarly conform to popular perceptions of the time. In 1926 St Andrews had one cinema, The Cinema House, but there is little to locate this specific screening to St Andrews – aside from the mention of rain.

Recalling his own experiences attending The Cinema House in the 1920s, local resident Melville Reid similarly stated ‘there was always a girl on the railtracks who was tied down… I don’t know how they stopped the train but somehow they did.’ Reid remembered his favourite stars of the era – Tom Mix, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks – and particular screenings, such as The Green Shadow. His earliest memories involved trips to The Cinema House, entering via the back door on Muttoes Lane, which was  ‘crowded out on a Saturday afternoon by kids getting tuppeny seats, hard seats, on the front row.’ Gradually Reid and his friends progressed to the ‘red plush thruppence seats’, now entering through the front door. Ushered half way down (‘the nobility’ at the top) he would walk past the alcoves where, if you had enough money and a willing companion, you could go ‘for a cuddle’. The Cinema House would undergo renovations in 1930 and in the same year would be joined on North Street by The New Picture House.

Tom Rice


Works cited:

O. Douglas, The Proper Place (1926, republished by Greyladies, 2010)