Category Archives: Louis J Mannix

From the career of Louis J Mannix

Louis J. Mannix, Memories of a Cinema Man. Leeds: Associated Tower Cinemas, 1987.

(Page references refer to this volume).

The local history section of the Central Library in Leeds holds an interesting volume that provides a unique, personal history of the film industry in the UK in the form of the memoir of Louis J. Mannix. This volume, titled Memories of a Cinema Man, is Mannix’s recollection of his career in the film trade in Leeds. It is a career that began in 1916 as assistant to the projectionist at the Hyde Park cinema and witnessed the major upheavals of sound, war, strikes, and trade organisations until Mannix’s retirement in the 1970s.

It is not a volume that is widely available – this is a personal memoir and only 250 copies were printed (there appears to be no copy listed by the British Library) – but it does provides an interesting take on the history of British cinema because it is the memoir of someone who worked as a projectionist, ‘technical director,’ and cinema manager for the Leeds and District Picture Houses. This is a perspective that is certainly missing from the history of British cinema and it will reward the historian of British cinema. Mannix also spent some time in Drogheda, Ireland after 1916, and this period is also covered giving a brief snapshot of the state of cinemas prior to the creation of the Irish Free State.

Here I note some highlights from the career and memories of Mr. Mannix. Three areas are broadly covered by his memoir: the technology of the cinema from the point of view of the exhibitor; the day to day running of a small chain of provincial cinemas in a major British industrial city; and the experiences of a cinema manager in the industry during the twentieth century.

Mannix was trained as an electrical engineer, and he initially worked as a projectionist on a part-time basis only. His interest in technology and the cinema was apparently piqued as a young boy when he was given a toy projector/magic lantern to play with. As an engineer, he subsequently pays considerable attention to the practices of exhibiting a motion picture from a practical point of view with considerable detail given to the technology involved. Thus we learn the advantages and disadvantages of different types of screens and the problem of light loss, arc lamps, and projectors, and so on. This is always tempered by a consideration of what was right for the audience, because Mannix was not just the ‘chief engineer’ for a chain of cinemas (though as he points out he was the only engineer) but also the manager of a cinema in that chain. We have therefore a detailed firsthand account of the technology used by a provincial cinema chain with some assessment of its commercial impact. Some examples follow.

An interesting problem for film archivists and restorers, and for analysts of film style, is the duration of intertitles in silent films: how long should the titles of a silent film remain upon the screen? Mannix provides us with a first-hand account of a projectionist faced with precisely this problem:

The conscientious projectionist would always slow down for subtitles – particularly the longer ones – because not everybody could read quickly and there was nothing more frustrating to the patron than for the subtitle to disappear before he or she had read it (11).

The correct projection speed cited by Mannix is 60 feet per minute or 16 frames per second.

As a projectionist and all-round technician for a chain of cinemas in Leeds, Mannix was intimately involved in the installation of Western electric sound systems at the Lounge and the Crown. Western Electric brought over engineers from America to install the sound equipment – a Mr. Hudeck is appreciatively recalled, though his supervisor is described as the ‘brash, arrogant type of American.’ Western Electric also sent specially trained projectionists to instruct Mannix and his fellow projectionists in how to run the projectors, but apparently he was drunk and could not keep the image in synch with the sound. The local Warner Brothers’ manager was roused from his bed, and a second projectionist with a new copy of the film had to be brought in. The Crown opened on the Bank Holiday Monday of 5 August, 1929, with The Singing Fool. The Lounge opened a week later with The Doctor’s Secret – an amplifier at a cinema in Manchester had broken down, and the one for the Lounge was the only replacement in the country, so Western Electric decided to install this in Manchester, thereby disrupting the company’s big opening. Mannix’s account is mostly concerned with the practical problems of introducing a new and complicated system into an existing building, and deals largely with necessary alterations to the wiring, structural changes to the buildings, and the relocation of the organs and orchestra pits. These changes sometimes resulted in the loss of seating, thereby increasing the economic burden on the exhibitor. All in all, this process appears to have been a mixture of tension, farce, and a considerable amount of joinery – but what we have is an account of the coming of sound like no other I have come across in the history of cinema.

Mannix notes that not everyone in the trade was enthusiastic or sensible about the coming of sound:

Yet there were many important members of the trade who decried it [sound] as a ‘flash in the pan’ and settled down smugly, convinced of their own omniscience. One such was an important member of the local branch of the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association; he engaged the services of a well-known band leader and larger than usual orchestra, advertising the fact that his cinema would continue to show pictures in the well-tried, traditional way without ‘gimmicks’ and with a wonderful musical accompaniment, ignoring the fact that every picture coming out of Hollywood was now all or partly sound-recorded, and that he was not equipped to play them. He was not alone in this attitude (62).

The introduction of sound technology added a new role to the projection role – that of the sound watcher, whose responsibility it was to listen and signal if the level needed to changed up or down. Apparently, this role was fulfilled by the organists, who obviously would have previously been accompanying the film.

Mannix goes on to discuss the introduction of Cinemascope (107), which he notes caused considerable upheaval and expense that the exhibitors could have done without. Cinemascope not only required exhibitors to purchase anamorphic lenses, but also to invest in new screens and screen frames. Again, there is the matter of joinery – theatres were not built for Cinemascope and so changes had to be made to buildings and this also resulted in the loss of some seating. Problems were created for double bills, with the need for movable masking due to the fact that not all films were shot in Cinemascope and this had a negative impact on the picture quality of non-widescreen films. (There follows from this a discussion of the merits of different types of anamorphic lenses and problems of screen lighting that I shall not relate). Cinemascope is typically discussed by film historians form the point of view of producers, and this exhibitor’s account provides an interesting corrective to that.

As Mr. Mannix’s memoir is a firsthand account of the day-to-day running of a provincial cinema chain we get an intimate picture of the people and practices working there. We have Mannix’s opinions of his fellow projectionists, his fellow managers, the members of the board (especially Mr. Denham, whom Mannix appears to spend most of his time arguing with), and other members of the cinema trade in Leeds. This gives a much more human angle to the film trade than we typically find in historical accounts, and it is certainly more detailed than more academic histories. For example, we have an account of the organisation of the Leeds and District Picture Houses, where each director was responsible for a single cinema in the chain. We learn that the attendants were paid 12s for six nights, with 1s-6d per matinee, but did not receive an annual increase in their wages (Mannix describes this as ‘appallingly low’); that the pianist at the Beeston cinema, a Mr. Brooksbank, was paid £4-10s; and that the musical director was paid £6.there are also detailed descriptions of the orchestras, their directors, and their popularity with audiences.

One interesting observation quoted is attributed to a Mr. Matthews, who appears to have been at one time the Chief Constable in Leeds (and was therefore responsible for the inspection of safety measures in theatres on behalf of Leeds City Council’s Watch Committee):

The Cinematograph Regulations are like the Bible – it’s a matter of interpretation. That’s why there are so many crackpot versions of them both.

A curious story regarding the transfer of the (now closed) Lounge Cinema in Headingley from Charles Metcalfe to Harry Hylton is related:

[The Lounge] had been taken over from Mr. Charles Metcalfe and the original directors during the latter part of the 1914-1918 war. Mr. Metcalfe told me that he signed the transfer deeds for the Lounge in the trenches in France, because, as he said, ‘The war wasn’t going to well and it looked as if we would lose’ (108).

Finally, numerous theorists have remarked upon the importance of unofficial discourses in the promotion of a film. Few, however, have remarked upon the role of Sid Haddock, a Leeds fishmonger, who apparently had considerable ability to sway the audience with his opinions on the fare available at the Regent.

In 1926, the UK was hit by a general strike. The response of the film industry was to maintain the supply of films by the same means that they had operated during World War I.  A film dump was set up at Charles Metcalfe’s theatre at King Charles Croft and stand by films were stored at cinemas. Mannix notes that the major change that resulted from the 1926 strike was that, because the railway workers joined the strike, road distribution became much more important to the industry.

Another major social change to affect the exhibition market in Leeds was the improvement of living conditions is come of the poorer parts of the city, particularly in Burmantofts and Wortley. These were the main catchment areas for many of the city’s cinemas. Mannix notes that the Regent in particular was adversely affected by the loss of its audience.

Mannix was a manager at the Beeston and later the Regent for Leeds and District Picture Houses, and became involved with the Cinema Managers Association (CMA). He describes himself as resolutely not a union man, but his is committed to improving the working conditions and pay of cinema managers. This is of great interest: this is a group of employees in the film industry that rarely (if ever) finds itself the attention of scholarly inquiry in film studies and there is clearly a great deal to be learnt from the records of the records of the various institutions involved. This is all the more surprising given the politics between the CMA and the Cinema Exhibitors’ Association (CEA), which was determined not to allow the former to become established. As before, this is a personal account and so we get lively descriptions of meetings and the persons involved.

The CMA had arisen from the National Association of Theatrical and Kinematograph Employees (NATKE), but was not recognised by the CEA who regarded the cinema managers who tried to form their own association as malcontents: Captain (later Sir) Sidney Clift, CEA president, reportedly threatened ‘If any of my managers dares to join the so-called union, he will be out on his ear – and quickly’ (104).The CEA took active steps to stop the CMA on two occasions by setting up alternative unions that would draw support away from the CMA. The first was not successful, and was apparently stopped by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) following an appeal from the CMA:

… one morning when The Daily Film Renter came in, I was astonished to read the headline ‘Federation of Cinema Managers Sponsored by the CEA.’ Further details were to the effect that a group of managers in Lincolnshire had formed this ‘Federation,’ … Within a day or so the literature came in, obviously emanating from the CEA. … It was emphasised that when a reasonable membership was attained, wages negotiations would take place.

I got onto [CMA general secretary Len] Pember at once.

‘They cannot do it,’ I said. ‘A union within a union – it just cannot be done. See somebody. Talk to [TUC secretary Walter] Citrine again, or the registrar of Friendly Societies.’ He did – with the result that the so-called ‘Federation’ was still born (104).

The attitude of the CEA was apparently to change its opinion with the recognition that cinema managers had the right to unionise, but this did not apparently mean engaging in negotiations with the CMA (see 117-118). Mannix notes that his suspicions were aroused when the CEA announced it was amenable to a managers’ union but did not contact either himself as a senior officer in just such a union or the CMA’s secretary who was based in London. The CEA was attempting to pull the same trick it had tried with the ‘Federation:’ the creation of an alternative union – the Society of Cinema Managers (SCM), the address of which was at the office of the CEA. The named officers of this new Society were all Odeon men – Leslie Holderness, Bill Fuller, and Harry Kerr. Many members of the CMA defected to the SCM, thereby relieving themselves of a stain on their professional character in the eyes of their employees, and ultimately the CMA was disbanded. But Mannix’s assessment is that it had achieved what it had set out to do: the existence of the CMA had forced the industry to look at the working conditions of managers and pay was improved, and the SCM had only come into being because of the existence of the CMA (albeit for largely negative reasons); and, as Mannix writes, ‘the manager was recognised as a responsible member of the trade, and his financial rewards adjusted accordingly.’

I have presented here some brief episodes from Louis Mannix’s career. There is much more detail available, and anyone interested in researching the history of the exhibition of motion pictures in the UK should make their to the Central Library in Leeds as I can think of no other firsthand account that is so detailed or so varied.