The city

From the outset of the twentieth century the cinema began to establish itself as an independent entertainment, occupying every conceivable space: dance and music halls, variety theatres and cabarets. In a matter of a few years cinemas were so numerous that there were not enough prints available on the market, which encouraged the birth of national production industries: exhibition exerted a pull on the whole cinema industry. In the countryside there were still only occasional screenings put on by travelling showmen or used as gap-fillers by repertoire companies moving from town to town. In the city, however, theatres dedicated to the cinema proliferated, initially in any building that could be found and later, from around 1910 onwards, in purpose-built premises.
The siting of cinemas in the great capitals of Europe followed a pattern expressive of the changed rhythms of modern life: city centres, densely populated districts and major arteries of through traffic were the locations most frequently chosen. In its continuing search for artistic respectability and a mass audience, the cinema displayed its intentions to the outside world in the show of the buildings which housed it, promising the entertainment of the new era: "of all buildings currently constructed, a cinema theatre is amongst those which must be most modern in character...
The cinema, essentially new by its purpose, must be frankly modern" (Robert Mallet-Stevens, 1924).
Just which sections of society early audiences were drawn from is still a matter of debate, even leaving aside the specifics of individual countries.
Cinemagoers were of all kinds. There was the belated nineteenth century dandy, consciously a part of the spectacle as he casually strolled through the crowd. There was, as Noel Burch remarks, cinema "made by the bourgeoisie for a primarily bourgeois audience", as in Denmark, or cinema as "an art intended to edify the populace, made by the middle, but destined for the working classes", as in Britain. These are fascinating theories, but so generalized as to be open to controversy. What is more certain is that in the decade after 1910 the cinema began to be a mass entertainment: improved projection techniques, the involvement of intellectuals in script writing, the birth of a trade press and a fledgling star system broke down the reluctance of the social strata who most resisted the silent art. Once again production, distribution and exhibition adapted and restructured.
Soon the cinemagoing rite was being celebrated in vast and elegant palaces, true cathedrals of the silver screen. Seating thousands, the new spaces allowed audience cohesion within the limits set by the variously priced areas, as in theatres. In the 1920's the same theatrical and scenographic taste inspired the architect Eberson's "atmospheric" cinema, where audiences were immersed in the world of dreams from the moment they were surrounded by its decor. The side and screen walls reproduced the façades of Eastern and European palaces, covered over by a sky starlit by flashing light bulbs; even perfume was released intermittently to reinforce the illusion of being seated in a garden. On the threshold of the sound era, when the viewer's sensory experience would be captured completely, nullifying the mediation of the darkness in the auditorium, the cinema put itself forward for the last time as a "total spectacle", in which the audience's attention wandered from the screen to its surrounding context (orchestra, theatre design, light bulb displays... ) and the crush of moviegoers filed out at the end as if reproducing the crowd scenes of the epic just screened. Before the talkies swept it into history, the last age of the silent screen united European audiences in a kind of Esperanto of desire through the "incorporeal bodies" of Asta Nilsen and Rodolfo Valentino.

Elena Mosconi