Women Projectionists in Wartime Cinema

by Linda Pike

I am grateful for this opportunity to write for Herstory Club as part of their Film and TV blog to acknowledge the work made by those women who were often ‘hidden from history’, female film projectionists.

‘Going to the pictures’ was Britain’s most popular leisure activity during the Second World War, with cinemas established in every town. Its affordability caused admissions to reach an unprecedented 31 million a week. However, the demographic changes during wartime, such as conscription, created a staffing problem for the 75,000 employees within these ‘picture palaces’ which threatened cinemas’ ability to remain operational as an entertainment and propaganda facility.

Cinemas at this time offered full and continuous programmes of adverts, newsreels, cartoons, B films and the main feature film. With the operating booth, ‘the box’, high at the back of the auditorium, at least two projectionists were needed to lace up film reels in projectors sequentially, with cue dots etched onto the film giving seamless changeovers. Shorter reels of films were often spliced together for exhibition which were then un-spliced for the next cinema. Film was illuminated by burning carbon arcs, which was dangerous as film, being flammable, was likely to burst into flames, as portrayed in Cinema Paradisio (1988). The projection of film was, therefore, due to its technicalities, perceived to be a male-dominated occupation which has continued to be stereotyped in films today. You may remember Peter Sellers in The Smallest Show on Earth and Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Even the projectionist in Gremlins 2 was a man. 

Despite the Cinematograph Exhibition Association’s unsuccessful attempt to make projectionists a reserved occupation as they were ‘key men in the industry’, 85% were conscripted for war work. However, acknowledging the importance of cinema for morale, the Association decided that women could be utilised as ‘an emergency measure to meet the contingencies of war’ and organised training schemes, although the Forces deemed women as being more than capable of showing films to the military.

Kinematograph Weekly/Ideal Kinema, ‘Women projectionists at the ENSA training school during the Second World War’, 3 Dec 1942, p. xi.

Many women seized these opportunities despite unequal pay, limited promotion prospects and patronisation by the press. About 800 were trained on-the-job in Granada, ABC and Odeon cinema chains and were often called projectionettes or operettes, the role of projectionist being feminised, similar to how First World War munition workers were called munitionettes. However, many were refused training by resident male operators with excuses that their dresses may get caught in machines, they complained of headaches when they weren’t strong enough to carry film reels upstairs and that they had poor technical knowledge. They were also dismissed if they believed working up in ‘the box’ was a way ‘of getting closer to film stars’.

Projectionists became recognised with hierarchical career paths, although women were not employed if trained men or disabled veterans were available and job prospects were dependant where you lived. In England and Wales, women could initially only qualify as a third assistant, while Scotland gave women more opportunities for responsibility, and subsequently higher pay, with only two operator grades. 

However, men did acknowledge that women’s nimble fingers and greater patience made them more competent at rewinding, lacing and splicing reels. This expertise was considered similar to craft-based hobbies like sewing and thus conformed to women’s innate feminine stereotypes. If you look at the credits in old films, many women became film editors, like Alma Reville, Alfred Hitchcock’s wife.

Flo Gristwood was amongst the first women projectionists at The Kinema, West Ham, and eventually female operators becoming accepted as they donned their steel helmets during bombing raids and gamely carried on. 

However, younger male operators, like Rowland Hart at the Dudley Odeon, often objected to women projectionists as he believed they would deprive men of their jobs and remembers having to curtail his boisterous behaviour when an older operator, Mary Price, arrived. 

Florence Barton, at the Scala, Coventry, believed her own competences, regardless of gender, were key to her success, despite men sabotaging her projector when they reluctantly accepted her superiority. Florence’s determination, stubbornness, and resilience eventually paid off when she received Chiefs wages, but only after doing the role for five years. This paved the way for Joan Pearson (below) who became an operator herself after helping her husband Bill at the ABC, Birmingham.

Whilst offering women opportunities to access a masculine space, female projectionists were only for the ‘duration of the war’ and many returned subsequently to other roles. Yet, ironically, there was a post-war recruitment drive for male operators despite the existence of skilled female projectionists.

While pioneering projectionettes like Florence and Joan created their own professional niche, women projectionists, like myself, are still viewed as a novelty today although I like to believe that I have made inroads into breaking a perceived glass ceiling for women’s roles within a male dominated business.

Recommended Reading:

www.historyproject.org.uk The home of The British Entertainment History Project

www.theppt.org Projected Picture Trust

https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/film/research/current/theprojectionproject/ Harrison, Rebecca, ‘The Coming of the Projectionettes’, Feminist Media Histories, Vol. 2, No. 2, (2016), pp. 47-70.

About the Author:

My name is Linda Pike and I am a part time PhD Candidate at the University of Worcester. My thesis concerns cinema-going in the Midlands during the Second World War. From seeing Pinocchio as a four year old in the Clifton, Coseley, I have been in love with film, especially Anthony Mann westerns with James Stewart, although my favourite film is Gone With the Wind. To complement my fascination with the moving image, I have been a film projectionist since 1985!

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