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Translated title of the contribution: Going to the Pictures: Room for dreams in Sweden of the 1940s and 1950s

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (monograph)

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Going to the Pictures
The Cinema as a Meeting Place in the 1940s and 1950s


At the end of the 1950s, at roughly the same time as television became established, Sweden had the largest number of cinemas of any country in Europe. People went to the cinema in unprecedented numbers. In 1956 ticket sales in Swedish cinemas reached 80 million. There were palatial cinemas which offered people a full-evening experience, but there were also large numbers of people’s halls and lodges where both the labour movement and the temperance movement showed films. These places, together with the many cinemas specially built for the purpose, were to play a very important part in the accessibility and dissemination of film and cinema culture.
This book is about going to the cinema. By going to the cinema, people learned to see and experience film, and in this way the present book can be regarded as mirroring a process of institutionalization, or rather several such processes. The audiences developed their competence in going to the cinema and watching films, and they also acquired a competence that was more about living in a new age. It is not film itself but the cinema situation and its significance that is the central focus of this study. It is about how people collected pictures of film stars and read magazines, how they made preparations for the visit to the cinema, how they cycled there, how meetings came about or failed to come about, about buying sweets, going to a café afterwards or gathering at the hot dog stand, about the way home and the processing of the experience. It is about how young people handled and created free spaces, about forming collectives but also individuality, about experiences in a period which, just like now, was perceived as complex, unpredictable, and modern. It is also about the new consumption and the attractions of the city; what the cinema and films did to people, but above all what people did with these situations: how film actually entered everyday practice and the effects it had, although not always through the simple link between message and receiver. A great deal happened on the way, and the circumstances played a crucial part.
The book mainly consists of two interwoven narratives. One tells of the cinema-going youth of the 1940s and 1950s. During the 1950s the cinemas concentrated increasingly on a youthful audience. They are viewed as a social movement towards a new Sweden. After the experiences and the new opportunities for impressions, inspired by film, among other things, there was no possibility of going back to the “old”; something new had to be created.
The other narrative tells the history of institutionalization and the cinema-goers’ competence. Through the cinema one can see how overarching process in society reached down to the micro-level and affected people and their way of behaving. But because sufficiently many people actually went to the cinema and were involved in the world of film, they also became a force to be reckoned with. Seemingly trivial things helped to create a social movement because so many people took part. This involvement was a form of training for what was to come: a new age.

My study is based on a variegated collection of material which began to take shape through the responses to a questionnaire entitled ”Shall We Go to the Pictures?”, distributed by the Folklife Archives in Lund to its network of informants. Some informants augmented their written responses with collections of pictures of film stars and cinema tickets. Later additions to this material were interviews, research reports, periodicals, film magazines, debate books, works of literature, and handbooks.
The questionnaire responses, as well as the fiction, tell of the countless people who collected pictures of film stars and made albums of pictures cut out of magazines. I have chosen to illustrate different kinds of collecting. One is the collections of film stars and tickets, while the other is a couple of collecting careers. I study how people handle and process the cultural props to which they have access, and how a seemingly trivial activity, from cutting pictures of film stars out of magazines and swapping pictures, to going to the cinema and seeing films, was to achieve a significance far beyond the actual activity at the time.
Literary narratives have gradually acquired great significance. Many novels explore the new person and the emergence of modern Sweden, and novelists are ambivalent about the new life.
Film magazines and many other weekly magazines are evidence of the impact of films and their power in popular culture. They were particularly important in the construction of film stars. The magazines show a part of what was assimilated by people, illustrating how physical things and phenomena became concepts in these forums. This took place in a commercial context, and even though it cannot be viewed as a reflection of actual conditions, one can at least see how images were created of how something could be. The questionnaire responses show that magazines and their stories about film stars provided matter for conversation and for a kind of identification; it was all about arousing longing.

Symbolic portals
The ritualization of cinema going can scarcely be missed. It is obvious from all the cinema narratives from the period. They are about habits, clothes, café visits, sweet buying, strolling along streets, etc. Liminality is a kind of half-way station, a demarcated space of time when a person can be said to step outside ordinary life, according to Victor Turner (1967). The liminal state is preceded by a separation from the normal world. The transformation of existence and awareness is the important part of the ritual, entering a new identity, or another mental state. The external space, the cinema itself, is the context that sets the tone, but the interior space soon takes over. The ritual space includes both the picture house and the place in front of the building, the entrance, the foyer, and so on, but also the time when people went to the pictures. They crossed a series of symbolic thresholds and entered a multitude of different rooms. Yet no real transformation ever took place. People were always connected to everyday life, and that is what allows people to go to the cinema over and over again and have new experiences. People slip between different identities. Because they are constantly switching between identities, the points of reference are also moved. Separation, release, and enclosure are easily overemphasized when one chooses to see an experience as a transformation. Experiences are often intimately interwoven with the parts of everyday life that one is assumed to leave behind when entering the actual experience. My point is that the experiences that young people had of going to the cinema in the 1940s and 1950s were joined together with other experiences. Going to the cinema was important, but by focusing on what happened round about, the many different cultural components that surrounded and were dependent on the cinema going, I believe that I can see a movement of an all-embracing kind, something that permeated the very life-sphere.
The cinemas and the things surrounding cinema going were something in between the everyday and the extraordinary, free from some of the everyday concerns but not always dramatically different. I emphasize the continuity and the significance of everyday life even in the extraordinary contexts.
The interesting thing about looking at the cinema and dividing cinema going into spaces is that I can use these peepholes to try to see the people, the period, and the society. I stress that I see the cinema-going young people as a kind of social movement; by coming together they influenced and shaped themselves and each other and became a force in their narration, a part of a modern movement. In this respect, the narratives about cinema going in the forties and fifties are more a gentle story about what life could be like, rather than exceptional or path-breaking, although such stories no doubt occurred as well. Precisely for this reason, cinema going requires several surrounding stories. One is a contextualization of the period, both the debate about films and the young people’s situation, their behaviour and their doings. Another is the narrative that is chiefly connected with the films and the cinema, why they had this impact on many people’s everyday lives. To these are linked the ideas about adult education, popular education, and democratization that were heard in the debates about cinema and about young people. There is thus an emphasis on processes of continuity rather than on distinction and cultural change.

At the cinema
The first chapter, “Background History of Film and Cinema”, is about the function of the different cinemas, but it is above all a historical retrospect. It considers how cinemas came into being, who could go to them, when changes took place, differences between town and country, and the role of young people. In the historical parts I have drawn on existing research on the history of the cinema, whereas the sections on cinema going are based on the questionnaire responses, interviews, and literature.
“Going to the Cinema” is an umbrella heading whose structure is governed by the responses to the questionnaire. This material is the foundation and the starting point, but the literary examples and descriptions are used to confirm, reinforce, and expand on this. I follow the cinema goers on their way through the different spaces and make digressions into various types of material as well as scholarly discussions.
The first section, “The Preparations”, is about the space where the prelude is enacted. This discusses above all the preparations, not only mental but also practical and concrete, for the forthcoming visit to the cinema. This includes the incorporation into the world of film: collecting pictures of film stars, reading film magazines, idol worship, attempts to emulate film stars, as well as a consideration of the context of popular culture. One of the collectors whom I interviewed illustrates, though his biography as a cinema goer, how film continues to have an effect far beyond the showing of the movie itself. Cinema going can be regarded as a kind of training of the senses and as a centre for processing memories and experiences with spatial aspects. The spatial dimension is a rewarding one to think with, since the visit to the cinema is so clearly about different spaces, and thinking spatially is dynamic. Spatiality is important here for the narrative structure. The spaces I write about are to a large extent mental spaces, the experience of space, spaces without distinct boundaries, and changeable spaces. They coincide with real, physical spaces. There are a great many symbolic spaces on the way to the cinema, in the cinema itself, on the way home, and later when the whole experience is processed.
The city and the urban space often have a prominent role in discussions of modernity; this is where it is usually said that the game of modernity takes place. The countryside is often juxtaposed with this as pre-modernity. It was a challenge to see the modern (meaning what is new for its time) behaviour in the spaces in-between, that is, in the medium-sized towns and in the countryside that did not just consist of farms.
In “The Way to the Cinema” the focus is on the concrete movement to the cinema, but there are also reflections on some of the discussions about how public space was used by young people, especially young women. It is about the position of the cinemas in the local communities, the difference between town and country, and the types of films that could be seen. In this chapter the winding road to the cinema corresponds to the many digressions that are made in my endeavour to say who the cinema goers were. The concept of “movement” must be regarded as a tool for discussion, and the uniformity of this should not be exaggerated. Each individual is drawn into a multitude of affiliations, and what they have in common in this particular situation is pure chance. The individual and collective identities can function simultaneously. Individualization and collectivization are two sides of the same coin. The more one is exposed to complexity, the more one aims for individuality. The result is a constellation of old and new, of traditional and modern. There is always some kind of relation, and it is in the encounters that meaning is produced.
Once in the foyer, those who were really going in to see the film were sorted from all the others who were there. This chapter is called “At the Cinema”. Here I reflect on the sorting mechanism, and also on the use of time, so-called spare time. Inside the cinema it was a matter of experiencing, observing, and possibly being able to let oneself go.
“The Way Home” is about how people processed what they had been through. The questionnaire responses are retrospective, but the respondents also describe their relationship to cinema going today and also tell how going to the cinema has acquired a different meaning for them today.

The legitimacy of film and scope for young people
The role of film and cinemas in the 1940s and 1950s is followed up, and also the view of youth and the role of citizens in society, in the chapter “Reactions to the Entry of the Modern Age into the World of the Young”. If “Going to the Cinema” was about different forms of self-education, a kind of learning process on the micro-level, this chapter may be said to be about adult education and popular enlightenment. The role of film in society becomes more obvious here. During the 1950s the great project of educating the people took place. In the construction of the new society, everyone’s efforts were necessary, and everyone contributed to this by, for example, using their time well. Many young people went to the cinema, and people in authority wanted to teach them to become active and critical film consumers. Some of the voices in the pubic debate urged rural youth to break away from the old and try to adapt to the changed demands of modern society. Some people saw the fact that so many people, especially youngsters, frequented the cinemas as a possible means of civic education.
The chapter is based on debate books, articles, and government inquiries, all written in the period. Young people’s road to adulthood often involves roles in conflict, and this period was no exception. Moreover, the urban and the agrarian were opposed to each other, as were old and new, dream and reality, illusion and disillusion, individual and collective.
When young people acquired commercial power, with access to money, and thereby could be reckoned as consumers, besides which they attracted attention as a problematic category sometimes with a proclivity for crime, it is perhaps not surprising that the time has in retrospect become a symbol of the birth of youth culture. Young people’s purchasing power had increased as their wages had risen and – at best – were on the level demanded by the unions. As this happened, the teenage market expanded vigorously.

Narratives about the past
“Writing about What Has Been” consists of reflections on what the narratives about the forties and fifties tell us, not just about what life was like then but above all what they tell us about the present. The first chapter deals with the informants’ narrative about their cinema going today. The second part is about nostalgia. A large part of the material is vibrant with a heritage from the Swedish welfare state, the 1950s, when people were in both town and country, when they had both work and leisure. Everything was still successful and just right, according to the retrospective narratives; it was still worth dreaming about the future and about other worlds outside. This decade has today become a kind of cultural heritage in the form of a positive nostalgia. Today there is a longing to get back to this, and to a time that is used today to dream and build the future – just as people did then. It is not difficult to see the link to our own times, that is, how we dream our way back to a functioning welfare state, and so on.
Memory, identity creation, fantasies, and daydreams play a role in the narratives, although they include unconscious motives and wishes. The encounter with films needs to be seen on the basis of its significance in the cinema goers’ everyday lives. The fact that I often stress the social significance at the expense of the films’ content does not mean that I minimize the importance of the films; it is rather a way to emphasize what happened when young people got together, that a series of different factors gave film a special meaning.
The cinema narratives may be seen as a conversation between what is now and what was then, and also between what people remember and the notions that exist today. The narrators combine the past with their future according to an individual chronology. Each person creates a narrative, or several narratives, about his or her life, a biographical construction in which the events do not necessarily hang together with the chronology that other people perceive. The questionnaire responses are narratives about a perceived reality. Several concepts have been used as instruments with which to read the time and the power into the cinema going.

The different narratives
The first narrative contains the preconditions for the movement into modernity in the chapter on the history of cinema; I tell how there were cinemas early on and how they came to function and be regarded. In “Going to the Cinema” I show how something seemingly everyday helped to change society by virtue of the fact that so many people acquired the opportunity to go to the cinema, whether they actually did do so or not. People learned so much about the world of film without really having to go to the cinema very much. But many people did go to the cinema. Here the descriptions of the present take on a different function; this chapter is not just about the quantities and the possibilities of going to the cinema, because people have now started going to the cinema again. Now, however, the conditions do not exist for the kind of social movement that applied in the 1950s, since there are so many rival possibilities and sources of inspiration.
In the second narrative, the arrangement works as follows: the history of the cinema tells about the introduction and the pioneer years. The main chapter, “Going to the Cinema”, describes the general use of the cinema, a kind of naturalization and routinization. People went to the cinema often, quite simply; for some people it was a part of everyday life (although this does not mean that it could not occasionally be an exceptional experience). In this narrative the chapter “Looking Back” is about the stage of indifference, even trivialization (death, kitsch, evasion).
The cinema goers are followed through the many changing spaces. The self-education that young people underwent when they became active film watchers was accompanied the whole time by what I have called in one section “moral spaces”, that is, the debate and the ambivalence about the development and about the young people’s future, and also through attempts to use film in the service of popular education.
To a large extent, popular culture was to form the basis for young people’s identity formation in the post-war years. In this period, however, many intellectuals were still sceptical about mass culture, which was often portrayed as being threatening and frightening in all its uncontrollability. Popular culture seemed futile and made many people indignant, even in the popular movements. The period that I have chosen to reflect is otherwise above all a time of routinization and hence an important part of the institutionalization. The processual aspect is emphasized: the establishment, the routinization, but also the change. The contextualization includes, for example, the fact that people could live in the world of film without going to the cinema, by reading film magazines, collecting pictures of film stars, and so on. This shows how a medium penetrates a society and permeates everyday life. People thought film, lived film, collected film.

Going to the cinema may be regarded as a way to learn how to handle different identities, partly through the impressions made by films, but also by being part of the gang, or not being part of it. There is always an oscillation between adaptation and resistance to contemporary phenomena. Identity is something that is constantly being negotiated and reshaped in encounters with others.
It was a matter both of creating active subjects and of a political, social movement precisely because people came together. Cinema going transgressed class boundaries more than most activities. Naturally, class could be felt now as before, and people were divided according to which cinemas they went to, at what times, and which films they saw. The fact remains, however, that more people than ever before went to the cinema, and many saw the same films, read the same film magazines, and thus had a shared frame of reference. It need not even have been the case that everyone liked the fact that the others were in the same group, or even in the same cinema. On the contrary, it was perhaps part of the learning process to reflect oneself in others, and a lesson in the important world of distinction, but also finding one’s own standpoint by discovering the others’.
Film and the role of cinema going as a heterotopia may be seen as an adventure between one’s own individuality and the actions one performed collectively. There were often situations with security together with people one knew, but with elements of greater or lesser insecurity in the course of the evening. People took a risk when they cast themselves into something uncertain, but it could bring benefits and insights. Perhaps one could see other things when the event did not follow its usual course. One can talk about the trip to the cinema, but also about the trip into the film. The physical movement, the bike ride to the cinema, was combined with a mental one, a hopeful leap into the future. If one regards cinema going as part of a collective identity construction, one can say that the young people who went to the cinema in the 1940s and 1950s were part of a kind of social movement. Cinema going may be seen as a movement-type phenomenon in a complex and changing society. The collective identity, however casual it may be, is an important aspect of a social movement.
Some form of shared experience is required for collective action. This may be class, gender, ethnicity, or generation. The concept of “social movement” is a dynamic one to think with. However, I do not believe that the young people who went to the cinema in rural Sweden necessarily thought that they were part of a social movement, or even that they could see a common denominator. Many of the criteria of social movements can give an extra dimension to our thinking. The movements are often generation-related and always linked to the changing of society.
I have endeavoured to show how people can create a capacity for identification through the capacity for reflexivity. People trained their senses in relation to the reality they encountered. This often happens without reflection. We are absorbed and become active. Film constitutes a different space. There is often talk of the ability constantly to redefine, change shape, reverse decisions, forge new alliances. This is something that people learn by entering into different worlds. Identity is not something you have; it is something you will soon have.

Translated by Alan Crozier
Translated title of the contributionGoing to the Pictures: Room for dreams in Sweden of the 1940s and 1950s
Original languageSwedish
Awarding Institution
  • Division of Ethnology
  • Frykman, Jonas, Supervisor
Award date2003 Sep 19
Place of PublicationEslöv
Print ISBNs91-7139-619-5
Publication statusPublished - 2003

Bibliographical note

Defence details

Date: 2003-09-19
Time: 10:15
Place: Lund

External reviewer(s)

Name: Ronström, Owe
Title: Prof.
Affiliation: Högskolan på Gotland


Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Ethnology


  • 1940s and 1950s
  • social movement
  • materiality
  • youth cultur
  • complexity
  • cultural competence
  • cultural identity
  • modernity
  • Cinema-going
  • picture palace
  • Cultural anthropology
  • ethnology


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