Cinema in the Sky: A History of In-flight Movies

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the first in-flight movie shown on a domestic airline, which helped make long, cross-continental trips a little more tolerable (depending on the movie, of course).

The history of jet airplane transportation is a fascinating one. The arrival and immediate popularity of jet service in 1958 changed the world in countless ways that we take for granted now. Long distance air travel for tourists and business professionals had been made not only practical, but desirable — even glamorous.

And, while other airlines may have been the first to offer 707 jets to the flying public, it was TWA that was the first to treat passengers to in-flight movies.

On July 19, 1961, after testing earlier in the year to favorable responses from passengers, movies became standard on the airline’s New York-Los Angeles and New York-San Francisco routes, followed by the addition of films to international flights the following month.

The first film to be shown on that July 19 flight was the United Artists drama By Love Possessed, starring Lana Turner and Ephram Zimbalist, Jr. Alas, only first class passengers were given the option to view movies at the time, which were shown on a screen suspended from the cabin ceiling, from a special lightweight 16mm projector set up further back in the first class section. Audio was provided via individual headsets, which also became the standard. It was a major step in the progress of keeping the flying public suitably entertained on lengthy flights, although those who might not have been especially keen on the movie selected for viewing had to choose between watching it somewhat involuntarily, or taking a nap, involuntarily.

More surprisingly, perhaps, is the fact that we can trace the history of in-flight films back another forty years before that well-publicized TWA flight.

Watching the first in-flight movie, “Howdy Chicago!”

In August of 1921, as the Pageant of Progress Exposition was taking place in Chicago, an eleven-passenger hydroplane named Santa Maria (owned by Aeromarine Airways) flew above the city, showing a short movie called Howdy Chicago!, a promotional film highlighting the city’s finer attractions. With a screen hanging at the front of the cabin, and a DeVry suitcase projection machine fastened down and plugged into an electrical socket further back, the passengers viewed the movie while flying at 90 miles per hour (a speed at which some feared might disrupt the projection, but all went well).

Another early account of an in-flight movie came in April of 1925 from the U.K., as described in the British magazine Flight: “An interesting experiment was carried out on April 7, when a Handley Page aeroplane ascended from Croydon aerodrome, with 12 passengers, and during a half-an-hour’s flight, the film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World was shown on a screen fitted up in the cabin of the machine.”

As for TWA’s system inaugurated in 1961, it remained the standard for in-flight entertainment with all major airlines wordwide for a quarter-century. In the mid-1980s, however, wide body planes first offered seat-back video monitors, giving each passenger an individual screen with a multiple channel selections. As we now move further along the 21st century, some airlines are phasing out seat-back screens due to the preponderance of cell phones and other devices that passengers bring with them for more personalized entertainment on their flights.

This means, of course, that you can still watch By Love Possessed, or even The Lost World, if you so choose, whenever you may fly again. You’ll just have to bring it with you in one form or another. So, perhaps it’s really true that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Until next time…

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Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.