They Shall Not Grow Old (2): The Abject Archive… The Sacred Archive

The Abject Archive

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One of the things I find most fascinating about the pre-release advertising for They Shall Not Grow Old, is the way that it seems unable to argue for the project without at the same time rendering the archive footage from which it is constructed abject. To erase, in fact, the role and history of the archive itself in the survival and restoration of the film. Apparently the enhancements to the existing images have no traction unless the existing images themselves are understood to be in the worst state they possibly could be in. In the trailer, Jackson works hard to create an idea of the terrible failure of this footage in the audiences’ mind, talking of ‘this grainy, flickery – kind of, you know – sped up footage.’ Anyone who has ever seen a television documentary will be familiar with the bizarre passion of television producers for making old film look worse than it is. Footage that has been lovingly restored by the archive, which has been specially reprinted from the sparkling original camera negatives or has been carefully cleaned and re-graded to eliminate dirt and scratches, winds up on television behind the indignity of a ‘scratch filter’ – a digital programme which introduces fake flecks of dirt and scratches so that the audience can be reassured that the film is as old as is being claimed. The Jackson trailer offers a strangely turbo-charged version of this procedure. As Jackson tells us about the ‘grainy, flickery – kind of, you know – sped up footage’, we are treated to a brief clip of stretcher bearers bringing a head-wound patient out of a tent. The shot has been digitally manipulated to make it look bad. It is playing at the wrong speed, and has been set to look as though it is over-exposed, the image is feint and milky with no contrasts as though someone has turned the ‘brightness’ dial way up. As Jackson describes how his techniques have transformed the footage so that it is ‘so clear and sharp’ and ‘looks like it was shot on a high definition camera in the last week or two’ the image ‘miraculously’ alters – the speed is slowed down and the contrast deepens to produce a sharp and satisfactory image. This manoeuvre is then repeated with variations and increasingly extreme effects. An ‘underexposed’ shot, so dark you can barely see anything, suddenly ‘transforms’ into a well-graded image of four portly officers posing for the camera in cold weather jerkins. Jackson describes the process as a ‘restoration’, but the evidence from the images themselves tells a different story – the ‘before’ versions are not the images as they came out of the archive, they’ve clearly been digitally manipulated to look abject, the greater to emphasise the contrast when they are magically corrected. In the later trailer, Jackson and Diane Lees are excised, and the images are allowed to speak for themselves (accompanied inevitably by Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’). Here again though, the images are apparently unable to make their point without recourse to the ‘transformation’ they have undergone, so that while the gob-smacking surprise of the opening colourised images – the tank, the artillery team, the encampment silhouetted against the sunset, the men gathered in the sunken road – do their work without assistance, later images repeat the trope of the earlier film. They are offered first as abject – grainy and dark – but quickly these are transformed into the ‘sharp and clear’ images showcased in the first trailer. A curious ‘glare’ effect hints at the technological magic that may have gone into such a transformation, before a much more matter-of fact but actually incredible transformation is offered – the images blossom into colour.

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I’m puzzled by this publicity campaign for two reasons. Firstly, it is not clear to me why the digitally enhanced, colourised images are not extraordinary enough for its purpose. Jackson could so easily have simply said ‘we have transformed the existing footage into something amazing’. His effects are amazing – there’s no need to exaggerate the abject state of the existing footage in order to make the transformation extraordinary. But secondly, by actually enhancing the ‘before’ images to make them look worse than they are, and by evoking the idea of archive footage as grainy, and dirty, and flickering and inadequate, the campaign erases the role of the archive itself in the achievement of Jackson’s film. Because the vast amount of the film footage that Jackson worked with was not in the abject state he describes. Most of the footage, in particular the big box office successes of the war period, The Battle of the Somme (1916) and The Battle of Ancre and Advance of the Tanks (1917) have been subject to major restorations by the Imperial War Museum in 2006 and 2012 respectively. The painstaking task of finding the best elements possible of these films, of cleaning the surviving the 35mm elements, of scanning them into digital formats, of digitally cleaning and grading them had already happened. These restorations were not secret affairs either. New scores were commissioned for the films, both modern interprectations (by Laura Rossi) and reconstructions of the accompanying music suggested in 1916 by J. Morton Hutchinson of the Biograph. When The Battle of the Somme went back on general release in its centenary year in a sparkling DCP print audiences did not reject it because it was not in colour, they marveled at how sharp and immediate the impression of life on the battlefield it offered was – how close it brought them to an understanding of the ordinary soldier’s experience, much as audiences of 1916 had done.

The Sacred Archive

Back in 1916 the potency of the films in effecting a bridge between the ordinary soldier and the audience on the home front rendered the ‘official war pictures’ objects of sacred reverence. Before the founding of the Imperial War Museum itself the preservation of the cinematograph record was something discussed as part of the movement for the creation of local war museums across the country. A report in the Western Daily Press emphasised uncertainty of the practicalities of such a step, as film was such a relatively new medium. ‘Whether or not the cinematograph films of the battlefields can be preserved for many years to come is a point on which the scientist must utter the last word’ it suggested, but nevertheless, the films were understood to be as sacred a relic of the war as the more conventional objects of local memorabilia which would form the contents of such museums. When the IWM was eventually founded in 1918, it was precisely such sacred relics – that formed the beginnings of the collection – bits of ships and lumps of ordinance rubbed shoulders with the work of the war artists and other key representations shown in Burlington House and Crystal Palace in the early days. Images and objects that had been there were understood to hold the most potency for both contemporary audiences and as ‘object lessons for future generations to come.’ For many commentators in the film trade, the official war pictures fulfilled both these criteria, but they had fallen into something of a limbo. The body that handled films such as The Battle of the Somme (1916)the Cinematograph Committee of the Ministry of Information – was in the process of being wound up, and the films were being temporarily stored in a fireproof box in the War Office. Kinematograph Weekly had been campaigning for some time for a general ‘National Film Repository’ to no avail. Even in its own pages the paper didn’t quite dare suggest that fiction film be preserved (that didn’t start to happen until 1936), but topical films of ‘famous people, living or dead, and big historical subjects’ it felt might be suitable candidates.

War pictures though, represented a special case, whose importance nobody could dispute. Indeed the magazine had already mused on the practicalities of preserving war pictures in February of 1919, and had published a letter from an ex-soldier only the previous month arguing that The Battle of the Somme should be re-issued for the benefit of ex-servicemen who had been unable to see it at the time due to being on active service.[1] Such screenings, he added, might have the added benefit of reminding employers of their duty to ex-fighting men. With the first anniversary of the armistice only a week away, Kinematograph Weekly invoked a comparison to the paintings of battle scenes and other artworks commissioned by the War Office both for the public record and as acts of Remembrance, arguing that

The official war pictures [films] are, in themselves, priceless, and it would be little short of criminal not to take steps to preserve them for future generations. The funds appear to be available, as we are told that the War Office Kinematograph Committee has a considerable balance in hand and we do not understand why it does not take up this work as a fitting end to its labours…

‘Surely,’ concluded the paper in a rhetorical coup de grace, ‘we do not want the American film-version of what occurred to be the only record for posterity to see.’[2]

Poached but not Preserved

Small Boy: “Why didn’t they film the Great War, daddy?” Father: “They did my son, but the films fell into the clutches of the War Office and died in captivity” (Kinematograph Weekly, 6/11/1919, p. 103)

It was not until the third annual report of the IWM in 1919-20 that news of the films appeared and by then the financial circumstances didn’t seem so auspicious. As the report stated:

A large number of cinema films made during the War for propaganda purposes have been deposited by the Ministry of Information, and it is proposed by the War Office to place in charge of the Museum the wonderful collection of War films in their possession, which are of unique historical interest.

The storage, preservation, and issue of these film records will, however, necessitate an outlay, of which the limited means at the disposal of the Imperial War Museum will not, at all events at present, permit, and the question of their disposal is still under discussion.

As late as 1926 it seems, the public were expressing frustration at the apparent disappearance of the films. One correspondent to The Observer complained that

There exist, or there should exist miles of such films. We should like to know whether or not they are getting the same care as the Doomsday Book and the Great Auk’s egg. But your correspondent may be surprised to hear that it seems impossible to discover that; and as for seeing such films exhibited, he may be sure he never will, though he is part-owner.[3]

Luckily for us, and thanks to the separate and combined efforts of the Imperial War Museum, 14-18 NOW and Peter Jackson, we have no such difficulties – in fact we have instead an embarrassment of riches.

 

 

[1] Kinematograph Weekly, 6/2/1919: 68. Kinematograph Weekly, 25/9/1919: 88.

[2] Kinematograph Weekly, 6/11/1919: 98.

[3] The Observer, 28/11/1926: 23.

 

Sleeping in the (silent) Cinema

There’s a nice gag towards the beginning of The Parson’s Widow (Carl Th. Dreyer, SE, 1920). The warden of the village church is equipped with a long pole, so that he can reach across the box pews in order to poke at members of the congregation who have fallen asleep during the sermon. It’s an image that seems curiously appropriate for Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto – the big international festival of silent film at Pordenone, for it’s an open secret that many – perhaps most – delegates drift off at least once during the gruelling schedule of screenings. Practically the first thing I heard about the festival was an anecdote from a veteran delegate who recalled looking down the row one afternoon to see a clutch of the most famous scholars of film history gently breathing in unison with their eyes rolled back into their heads, in blissful oblivion of whatever cinematic masterwork was unspooling before them. Initially, in fact, I had planned to snooze through The Parson’s Widow. It wasn’t a film I was much keen to see. You have to be in the right mood for Dreyer, I thought, and having slept through the brilliant but worthy Passion of Jeanne d’Arc on numerous occasions I was quite prepared to catch up on some zzzz while awaiting the next movie. My assumptions were wrong, of course. The film started as a brilliant broad comedy and gradually changed into a charming and beautifully observed story of village life and cross-generational respect which held me spellbound for its whole running time. It doesn’t always work out like that. The previous day I’d been excited to see Captain Blood (David Smith, 1924) a full blooded American adventure film which had come highly recommended. Within 20 minutes I realised the film was boring me, the star uncharismatic and the plot really convoluted in a way that wasn’t much fun, so I bedded down to get some kip. I had a lovely snooze, surfacing just in time to listen to the lovely accompaniment to a charming love scene set in a garden, and then again for the final battle complete with pirate ships being blown up and sinking right there on screen. I didn’t regret not putting the effort in to follow the plot through – the significance of these moments were easy enough to grasp, and the seat was warm and comfortable. One can snooze in all films of course, and I often bed down if the first 20 minutes of the latest release has failed to engage me and sleep through the rest. I loved Gladiator when it came out, and saw it quite a number of times in the cinema, but the early scenes with Richard Harris banging on about the ‘dream that was Rome’ used to bore me and I’d make sure to have a pleasant snooze whenever he showed up on screen – although in that example I was somehow able to wake in time for the good stuff. But it doesn’t always fall out like that – one’s susceptibility to sleep doesn’t always vanish in front of a good and thrilling film, and sometimes one is stuck wide awake, counting the minutes through a tedious epic, like an insomniac awaiting the dawn. Silent cinema is particularly prone to sleep – there’s a special soporific quality to a warm, darkened room with only the sound of a piano playing, and of course once you’ve gone off, there are no explosions or sudden urgent shouts to waken you up, unless the accompanist is particularly ambitious. And film festivals, with their full on schedule, their late night networking sessions in the bar and their probably jet-lagged-to-start-with delegates are particularly susceptible.

On the one hand of course, this is a real problem for silent cinema fans and scholars – who wants to travel half way around the world to be asleep in front of a rare film that might not come out of the archive for another twenty years? But on the other it is simply a fact one has to accept, and might as well admit. I’ve been going to silent film festivals for thirty years and I still haven’t mastered the art of remaining awake though everything that interests me. Sometimes of course it’s a boon – if the film is dull you can give up the effort of staying awake and let yourself graciously slip away. At other times you are into the film, gripped by the action and yet you still have to fight it. You can see people doing this of course. Nodding, nodding and then suddenly trying to shake themselves awake. Some have devised strategies to combat the creeping snooze. Some sit bolt upright throughout the screening. Others suck on mints or clench and unclench their fists. I used to bite at my moustache, much to the irritation of my friends. In this situation silent films have an extra spice because there’s no dialogue to keep you on track when your consciousness starts to fail – no sound to pull you through as you rest your eyes. If you miss an intertitle, it’s gone. And if it revealed a key plot point then you’re close to lost. It will take some work to reconstruct retrospectively the information you’ve missed and nodding is no mental state to do this in. I often find myself taking note of a particularly interesting shot or plot reveal – a suddenly significant minor character perhaps – only to realise when I come to a moment later, that it was a product of my sleeping mind.

But what of the historical audience? How did they cope with the problem of drifting off in the cinema? It’s noticeable that of all the things one can do in the cinema, this is perhaps the least remarked on. There are plenty of studies of weeping in the cinema, of snogging, laughing, courting and even fucking in the cinema, but there seems to be very little material about snoozing. While moral reformers were inspecting to ensure that no hanky panky was going on, were there no concerns about folk using the space as an informal daytime doss-house? The only reference I can think of is the sleeping man in the cinema scene of A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, GB 1929). Similarly, theories of spectatorship emphasise identification, desire, even touch (or ‘haptics’) as key ways that audiences relate to the screen, but sleep seems quite absent – which is quite surprising because in more ordinary language the cinema has often been understood as a place of ‘dreams’. Silent cinema perhaps in particular lends itself to that hypnagogic impulse – that half and half place between sleeping and waking. Where else but in a dream might you notice poison dropping though the ceiling, and on investigating find an old lady attempting suicide in the room above you, then casually invite her to live with you and your wife, only later to discover that she is in fact your own mother. That of course is the plot of another film we saw at Pordenone, The Song of Life (John M Stahl, 1922). You needn’t be angry with me for revealing spoilers though, because all of that happens in the first twenty minutes. Which leads me to another question about sleeping in the cinema. Back as film students we were taught that the ‘Classical Hollywood Style’ in the days of ‘continuous programming’ is plotted so that anyone walking into the cinema can pick up the threads of the story within a few minutes at any point. But can this really be the case? How on earth can you follow the myriad reversals, confusions of understanding, identity reveals, and reconciliations in The Song of Life if you happened to sleep through the first ten minutes and miss that the old lady above is in fact the mother of the hero? It seems incredible, but I reluctantly have to accept that it’s true. While some films are constructed badly enough that a lost intertitle or key scene means that you spend the rest of the time wondering what the hell is going on, most silent films are so well constructed that the narrative gap is filled quite quickly. So my hot tip is: if you feel yourself drifting off, don’t fight it. When you wake – probably after only a few minutes – you’ll be much more refreshed and able to construct what you’ve missed by the ongoing reactions of the characters to each other. And if you can’t, then the film probably wasn’t that good to begin with.

One thing is certain though – even if you only wake five minutes before the end of The Song of Life, you’ll want to phone your mum as soon as you get out of the cinema.

They Shall Not Grow Old

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Perhaps one of the most hotly anticipated films of the London Film Festival is Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old. Commissioned by, 1418 NOW (the government agency responsible for co-ordinating the centenary of the First World War), and made in conjunction with the Imperial War Museum, the film uses footage within the IWM’s film archive collections to tell the story of ordinary soldiers in the Great War. In the teaser trailer for the film, Jackson describes the project’s genesis:

The Imperial War Museum approached me a couple of years ago and they asked me what could be done with their original First World War footage, to present it in a way that hadn’t really been seen before. And I thought about all the digital technology that exists today and… can we restore that footage and make it look new and make it look sharp in a way that goes way beyond anything that’s ever been done before? So we did some tests and the results really surprised me. They’re unbelievable. We can make this grainy, flickery, kind of – you know – sped up footage look like it was shot in the last week or two. It looks like it was shot with high definition cameras, it’s so sharp and clear now.

Even though the film has yet to be released, Jackson’s approach has already attracted controversy. Some of the things he’s done to the original footage have not just gone ‘way beyond’ what has ever been done before, they’ve also gone way beyond what is generally understood in archiving circles to be ethical treatment of archive footage. He has added elements to the image – colour and sound and even 3D – which were never part of the original record and as a result are a pure speculation about the reality of the scenes they record. The second teaser released last week illustrates just how far he has gone – a cavalry team ride through an encampment silhouetted against a spectacular sunset, the fields behind an artillery team are bright green with a new growth of spring wheat, men returning from battle are heard to be cheerfully singing ‘We’re here because we’re here’. Of course, these things might have been the case, but the original film contains no evidence that the sun was setting in the sky behind the encampment, or that the fields weren’t newly ploughed, or that the returning troops weren’t picking their way in sullen silence. The use of colour has attracted most criticism, partly perhaps because it has been the element which has been most highlighted in the publicity for the film. Later in the first trailer, the head of the IWM, Diane Lees argues that the incentive of the project was to,

…take film that is very often dismissed by audiences because it’s black and white, and use it in a colourised way to engage young people in a conversation about the First World War.

This claim about the resistance of ‘young people’ to black and white films is frequently offered as a justification for not engaging with archive footage in an educational environment, and of course it’s precisely such an environment that this film is ultimately intended for. After its gala premier and simultaneous country-wide release, the film will be made available to schools and colleges around the country in anticipation of it forming a central resource for the teaching of WW1 history. The potential of cinema to act as a pleasurable, ‘immersive’ experience perhaps acts as a key incentive to this pedagogic project, and the desire to render the footage immediate and realistic in a way that brings its subjects ‘closer’ to modern audiences is understandable. However, a key article criticizing the colourisation in the film, Luke McKernan argues that such desires are based on a false assumption. ‘There is a fundamental issue here’ he writes, ‘about how we treat our actuality film archives…

WW1 was filmed in monochrome… To understand that inheritance we must look at it for what it is. Colourising the archive actuality film does not bring us closer to our ancestors; it increases the distance between us. It threatens to make the WW1 film archive we have inherited meaningless, because we can no longer look at it sympathetically.[1]

The effort, he suggests, of watching footage that seems technologically different from what we are used to, and the reward of still seeing the ‘ordinary soldier’ represented there, is what ‘creates the understanding.’

I’m still not sure where I stand on the colourisation debate. On the one hand, it does seem clear to me that the addition of colour and of foley sound effects rather defeats the point of using the original footage in the first place. It transforms the footage precisely by destroying its claim to authenticity, by adding elements that aren’t part of the visual record it purports to be. I’m not convinced that young people are unable to cope without sound and colour, but if their inability to connect is the reason why we’re going to add those elements, why not go the whole hog and just film a modern dramatic reconstruction of the war instead? Plenty of such projects are immensely successful and have clear pedagogic potential. (Personally I would recommend the BBC’s series of battle reconstruction dramas from 2014 Our World War, although a quick google search reveals that it failed to satisfy purists and sticklers for historical detail.) On the other hand, as a couple of friends have remarked – the original footage is still there: Jackson’s version doesn’t destroy the archive material, and if it does manage to address some audiences and inspire them to look closer at the actual footage, where’s the harm?

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Such a response points to the variety of ways in which we might understand the purpose of this footage. Firstly, we might think of it as Jackson has approached it – as film of the front taken at the front but prevented from being the immersive record modern audiences might wish it to be because of the technological limitations of the time. In this formulation we might think of the digital enhancements as simply a question of increasing the ‘use value’ of this moving image resource as a way of accessing the ‘experience’ of fighting on the Western Front. ‘We’ve transformed 100 year old film footage to see the Great War as the soldiers themselves saw it’ as Jackson states. Secondly, we might think of the footage as historical evidence – an actual record of conditions at the front from which we can glean details which are embedded within the film and which might give us insights into the detail of life at the front. Here of course, the authenticity of the record is paramount – is what makes it interesting or of any use at all, and as I’ve described above, digital enhancement such as colourisation actively destroys this possibility. Thirdly we might think of the film footage it as a historical object in and of itself. This material was shown widely in the UK during the war itself, both as short newsreel items, and compiled into longer feature length war actuality films. Indeed, The Battle of the Somme (1916) from which much of the footage is taken, was seen by a quarter of the population – a box office blockbuster that dwarfs even Peter Jackson’s most successful efforts. Several similar feature length documentary films followed. Audiences at the time reported that these films precisely enabled them to feel close to their sons and husbands, and to the experiences they were going through in the trenches. Roger Smither and others have pointed out the way in which the structure of those films encourage an attempt at recognition – the impulse to scan the screen for the face of your own loved one.[2] Men march towards the camera smiling. They wave and cheer as the camera pans around a scene of them gathered bathing beside a pond. They sit at their meals down long benches, smiling and laughing back towards the camera placed in such a way as to fit as many faces in the composition as possible. The effect Jackson ecstatically describes where ‘the faces in this film just jump out at you, it’s the faces, it’s the people that come to life in this film’ is no accident. And it was remarked on by audiences at the time, who went on to describe how close the film made them feel to the experiences it depicts. ‘I have lost a son in battle and I have seen the Somme films twice,’ wrote one correspondent to The Times in 1916,

I am going to see them again. I want to know what was the life, and the life-in-death, that our dear ones endured, and to be with them again in their great adventure…[3]

In this understanding of the footage – as a historical object in itself, something seen by people on the home front and used and valued by them as a way of encountering and understanding the experiences of the fighting men – I’d seek to maintain the circulation of the footage as it was filmed, to show it to schoolchildren in its original state. The correspondent who felt the films enabled them ‘be with’ their dead son and his comrades again ‘in their great adventure’ didn’t see those films with sound or in colour. What they saw were the black and white images that have been handed down to us, and in order to understand that experience it is necessary that we should also be able to see them like that. Of course thanks to the amazing work of the Imperial War Museum, we can. Although you wouldn’t know that from the way that the film has been publicized. And that’s an issue I’ll come to in my next blog…

 

 

[1] Luke McKernan, ‘The Colours of War’ in Sight and Sound, April 2018, p. 15.

[2] Roger Smither, ‘ “Watch the picture carefully and see if you can identify anyone”: recognition in factual film of the First World War period’ in Film History Vol. 14, 2002, pp. 390-404.

[3] ‘Orbatus’ to The Times 2/9/1916, p. 3, quoted in Nicholas Reeves, ‘Cinema, Spectatorship and Propaganda: Battle of the Somme (1916) and its contemporary audience

Guy Newall and Ivy Duke in ‘The Garden of Resurrection’ (Arthur Rooke, 1919)

A few weeks ago I introduced a screening of this little known film at the Kennington Bioscope’s ‘Silent Cinema Weekend’ at the Cinema Museum in London.

The Garden of Resurrection stars a couple who are barely remembered today but who were, for a brief period in the late 1910s and early 1920s, the darlings of the British film industry and arguably British cinema’s biggest stars. Guy Newall and Ivy Duke each had impressive independent careers before they met and formed their winning partnership. Duke was an established stage actress, appearing regularly in the light musical confections associated with George Edwardes’ Gaiety Theatre. Here she is, ‘as clever as she is beautiful’ in a typical piece from The Tatler publicising her appearance in The Maid of the Mountains at Daly’s theatre in Leicester Square.[1]

Ivy in Fur

Guy Newall had already made the transition to cinema as early as 1915, appearing in the series of films produced and directed by Maurice Elvey under the ‘Diploma’ brand which Elvey had set up in order to showcase his woman of the moment, Elizabeth Risdon. Newall doesn’t seem to be the romantic lead in these films (that honour went to Fred Groves) – rather he plays mischievous brothers and lesser comic characters. When ‘Diploma’ folded he continued to work with Elvey, starring in two comedy shorts as ‘The Reverend Cuthbert Cheese’, reviving a comic character he had established on stage two years previously, and then in Elvey’s well known post-war drama produced for Stoll, Comradeship (1919).[2]

In 1919 Newall and Duke joined forces with the producer George Clarke to create ‘Lucky Cat’ films, and between 1919 and 1923 this trio would make a remarkable fifteen feature films together, twelve of them starring Newall and Duke as the principle romantic couple. The early films were directed by Arthur Rooke and Kenelm Foss. Later around 1920 the company changed its name to ‘George Clarke Productions’, moved to a specially built studio at Beaconsfield and Newall increasingly took on the writing and directing roles, as well as starring alongside Duke. The films were distributed by Stoll – the largest renter in the UK at this time.

Ivy on the Farm

Rachel Low suggests that Lucky Cat was launched with the idea that the films would be ‘very, very English’, and that some of their later productions showcased the ‘English countryside of the twenties in a way that Hepworth talked about but failed to achieve.’ ‘Refined’, ‘charming’, ‘tasteful’, ‘elegant’ are all adjectives she employs to describe the couple and their films before putting the boot in and suggesting that they weren’t much liked by ‘showmen’. The films though were extremely successful, and in the sustained publicity which offered Newall and Duke as the ideal couple (they were married in 1923) has resonances in today’s celebrity culture. Perhaps today they’d be nicknamed ‘Guyvy’.

Guy and Ivy

 

Typical of the emphasis on their tasteful refinement is a comment in the Times review of The Garden of Resurrection, which notes that Ivy Duke ‘has one drunken scene which might easily have been offensive, but she plays it with marked discretion.’[3] When the Imperial War Museum launched their first big public exhibition at Crystal Palace, they attempted to attract patrons by throwing a ‘Victory Carnival and Ball’ in September 1920. George Clarke Productions sponsored a competition for the ‘best dresses worn by ladies and gentlemen respectively which suggested well-known film stars’. And of course, their star couple were on hand to award the prizes.[4]

They can be seen milking the ‘perfect couple’ image in this charming Pathe Pictorial short from the late 1920s – the 1933 date offered by YouTube here must be erroneous though, because – well – they actually divorced in 1929.

A Rest Cure Film

A reasonable number of their films survive in the BFI National Archive, and several have been screened at the British Silent Film Festival over the years, including Fox Farm from the novel by Warwick Deeping about the romance between a gypsy girl and a blinded farmer, Boy Woodburn from the novel by Alfred Oliphant about a lady horse trainer and her romance with a penniless banker, and Maid of the Silver Sea from the novel by John Oxenham about romance and murder in a Breton fishing community (actually filmed on Sark). Perhaps the most widely seen is The Lure of Crooning Water which immediately followed, and can be seen in many ways as a partner to The Garden of Resurrection. Both were directed by Arthur Rooke, and they were made back to back in 1919. Both are also films about ‘rest cures’. In the Lure of Crooning Water Ivy Duke plays a London stage actress who, suffering from nervous collapse goes into the countryside for a ‘rest cure’ and amuses herself while there by seducing the married farmer (played by Newall) who has been acting as her host. The Garden of Resurrection, from the novel by E. Temple Thurston reverses this pattern – this time it is Newall who is suffering from extreme depression brought on by his sense of his own ugliness. He goes for a ‘rest cure’ visiting some friends who live surrounded idyllic garden in rural Ireland (although the film was shot in Cornwall). There he meets Ivy Duke….

‘Rest cures’ of course were fashionable at the time. Some of you may recall the brilliant short comedy on that theme from 1916, Tubby’s Rest Cure which is available on BFI Player, and which I highly recommend. George Robey, the popular comedian of the period also appeared in a film of that title, adapted from his own book of the same name. Ironically, Kinematograph Weekly reported that having directed these two films back to back, Arthur Rooke himself suffered such exhaustion that he had to go on a rest cure.[5] And indeed in its review of The Garden of Resurrection, Kinematograph Weekly suggested that the film itself would have the calming effect of such a cure on its audiences, and would act as

A restorative, perhaps a cure, for people who have lost faith in human kindness, who are ready to believe that life is all ugly… The whole film is saturated with kindliness, purity, beauty and charm. We are indeed ‘made to forget’, but we are also made to remember – and think.[6]

The review is pretty vague about what it is we might want to forget, but although the novel on which its based was published in 1911, it’s hard not to read the film adaptation as perhaps drawing on a mood and some themes which had particular resonance for audiences who had just been through 5 years of war.

Is Guy Ugly?

Is Guy Newell Ugly?

The novel of The Garden of Resurrection is subtitled ‘the love story of an ugly man’, and there is quite a debate raging about whether its leading man fulfils this key requirement for the character he plays. Rachel Low, writing in 1971, didn’t mince her words, describing him as having ‘an ugly and even a misleadingly course appearance’.[7] Newall himself recalled being warned that his face might prove a handicap by Elvey’s producer, Hurbert Shaw, ‘I had never held any particularly high opinion of my own looks, but it struck me that they would prove a severe handicap. However I think Shaw tried to let me down lightly, for what he said was, “Very good, but your face is quite homely, isn’t it?”[8]

Reviewers at the time were more doubtful, one arguing that the plot was barely credible since it hinged on the supposed ugliness of ‘so altogether presentable a young man as Guy Newall!’, while another reviewer commented that the film’s other good qualities ‘amply compensate for the inability of the hero to look ugly, despite his tremendous facial exertions!’ Modern viewers of recent screenings of The Lure of Crooning Water have been in no doubt that whether or not he’s conventionally good looking, Guy’s pretty hot.

After the Screening

That was the introduction I gave more or less. When I wrote it I had only seen the film once – probably ten years ago in the basement of the BFI in Stephen Street. Such are the perils of researching films not freely available online or on DVD that when I sat down to watch the film again with everyone else, I squirmed in my seat each time I realized how much I’d misremembered it. It doesn’t mention rest cures at all! Although there is definitely an emphasis on the restorative nature of the eponymous garden, and there’s a sequence which indisputably implies that Guy is about to commit suicide, he isn’t sent on a rest cure as a result of this – the detail of it happens rather differently! And elements that I’d forgotten about or considered incidental sprang to the fore – the relationship of the hero to his completely seductive wire-haired terrier for one, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that Ivy Duke’s character is of mixed race, and ‘passing’ as white. In fact there is a whole Empire dimension to the film, which had me rushing home to write up some notes. Perhaps I’ll post about that another time though.

For now, if you’re interested in finding more out about Guy and Ivy, there’s an excellent short bio of them by Christine Gledhill on the BFI Screenonline site.

[1] ‘A Maid of the Mountains’ in The Tatler 27/2/1918, p. 275.

[2] Review ‘A Collection Will be Made’ in The Times 16/7/1914, p. 11.

[3] ‘The Film World’ in The Times, 8/12/1919, p. 18.

[4] The Era, 15/9/1920, p. 16.

[5] Kinematograph Weekly 9/10/1919, p. 111.

[6] Kinematograph Weekly 11/12/1919, p. 114.

[7] Rachael Low, The History of British Film 1918-1929 (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1971), p. 147.

[8] Sheffield Independent, 29/12/1920, p. 1.

‘Broken in the Wars’ and the King’s Fund

One of the films shown at the recent Kennington Bioscope ‘Silent Weekend’ at the Cinema Museum was Cecil Hepworth’s Broken In the Wars. Henry Edwards plays a cobbler who has to give up his business in order to go to war. When he returns injured, his wife learns about the ‘King’s Fund for Disabled Officers and Men’ which will give him a grant to get his business up and running again. The film is available to view online in the uk via the brilliant BFI Player

Broken in Wars - crutches

It’s an interesting example of a wartime information short – the sort of film Hepworth made in considerable numbers during the war, using the appeal of his roster of stars such as Henry Edwards, Chrissie White and Alma Taylor to convey key wartime propaganda messages though little mini dramas. Like the more famous ‘Food Flashes’ of the Second World War (which Hepworth also had a hand in), these little films often offer advice on domestic matters in wartime – things like not wasting soap, or making dumplings without suet. Broken in the Wars is a sort of cross between these films and the more curious ‘cinema interviews’ series, where wartime politicians ‘speak’ directly to camera, delivering propaganda messages – the film incorporates a personal appearance by John Hodge the Minister for Pensions who addresses the viewer in this way, advertising the benefits of the ‘King’s Fund’.

I did some research into the background of the film for an article I wrote about wartime schemes for training disabled veterans as cinema projectionists. I couldn’t use the material there, but seeing the film again brought home to me how odd the film looks unless you know about the controversy that it is explicitly intended to address. Why is Hodge himself shoe-horned into a drama that could do its propaganda work perfectly well without him? Why does Alma Taylor’s character suddenly and seemingly without motivation ask whether the scheme being advertised isn’t charity?

What was The King’s Fund?

‘The King’s Fund’ was run by the Ministry of Pensions, and was championed and publicized by the Minister himself, John Hodge MP. However it was not connected to the central business of that Ministry – the distribution of state funded pensions, disability pensions, war widows’ pensions and so forth. Instead it was a fund raised from the public by donation, which was then awarded to disabled ex-servicemen in the form of grants designed to enable them to meet the overheads necessary to set themselves up in their chosen line of business. Hodge strenuously denied that this made it a charity, arguing instead that its purpose was to ‘fill the gap between the State duty and what a grateful people were prepared to do for the men… a freewill offering of grateful people to the ‘boys’ who had done so much for them.’[1] Even today the distinction appears to be a nice one, and in 1918 when any suggestion that the State might find it convenient to offload men who had been maimed in its service onto the mercies of charity, it was highly contentious. The National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers (NFDDSS) in particular objected to the fund in the strongest possible terms and its leader James Hogge MP attacked it as demeaning to his members, reducing them to the status of begging to King and Country for funds that should be their right.[2]

The cinema industry, by contrast, threw its weight enthusiastically behind the King’s Fund as part of its policy of ‘practical patriotism’, making the Fund a principal beneficiary of the fundraising activities of The Cinematograph Benevolent Fund. During the summer of 1918, under the auspices of the tireless Paul Kimberley, the trade had staged a ‘Cinema Gymkhana’ – a sort of fundraising cinema sports day at Stamford Bridge.[3] It was at the trade luncheon held to present the £13,000 raised from this event to the King’s Fund that John Hodge chose to launch a somewhat incontinent counter-attack against Hogge’s criticisms, arguing that they were tantamount to an attack on the King himself, for which, if he had been in Berlin, Hogge would have been executed.[4] In less combative mood he went on to try and justify the idea that the fund was not a charity, by offering the illustration of two disabled petitioners, one of whom might want to set up as a boot-maker requiring overheads of £25, while the other might want to run a cinema show with overheads of £5000. A state fund could not be seen to be distributing funds in such an unequal manner, and so the King’s Fund was designed to ‘supplement what the state could and should do. It was not a charity…’[5]

The distinction remained controversial. So much so that when, following their now established tradition of using cinema to publicize their work, the Ministry commissioned a film drama to promote the fund, the question of its charitable status again took centre stage. Broken in the Wars was made by Hepworth’s company at the request of Hodge, and possibly on the initiative of Paul Kimberley, who had taken up a post as Hepworth’s general manager just around the time of the Gymkhana luncheon.[6] It was released in early 1919 and survives in the BFI National Archive. Henry Edwards plays Bill, a cobbler who gives up his business to go to war. When he returns with a leg injury, his wife (Chrissie White) writes to Lady Dorothea Hamlyn (Alma Taylor), the local aristocrat, for advice on how he might find funds to revive his business. ‘You’ve done so much to help so many – will you see me?’ When they meet, Lady Hamlyn draws her attention to the account of the Fund in the papers, the summary for which does not neglect to mention that Mr John Hodge ‘hopes to raise three million pounds in the near future.’ But better than that, Hodge will be visiting the manor and so the couple can petition him in person. When they do so, displaying all the nervousness and deference of humble folk in the presence of the wealthy and powerful, Hodge himself appears on screen and approves their case. Lady Hamlyn, however, is confused. ‘But surely the State ought to provide for cases of this sort?’ she asks in an inter-title. Hodge delivers the response in a close up, which is also slightly irised to isolate his face in the frame as he reiterates the central argument of the film: ‘It’s no State duty to find capital to start people in business,’ he says animatedly.

Broken in Wars image

Bill’s wife, reaching across him as though to protect her husband’s pride from the implication that they are asking for more then their due, responds ‘We don’t want no charity. Bill can make ’is business pay alright, if only ’e can get a start.’ Immediately Lady Hamlyn touches her shoulder as though to calm her fears, and Hodge, with his palms out and forward in an expansive gesture explains, ‘This is no charity, my dear. It is just the mere gratitude of old fogies like myself for the men who have given Everything for us.’ Bill and his wife shake Hodge’s hand gratefully and withdraw, while he turns face on to the camera to deliver the final appeal of the film: ‘If the People of England would only express one-tenth of the gratitude they feel, I should have my Three Million Pounds to-morrow.’ The incoherence of the message must be clear – the film is an open appeal to cinemagoers for voluntary donations to a fund, which it nevertheless insists is not a charity. Even disregarding this aspect, it is easy to see why such material might have infuriated Hogge and the newly politicized veteran members of the NFDDSS. Hepworth has often been castigated (unjustly in my view) for making conservative films which upheld and celebrated regressive social relations. With this film, though, the charge seems thoroughly justified. Every gesture, every detail of the mise-en-scene contrasts the humble simplicity and deference of Bill and his wife against the graciousness, civility and authority of Hodge and Lady Hamlyn. Their dark woolen clothes are contrasted against Hamlyn’s flowing white gown, their stooping posture and upraised eyes against Hamlyn and Hodge’s steady gaze and upright stance. They are offered as pathetic figures, broken and helpless, precisely in order to elicit the charitable sympathy of the audience for the cause that may help them. Given the criticisms that had already been directed against Hodge and the Fund, it seems baffling that the film-makers chose to include a reference to deferent class relations at all, let alone build the whole narrative around them. Even more baffling as Hodge himself was a Labour MP, and a staunch Trades Unionist.[7]

Despite Hodge’s illustrative example at the Gymkhana luncheon, very few King’s Fund grants went to cinema operators. Most small grants were awards for boot-making, building and coster-mongering tools, while the requests for large grants were by far and away most frequently to do one of two things – to set up fish and chip shops, or to emigrate.[8]

[1] The Era 9/10/1918, p. 20.

[2] The Scotsman, 4/10/1918:3; See also Joanna Bourke, Dismembering the Male, p. 62.

[3] The Era, 7/8/1918, p. 23; Daily Mirror, 4/9/1918, p. 5.

[4] The Scotsman, 4/10/1918, p. 3.

[5] The Era, 9/10/1918, p. 20.

[6] The Era, 4/9/1918, p. 20.

[7] I’m not the only one to think so. His local Labour branch itself thought that Hodge had moved far enough from their key principles by 1918 that they fielded a candidate against him in that year’s General Election. See also the comments of Sir Arthur Griffith-Boscawen, Memoirs (1925), p. 207.

[8] The Scotsman19/11/1919, p. 10.

‘When Paris Fell’

Here’s a nice story from the trade paper Kinematograph Weekly which vividly conveys the sense of wartime cinema-going as a community activity, often imbued with emotional resonance way beyond that produced by the film itself. It comes from my favourite section of the magazine, the ‘Showmanship’ column, where cinema managers sent in accounts of their innovative and sometimes quite bizarre publicity and ‘showmanship’ activities. I used to work on a project around Kineweekly and saved a lot of these stories, which I’ll put up here from time to time. This one appeared in the magazine on 31st August 1944 (p. 50).

“Manager Fuller, of the Majestic (Odeon), Staines, brought off a coup which was as unexpected as it was successful. When big news occurs he always makes out a slide to throw on the screen. When the news of the fall of Paris came through on the 1 pm news on Wednesday last he made out the slide, sent it to the box and then entered the theatre to watch the result.

It so happened the film which was showing was The Great Moment, in which Margot in one of the scenes is forced to go on a stage and sing “La Marseillaise.” As Mr. Fuller entered the theatre he realised this scene was just about to be shown; he called a halt to the box, stepped on the stage and announced through the mike, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Paris has fallen.” and then the film proceeded with Margot singing the French anthem.

As Mr. Fuller remarked, had he sat down and tried to think of anything, he could not have done better.”

Returning to this story recently, I realized that I have a copy of The Great Moment (Preston Sturges, 1944), so I dug it out to have a look. I was most puzzled to find that no such rousing scene appears in the film. A search of the British Newspaper Archive website resolved the mystery – Fuller actually interrupted the film which ran as a second feature to The Great Moment across the Odeon circuit in August 1944 – a film called Gangway for Tomorrow (John Auer, 1943) which stars ‘Margot’ playing a French resistance fighter.

Here’s the advert for the screening from the Middlesex Chronicle (19/8/1944, p. 8)

Middlesex Chronicle 19:8:44-8

The Majestic Staines, like many cinemas that the Odeon chain acquired in the late 1930s was nothing like the sleek modern cinemas we associate with Odeon – it was a small picture house built in the 1920s, which probably felt pretty old fashioned and a bit run down by 1944. An image on the Postcards Then and Now website shows how it looked in 1933. It’s since been demolished.

Staines_High_St_1933