One of the things that fascinates me about films is the way they can preserve the cultural meanings of purely visual signs such as physical gestures or eating and drinking rituals. One example that I’ve often noticed in British films is when instead of drinking their tea from a cup, a character pours it into the saucer and drinks it from there. Presumably the practical reason for this is to cool it off so that they can drink it faster, but it has also acquired a social meaning which the films also encode. Until relatively recently there was a distinction to be made between drinking tea from a cup and saucer and drinking it from a mug. This could indicate a difference in class status of the person drinking (posh cup versus common mug) but it could also indicate a difference in the social status of the tea-drinking ceremony itself – a marker that both working class and middle class families might make between ‘best’ (cup and saucer when there are visitors you want to impress) or ‘everyday’ (mugs when it’s just the family). The difference between drinking from the cup, and drinking from the saucer seems to be older and more related to social class. The example I always think of is in Maurice Elvey’s 1927 adaptation of Hindle Wakes. Nathanial Jeffcote (Norman McKinnel) is a mill owner when we meet him, but it’s important for us to understand that he started out as a lowly factory hand. Elvey makes this clear in the scene where he’s introduced at his breakfast table in ‘Midas Street’. Despite the luxury around him indicating that he has ‘made it’, Jeffcote retains some of the habits of his former life – he still speaks with his native accent, and he still pours his morning tea into his saucer in order to drink it.
There are other examples of the same thing elsewhere in early British cinema – if I remember correctly, the patriarch character in The Bondman (Herbert Wilcox, 1929) does the same thing, and it also survives in a number of sound films. There’s an entire comic sequence built around the gesture in the Wee Georgie Wood vehicle, The Black Hand Gang (Monty Banks, 1930). Wood’s gang is invited to a posh kid’s tea party, and they scandalise their hosts by drinking from their saucers, making fun of the code of manners that forbids such behaviour.
In a similar comic vein, Norman Wisdom does it more than once – for instance in Man of the Moment (John Paddy Carstairs, 1955) and The Early Bird (Robert Asher, 1965).
Up until today I’d assumed this gesture and its class connotations was a purely British phenomenon, but last month at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone we saw two clear examples of it in films from Sweden and Russia respectively. The Russian example is from a film which is perhaps familiar – Kuleshov’s comic romp The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (Lev Kuleshov, 1924). Our hero Mr West gets into the clutches of the unscrupulous gang of criminals led by Shan (Podovkin) who are posing as the realisation of the worst nightmares about Bolsheviks that the American press can dream up. They treat him to what they describe as ‘tea, the Soviet way’. They pour black tea into glass cups and then decant it into the saucers exaggeratedly blowing on it before consuming it, all the time grinning and gurning at Mr West while he looks on in confusion, before finally joining in. (The sequence is around 37 minutes into the version of the film here)
The Swedish example is a lot more obscure, although more clearly freighted with class connotations similar to those pertaining in England. It is from a film called Dunungen [The Quest for Happiness] (Ivan Hedqvist, 1919). In it, the heroine – a baker’s daughter – forms an alliance with the son of the Mayor – a cross class connection which scandalises the town. The film features some rather beautiful intertitles with design ornamentation in a ‘traditional’ Swedish style – simple hand drawings decorated with swags and borders made up of little crosses as though from a simple stitched sampler. One title describes the reaction of the ‘ladies of the main street’. This title card has a little illustration of a teacup with a teaspoon standing up in it. The shot that follows is a comic one, which pans across the faces of various ladies sitting in a row, each taking a sip of tea with a look of astonishment, rage or outrage. The next intertitle rhymes with the first – here it is the ‘women from the back street’ whose reactions are shown, and the illustration emphasises the difference between them by replacing the image of a tea-cup with an image of a saucer across which a pair of disembodied lips are blowing… the answering shot doesn’t show women drinking tea from saucers though – the lower class women from the back streets look shocked while eating and drinking all manner of things, but the design of the title card has made the symbolic difference between the different methods of drinking only too clear. My Swedish friends tell me that this is indeed a thing in Sweden, so much so that they have a phrase for it – ‘dricka på fat’.
So now I’m gripped to find more examples of this gesture in films, both British and from elsewhere. If you spot any – let me know!
Update: Jan 2020. Here’s another example from Old Mother Riley (1937)