International Federation of Film Archives (1985) - Ivor Montagu
- article: Ivor Montagu
- author(s): Jen Samson
- journal: International Federation of Film Archives (31/Mar/1985)
- issue: issue 29, page 18
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, British Film Institute, Charles Laughton, Ivor Montagu, Jen Samson, London Film Society, Michael Balcon, Sabotage (1936), Secret Agent (1936), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
Ivor Montagu, who was an extensive and diverse contributor to British film culture for more than 50 of his 80 years, died on 5 November, 1984.
He was a rare intellectual who combined his work in the British film industry (mainly during the 1930s alongside such people as Michael Balcon and Alfred Hitchcock) with his work outside - always breaking down barriers between commercial, educational and political film activity. Director, scriptwriter, editor, critic, theorist, author, journalist, translator of Russian works by Pudovkin and Eisenstein, founder-member of the Film Society and a principal instigator of the Association of Cine Technicians , Montagu did much to establish film as a culturally important art form which deserved serious attention. And alongside his film work there were his activities as a zoologist, as a sportsman (he loved football and cricket but was best known for being the first Chairman and President of the Table Tennis Association), as a world peace campaigner and life long member of the Communist Party.
Son of Lord Swaythling, Ivor Goldsmid Samuel Montagu was from an aristocratic Jewish banking family. He studied zoology at King's College, Cambridge and it was while he was there that he developed a love of the moving image and a political commitment to world peace. In the late 1920s, after initiating and developing the Film Society in London, he volunteered a lot of his time on its behalf, searching for foreign films that had not been seen in Britain. During this period he met and befriended Eisenstein with whom he later travelled to America, recording the experience in his book "With Eisenstein in Hollywood".
Montagu's first films as director - Bluebottles (1928), Daydreams (1929) and The Tonic (1930), all short silent comedies starring Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton in their earliest screen roles - also date from this period. He worked with Adrian Brunel in Dansey Yard making short comedies and titling foreign films and as a result of this partnership he eventually went to work with Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios. Between 1934 and 1936 he was an associate producer on four Hitchcock-directed films: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), The Secret Agent and Sabotage (1936). Meanwhile , writing and lobbying whenever he could against the laws of political film censorship, he worked towards the democratisation of British cinema. He was less directly involved with the Film Society during the 1930s but his active support for workers' film societies grew. The natural development of his commitment resulted in his going to Spain in 1938 to make films for the Republican cause (such films as Defense of Madrid, Spanish ABC and Behind the Spanish Lines).
Together with his wife Hel (who died only one month before he did), Montagu set up the Progressive Film Institute - the name a mischievous dig at the British Film Institute - to distribute mainly Spanish and Soviet 16mm films. In 1941/42 a large collection of Film Society prints was deposited in the National Film Archive and in the early 1950s. Montagu also donated the Progressive Film Institute 16rnm holdings. As a result the Archive has been able to make some viewing material of otherwise unavailable films.
1979 furnishes another example of the significance of Montagu's vast contribution to cinema: he was invited to attend the 50th anniversary of the Congress of La Sarraz in Switzerland, one of the few survivors of a Congress there 50 years earlier when many international names of the day had gathered to discuss independent cinema and avant-garde film.
In April of the same year, on his 75th birthday, Montagu gave the first National Film Archive Ernest Lindgren Memorial lecture on "The Development of the Archive". The opening lines of his lecture illustrate his modesty: " I must say that I know really almost nothing about archives, it's no specialty of mine at all". He then went on to discuss the importance of film acquisition and preservation of which he was himself, from the 1930s onwards, one of the first promoters, drawing on his own experience of acquiring unknown, lost, or deteriorating films. In many ways it is his dedicated ambassadorial activities that are most to be applauded. Nothing of this account of his life gives an impression of his generosity and his humour. Talking to those who knew him, what comes to the fore is his roguish sense of fun and sparkling, witty repartee. That is what will be missed perhaps most of all.