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American Film (1978) - Before Semiology




Before Semiology

The Penguin Film Review 1946-1949 edited by Roger Manvell. Two volumes. Rowman and Littlefield, $45.

John Russell Taylor

Famous film magazines come in all shapes and sizes, in all kinds of improbable times and places. Usually, they are short-lived. Once they have ceased to be published, or often while they are still appearing, they are difficult to come by, especially in complete sets. Hence, there is now a burgeoning industry of facsimile reprints which reveal, sometimes at exorbitant prices, the actual material within many legendary covers.

The Arno Press, for instance, offers such honored but little-read periodicals as L'Art Cinematographique (1926-1931), Close-Up (1927-1933), Experimental Cinema (1930-1934), and Films (1939-1940).

These magazines, and no doubt many others, represent the great amount of activity and intellectual interest generated by Cinema, let alone movies, during the years between the world wars.

At that time, however, Britain was still in many ways a cinematic backwater. There was the Film Society, founded in London in 1925, boasting such early members as Iris Barry, Ivor Montagu, and Alfred Hitchcock. They gathered to see the classics of German and Russian silent cinema at a time when that was a very exotic and daring thing to do. Among filmmakers, there was Hitchcock and no one else, despite the international glitter of the Korda enterprises and the homegrown charms of Jessie Matthews and Will Hay. And there was less in the way of film magazines. Then along came Roger Manvell. A mild-mannered and modest educator, he would seem to be the most unlikely casting imaginable for a messiah. And yet, Manvell probably did more than anyone else to spread intelligent interest in film among Britons.

Manvell's career in film criticism began with a fateful meeting in 1942 with Sir Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books. Penguin had many "specials" on topics of current interest, mostly political and social, but also, to an extent, literary and artistic. Manvell, then involved in war work for the Ministry of Information, suggested that the collection could use a volume about the cinema. The result was Manvell's book Film (1944), an introduction to film aesthetics and, incidentally, to film history. That modest volume went on to numerous reprints and revisions and ended up selling nearly a half-million copies before it was replaced in 1955 by Manveir's The Film and the Public.

I remember Film well. I never had the first, slim edition — I suppose at the age of nine I was a little young for it. But the second, rather thicker version, was my bible from the age of eleven. I carefully annotated it (thereby breaking my otherwise unbreakable rule of never writing anything, not even my name, in any of my books. I instantly had to buy a second copy, which might remain virgin, as I required), captiously adding a few of the world's most significant films, director by director, and religiously ticking off those I had seen.

My hometown was not very large and was somewhat behind the times. Nevertheless, it was not able to withstand the rising tide of Manvellism for long. Those half-million buyers of Film were showing the effects of Manvell in a very positive manner. After all, it was then felt that to be cultured was vaguely patriotic; it was all part of what we were fighting for — the right to carry Penguin New Writing in our knapsack. Penguins, with their superior choice of texts, their elegant production (even under wartime conditions), and their cheapness, contributed greatly to this shift of sensibility. And having discovered that there was a sizable public ready to buy even distinctly highbrow books, the publishers naturally found ways of extending the improvement they had wrought.

Thus the Penguin Film Review. In 1946 paper rationing still did not allow new magazines to be produced. But Penguin had been getting away with some pretty transparent subterfuges. If, for instance, you put out a series of books or booklets under the same title, more or less quar-terly, but never called it a magazine and had no subscription arrangement, you could argue that it was not, in the strict sense, a periodical. So it had been with Penguin New Writing, New Biology, Transatlantic, and others.

And so, again at Manvell's suggestion, the Penguin Film Review was set up to extend and exploit the interest created by Film. Its first issue closely coincided, the editors noted, with the fiftieth anniversary of the first public demonstrations of motion pictures. The issue was to feature articles surveying the newly reopened international scene; social studies of the public, the filmmaker, and their mutual influences; historical and aesthetic pieces; explanations of new technological developments in language the layman could understand; and so on.

The emphasis throughout, indeed, is on that very fortyish figure, the intelligent layman. The audience addressed is serious (oh, yes, very serious), adult, informed, but resolutely nonspecialist. Titles pose questions like "Who Are Those Technicians?" And the first five issues encouraged reader participation with a feature entitled "Your Questions Answered," in which notables like Michael Powell, Edgar Anstey, and Monia Danischewsky were questioned about the mysteries of their craft. Recent developments in international cinema are covered, exotics like Arletty, Lang, and Richter are called upon for personal statements, and there is even a new Eisenstein piece on stereoscopic cinema. Few of the individual pieces can be called classic — Lotte Eisner on "The German Films of Fritz Lang" is a possible exception, and Hugo Mauerhofer's very superficial "Psychology of Film Experience" gets reprinted, for some unknown reason.

But the interest of the magazine as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts: It vividly conjures up a simpler time, just discovering neorealism, innocent of New Waves and the auteur theory and semiology. A period also, it must be admitted, when writing on film could be intelligent without being impenetrable. True, the approach is often culpably literary, by modern standards, but the review's style mirrors the comforting, and surely not too unreasonable, assumption that there is nothing a generally educated, cultivated mind cannot profitably turn itself to — there is still something, after all, between the total specialist and the ideal Renaissance man.

The intelligent layman? Well, why not? And if this handsome reprint (the production, so often messy in such enterprises, is here immaculate) has finally no more than a period appeal, that also means something to the film historian: There are few more useful vehicles than a critical time machine — and many far less entertaining.

John Russell Taylor is the author of Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock.