The Times (14/Nov/1984) - The Arts: Lavish celebration of a glorious past
(c) The Times (14/Nov/1984)
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Anna Neagle, Carmelita Geraghty, Edmund Gwenn, Gaetano di Ventimiglia, Gaumont British Picture Corporation Limited, Ivor Novello, Jessie Matthews, John Gielgud, Michael Balcon, Miles Mander, New York City, New York, Psycho (1960), Sybil Thorndike, The Pleasure Garden (1925), Vertigo (1958), Virginia Valli
The 'golden oldies' of British cinema are descending in their hundreds upon New York, creating such a vogue that Jessie Matthews has been elevated to a state 'semi-divinity': Geoff Brown reports
Lavish celebration of a glorious past
British cultural exports have long played a prominent part in New York's theatre scene, but now the city is witnessing another - and stranger - kind of British invasion.
A large picture of Alec Guinness in one of his Kind Hearts and Coronets roles (Lady Agatha d'Ascoyne, glaring frostily under a commanding hat) recently ate up the centre-page spread of the Village Voice; Jessie Matthews, in the same newspaper, was declared to be "semi-divine". And audiences here have been queueing to see the British cinema's golden oldies: The Good Companions (1933), with that same semi-divine Matthews, a chattering Max Miller and John Gielgud splendidly attired in a Pierrot costume; the sturdy northern drama Hindle Wakes (1931), in which Edmund Gwenn calls Sybil Thorndike "mother"; The Rat (1926), with Ivor Novello prancing through Paris dives in pants that would be the envy of many a Greenwich Village boutique.
Such wonders have come about through the heartening advent of "British Film" - an enormous retrospective of some 300 features, showing at the Museum of Modern Art until early in 1986. The venture is co-directed by the Museum's Department of Film and our own National Film Archive, with funding from Pearson, Goldcrest Films and EMI. Both the MDF and the NFA celebrate their fiftieth birthdays in 1985, and there could be no better, or crazier, birthday present than this bulk presentation of British cinema, mostly using imported Archive prints. From March 8 next year, the Museum explores the various threads running through British film history (realism, music-hall, melodrama, the theatrical adaptation); audiences will be subjected to everything from the 1913 East Lynne to the 1983 Educating Rita, from Anna Neagle's snowdrop charms to the fangs and garlic of Hammer horrors. At the moment, however, the spotlight is exclusively fixed on the producer Michael Balcon, and his pursuit of a national cinema through four decades of production; the Museum is showing 81 films, made between 1926 and 1963.
Balcon is an astute choice for such a grand Anglo-American celebration, though not entirely for the obvious reasons. At Ealing, of course, he championed films that drew their strength - and ultimately their vices -from a cosy conception of British life, from a world of corner shops, friendly coppers, privet hedges, timid emotions and nice cups of tea. Postwar Americans fell upon the eccentricities and mild anarchy of the Ealing comedies with as much glee as anyone, though in some cases the footage had to be tightened to suit the national pace. "The Americans are impatient by nature", wrote the Ealing editor Michael Truman in 1949, after trimming Passport to Pimlico; "they are used to having their characters introduced quickly." It was thus entirely appropriate that Sir Alec Guinness was on hand to open the Museum's festivities and introduce screenings of Kind Hearts and Coronets; to the audiences it was as if some fabulous creature like Sancho Panza or Lewis Carroll's White Knight had stepped down from the land of legend.
Yet there is more to Balcon's career than Ealing; and in earlier years he acted, like the other major British producers, as a reluctant apostle of transatlantic cinema. As production chief of the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, he signed up waggon-loads of American stars, writers and directors to give his films a supposed advantage at the American box-office; he also dallied unhappily at the court of Louis B. Mayer and produced A Yank at Oxford - a film far more yank than Oxford. Balcon's "pursuit of British cinema" - as the film series and its accompanying publication is subtitled - certainly came about through natural inclination, but it also came about through sheer trial and error.
One can see the trials, errors and triumphs in the earliest film included in the Museum's Balcon cycle, The Pleasure Garden, made in 1926. On the surface nothing could be more cosmopolitan. The stars were American (Virginia Valli, Carmelita Geraghty), the cameraman was Italian (Baron Ventimiglia); studio work was accomplished in Munich, with locations at Genoa, San Remo and Lake Como. Yet, for all the multi-national ingredients, this melodramatic tale about two chorus girls remains a film with a distinct, unified tone, and for that one must thank its young director, billed as "Alfred J. Hitchcock". This is Hitchcock's first film; screenings are not as rare as recent pronouncements by the American distributor Raymond Rohauer have indicated (the National Film Archive has held material since 1940), but it is still no commonplace item. Hindsight helps us to identify specific Hitchcock traits: the delight in voyeurism, expressed in the faces of the male audience at the theatre (the pleasure garden of the title), gazing at chorus girls through monocles and binoculars; the opening shot of the girls descending a circular staircase (one thinks of the spirals and staircases of Vertigo, of Psycho, and much else). For the knowing spectator, such details provide the icing on the cake; what makes the cake itself so nourishing is the film's cynical attitude towards romance and relish for the sleazy backstage life. A title card reads "What Every Chorus Girl Knows"; we then cut to a chorus girl laboriously washing tights with a bar of Lux soap dancing attendance. Throughout, Hitchcock delights in pulling the rug from under us; after a shot of Carmelita Geraghty, the innocent girl who turns bad, kneeling in what seems to be impassioned prayer, we are shown a pet dog vigorously licking her bare feet. Later, Miles Mander, the film's luscious, bigamous villain, swims towards his Far Eastern wife. Ah yes, we think, a fond aquatic embrace; no, a drowning.
The preoccupation with sexual pleasure seems strange in a film produced by Michael Balcon, a man so circumspect in matters of the human body that he was capable, years later, of ordering a re-take to remove the offending word "GENTLEMEN" from a railway station location. Yet British film history is full of such surprises; New York audiences are going to experience many more before the massive orgy of "British Film" is over.