27 December 2009

British silent cinema

An unpublished review of Christine Gledhill's book 'Reframing British Cinema 1918-1928: Between Restraint and Passion', written in 2004.

*

British silent film, since the introduction of sound, has endured a dismal reputation. Kevin Brownlow wrote that British silents never advanced beyond the sense of technological astonishment visible in early experiments by GA Smith, Williamson’s Kinematograph Company and RW Paul. The period’s greatest director, Alfred Hitchcock, did not peak until his move to Hollywood, despite the success of The Lodger (1926); even Wyndham Lewis, the most iconoclastic Modernist, declined to experiment with film, and the UK avant-garde did not involve themselves with cinema like Brecht, Dalí, or Mayakovsky. The failure of British directors to match DW Griffith’s narrative skill, Murnau’s technical mastery or Eisenstein’s level of formal experimentation has resulted in its critical mauling, as it failed to contribute to the process of determining cinematic form as did American, French, German and Russian films of the period.

Rachael Low’s seminal History of the British Film, with its comprehensive volume on the 1920s, remains the authoritative work on the subject. Gledhill, keen to revise the perception of British silents, builds on Low, looking at how various cultural, social, political and aesthetic debates fed into an attempt to create a specifically British cinematic idiom. A sense of national identity, fuelled by nationalistic demands for a film culture distinct from popular Hollywood movies, was established through various discourses of related binary oppositions, influenced by the massive upheavals of the First World War, which necessitated a rethink of long-held ‘British ideals’. These dialectics eschewed formalist concerns, focusing almost entirely on content, and on acting rather than construction.

Gledhill emphasises debates about film acting, using a wide number of contemporary sources (interviews, newspaper and journal reviews) to pinpoint key discourses in characterising British film: the opposition of ‘British’ restraint and ‘American’ passion dominates, besides competition between naturalism and stylisation, and the casting choice between established stars and ‘non-actors’ playing ‘types’. However, Gledhill avoids centralising her argument around acting debates, and carefully assesses how oral traditions, Britain’s impressive literary heritage, popular fiction and the related art of photography influenced the thematic, intellectual and visual character of the films she studies.

Modernist conceptions of cultural hierarchies, defining avant-garde production as ‘high art’ distinct from popular culture, are crucial to Gledhill’s understanding of the development of British film. The theatrical and literary heritage of the Victorian and Edwardian periods was important: much of British narrative film owed something to dramatic works and ideas by playwrights such as Noël Coward, Dion Boucicault and Stanley Houghton; indeed, the high number of adaptations was criticised in 1920s film journals. This heritage, Gledhill argues, met with music halls, melodrama and traditional images and to form a predominantly ‘middlebrow’ cinematic culture, consciously repudiating Hollywood populism and the Modernist experiments in Europe.

Another binary opposition, crucial to inter-war political debate, fed into the process of establishing a narrative tradition: the conflict of (conservative, liberal or parliamentary socialist) reformism and revolutionary politics. In Britain, Gledhill states, revolutionary politics gained very little ground – only the General Strike, which had little impact on contemporary directors, threatened parliamentary democracy. Gledhill identifies Houghton’s Hindle Wakes, expertly filmed by Maurice Elvey (1927) as exemplary of the class-conciliatory politics, aware of the necessity of post-war social changes, which infused British film; its heroine, Fanny Hawthorne, typified protagonists who ‘set about readjusting rather than overthrowing the boundaries of previous generations’, and the way in which larger social issues were often played out in small, familial scenarios.

An astonishing number of films are assessed by Gledhill, with the deliberate exception of Hitchcock's The Lodger and The Ring, extensively detailed elsewhere, and by no means contradictory to her argument. Key works by Elvey, George Pearson, Asquith, Graham Cutts and others are subjected to impressive technical analysis, with interpretation of content informed by Lacanian-psychoanalytic criticism, Bakhtinian theories and a perceptive understanding of inter-war society and politics. Gledhill does not so much suggest, then, that British silent film was the equal of its American and European counterparts (despite unearthing several forgotten classics), but more that the aesthetic and content debates were so complex that they could not have been resolved by 1928, and that the flowering of the 1940s owed much to foundations laid in the silent era.

No comments:

Post a Comment