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Criticism: Film criticism takes wing in the 1920s: Iris Barry and company by Geoff Brown


the cover of the London Mercury and a picture of Iris Barry

1925 edition of The London Mercury; Iris Barry

"Sir," a correspondent wrote in 1925, "I have been a subscriber to The London Mercury now for three years, but never in that time have I seen any article in its pages on the Film. This is to me the more surprising as I have been frequently regaled with such topics as Anthropology, Swine-Husbandry and the like." The genteel literary monthly had realised the omission itself, and carried its first film column in the same November issue, written by the assistant editor Milton Waldman. Robert Herring, a poet, reviewer, and enthusiast for the art of cinema, took over responsibility in 1926, roaming widely over the available field with discernment and wit.

The London Mercury was joining a range of publications in the early 1920s that offered film commentary predicated on the assumptions that cinema was not only entertainment but could - should - be an art, and that readers should be helped toward understanding its riches. From 1922 to 1927 film coverage in the London Evening Standard was in the hands of Walter Mycroft. A new convert to cinema at the start, he quickly championed the visual artistry of German films: Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch especially. Mycroft built his column inches into an influential platform, and found himself sometimes at odds with the newspaper's proprietor, Edward Hulton, who had a financial stake in the American distribution company Film Booking Offices. Like most critics of the time who applied serious thought to the job, Mycroft enthused over the visual comedy and spectacle in Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks; lesser American films he lambasted for their frivolity, vulgarity, and "false outlook on life".

The Times, still beating the drum for Britain, also took sharp aim at American product in editorials and reviews, and, most extensively, a series of articles in 1925 by the poet Robert Nichols. Restless and curious, Nichols went to Hollywood to scour the scene, reporter's notebook in hand. "We're no dumber than the public we serve," he reported one Hollywood 'specimen' telling him; "Get clever and you lose money." Nichols saw financial sense in that, though not artistic well-being: he declared reaping profits from the 'hicks' to be the biggest hurdle to the movies' improvement. As an example he supplied a horror story for all lovers of cinema as art. To suit the 'hicks', Murnau's intertitle-free Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, Germany, 1924) had been re-edited, spliced with over 50 titles, and given a happy ending; "And still it failed," he wrote sadly.

C.A. Lejeune was another significant newcomer. In 1921, family contacts, a particular enthusiasm for Fairbanks, and a pretentious article entitled 'The Undiscovered Aesthetic' paved the way to the Manchester Guardian, launching a career in print that lasted until 1960. In discursive, lengthy but fleet-footed paragraphs, Lejeune championed Swedish, German and French imports. At the same time, more unusually, she trumpeted her emotional engagement with Hollywood's mass-audience films, from the melodrama Stella Dallas (1926) to the action and landscapes of The Iron Horse (1926). Lejeune's sphere of influence grew considerably once she moved to The Observer in 1928; though patronising wit came to dilute her force, she was held in respect in these early years as a critic who cared. "The weekly column in The Observer," wrote the young enthusiast Raymond Spottiswoode in A Grammar of the Film (1935), "first led me to realise that the cinema had independent powers."

The most dominant, widely read critic of the 1920s, though, was Iris Barry (pictured above right). Pert, intelligent and à la mode, she was quickly taken up by the artistic elite on arrival in London. Ezra Pound was her first mentor; Wyndham Lewis swept her into a passionate affair. In 1924 she began to write film columns in The Spectator and the fashion magazine Vogue, though her fame stemmed more from the punchier, populist writing provided for the Daily Mail, Britain's best-selling newspaper, where she reigned as film critic from 1925 to 1930. Like Lejeune, she found pleasure in a wide range of English-language cinema, from American Westerns to cartoons and travel films, though she had a harder time being upbeat about things British. She also wrote spiritedly about continental imports, with the exception of the French avant-garde. In 1926 she published a vivacious book, Let's Go to the Pictures, typical in its enthusiastic embrace of both intellectual ambition and the importance of spectator pleasure. "Going to the pictures," she wrote, "is nothing to be ashamed of", aiming her thoughts not at the intellectuals but at the thoughtful middle classes who were increasingly attending cinemas. In its pages she brushed against 'highbrow' film vocabulary, writing knowledgably of 'tone value' and 'related time and space rhythms', but kept returning to chit-chat and personalities - directors, stars, producers - to keep the general reader in tow. Like Mycroft, Barry's eclectic preferences sometimes jarred with those of her proprietor. Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, urged protectionist policies to fight against American dominance and boost British film production; one editorial of 1926 bore the title 'The Foreign Film and the English Soul: An Insidious Form of Attack'. This was a crusade that Barry, an internationalist, could only join half-heartedly.

Ivor Montagu, Cambridge-educated, upper-class, passionate about science and socialist politics as well as cinema, displayed a similar wide reach in The Observer in 1925-1926; he was the newspaper's first film critic. American films were praised for their pace, visual comedy, and dramatic thrust; German films for their imaginative décor. He tried to be positive about British films: easy if the film showed the promise of Hitchcock's The Pleasure Garden (1925), hard if it was Herbert Wilcox's The Only Way (1925; "stale, dead and unconvincing"). But his most significant role in British film culture was as the main engine and tub-thumper of The Film Society, the society formed in 1925 to bring to London for private Sunday screenings films, chiefly foreign, previously unseen in Britain. Other leading critics, quick to chafe at their regular mainstream diet, quickly rallied to the cause. Barry and Mycroft joined its governing Council from the beginning, and proselytised for the Society in print; Herring's columns regularly featured generous coverage. Montagu himself wrote the Society's programme notes, guiding spectators toward the salient features of Das Kabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919) and the new German cinema, of L'Herbier's L'Inhumaine (France, 1924), and, from 1928, the Russian films that newly galvanised all believers in cinema art. Among the critical elite, only Lejeune kept her distance, berating the Society for not presenting its discoveries to a wider public.

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