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Criticism: Film criticism takes wing in the 1920s: theory, theatre and trades by Geoff Brown


covers of Heraclitus and Picturegoer

Ernest Betts' 1928 book Heraclitis, or The Future of Film; The Picturegoer magazine

For British film criticism, the 1920s were exciting pioneer days. Where critics of drama, art and literature worked within an established tradition of values and rules, cinema was still too new to have enough history and stable conventions to help widespread judgments form. The London Mercury made the point when launching its film coverage in 1925; it also mentioned the lack of a "British Museum or National Gallery for classic films", where history's backlog could be viewed. The magazine proposed to wield "the unwavering application of that taste whereon at bottom all critical judgment must be founded".

But for the fast-rising cinema intelligentsia, mere taste was not enough. They needed first principles. They needed a vocabulary, aesthetic and technical - crucial weapons in their fight to distinguish any genuine use of the medium from the avalanche of films that only reproduced plays, or left famous novels squeezed, flattened and strangled by intertitles. By the end of the 1920s, the films and translated writings of Vsevelod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein provided such weapons in abundance. Before this there was little of merit in English, and nothing of length, beyond Vachel Lindsay's groundbreaking book of 1915, The Art of the Moving Pictures, issued in Britain in 1922 in a revised edition that became required reading for anyone seeking to define a 'pure' cinema. Lindsay envisioned a cinema closely fused with the established visual arts, and completely liberated from stage mechanics. Robert Herring quoted some of his terms directly ('space-music', 'sculpture-in-motion'); other British commentators, like Ivor Montagu, let Lindsay's ideas gently percolate.

Additional new coinages emerged in print. One was 'cinematic' - "a shocking word," wrote Ernest Betts in 1928 (in his book Heraclitus, or The Future of Film), "but we must get used to it". But the most significant arrival was 'montage', from the French verb monter, to assemble, hoisted into prominence by Soviet film practice and theory. Ivor Montagu, translating Pudovkin's writings in 1928 for the book Film Technique, made only limited use of the term, though its core creative concept of building a sequence's meaning from the impact and rhythm of one edited shot upon another remained central. By the early 1930s, theoretical essays by Eisenstein translated in the magazines Close Up and transition had placed the word on its throne, at least for cinema intellectuals.

Those who joined the critics' ranks in the 1920s were not always champions of film as art. Some were simple beneficiaries of Fleet Street's regular games of musical chairs, where a passion for cinema was no particular requirement for the job. Several newcomers were associated with the theatre - the entertainment sphere that felt most threatened by cinema's widening popularity. In the April 1927 Picturegoer, the artist and playwright Dion Clayton Calthrop dismissed cinema with a swipe as "the unimaginative man's public house". But dislike and fear of the celluloid interloper didn't stop others entering the same pub (Calthrop himself, earlier in the 1920s, had sold material for film adaptation). At the Sunday Times, Sydney Carroll, formerly the paper's theatre critic, reviewed cinema from 1925 until 1939; decades later, his successor Dilys Powell described him with unusual vitriol as someone who "didn't know a film from a sponge". More valuably, the theatre critic James Agate wrote occasional cinema notices from 1921, and became the Tatler magazine's film critic in 1928. Loquacious but readable, Agate took a breezy 'common man' approach - in the 1960s Raymond Durgnat memorably labelled his taste "Piccadilly Neanderthal". Agate bristled at the new film jargon: "I should hate to know the meaning of 'montage'," he once claimed. Yet he still wanted his films 'cinematic'; in 1929 he specifically criticised E.A. Dupont's Piccadilly (1929) for containing nothing that couldn't be acted on stage.

The trade papers continue to lavish praise wherever possible on distributors' product. Predictably, they viewed the Film Society's activities with suspicion; in October 1925, just before the Society opened, Ivor Montagu tried to reassure Kinematograph Weekly readers that the Society's activities didn't reflect any assumption of industry "wickedness, or stupidity... for not giving the public the kind of film we like". Though never a champion of cinema art, the Kinematograph Weekly nonetheless allowed itself over time to become more critical of mainstream films and the industry. Pat L. Mannock, its British studio correspondent, became a notably acerbic voice in the paper, puffing where he could, but never failing where necessary to criticise failures of imagination and skill, especially in the area of scripts.

The best American films, in this respect, gave critics and audiences a much smoother ride, something biliously recognised in 1927 by the Daily Express critic (and BBC radio critic) G.A. Atkinson. To cinema audiences, he wrote, British films were seen as almost foreign films: "They go to see American stars. They talk America, think America, and dream America." Unlike most newspaper voices, especially those of the proprietors, Atkinson saw no reason to champion the incoming legislation of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, designed to boost and protect British film production: British films were not yet distinctive, British, or good enough to deserve such support.

The fan magazines were certainly happy feeding off America's output: The Picturegoer, the decade's leading fan magazine, could not have survived without its regular Hollywood parade of stars and fashions. Even here, though, there was some new acknowledgment that cinema involved more than star-gazing, and that film technique and continental productions might also be of interest. An August 1921 article approvingly singled out the close-up as a favourite device of "directors with advanced ideas"; in April 1924 it was praising Lang's Destiny (Der müde Tod, 1921), and interviewing Abel Gance. When Mannock became the paper's editor (1927-1930), the review coverage became sharper, and more cosmopolitan. Commenting on Josef von Sternberg's The Last Command (US, 1928), Mannock proclaimed its imported German star Emil Jannings as the screen's finest actor, and declared seeing the film an absolute duty "to anyone who regards the kinema as something more than a dim haven for courting couples". By 1928, partly thanks to critics' ministrations, there were many more such people than there had been a decade earlier.

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