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Criticism: The 1930s: movies for the millions by Geoff Brown


image of Graham Greene

Graham Greene

The talkies helped cement cinema's place in Britain as the mass entertainment medium par excellence. Hollywood exported musicals, romances, gangster dramas, comedies - many glittering with new stars. Product from British studios and companies, already stimulated by the quota requirements of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, increased further in numbers. Numerous films hit the spot with audiences, and most critics, including Hitchcock's run of thrillers, launched with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934); The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and other Alexander Korda spectacles; and Jessie Matthews musicals.

Critics and journalists had their hands full keeping track, though the task was generally easier if they followed mainstream opinion. Close Up magazine closed in 1933, its original adventurous spirit diluted by a softening attitude towards commercial cinema and the shrivelling of independent film-making in the talkie era. In 1931, The Bioscope trade paper, always independent-minded, lost its advertising and was forced into liquidation after aggravating American distributors by openly supporting the British production quota; its new institution of percentage points in film reviews was also disliked. Kinematograph Weekly and To-Day's Cinema continued, though the Wardour Street coverage in the 1930s lacked the kind of needle-sharp comments Pat Mannock (from 1930 film critic of the Daily Herald) had supplied in the past.

Fan magazines flourished. Film Weekly lost most of its early intellectual leanings, but stayed in business until the outbreak of World War Two with lavishly illustrated coverage, mostly of Hollywood and British productions. The Picturegoer, issued monthly throughout the 1920s, became a weekly in 1931. The decade also saw the rise of 'how to' books explaining, craft by craft, how films were made or how to market scripts. The director Adrian Brunel, associated in the 1920s with Ivor Montagu and The Film Society, followed Filmcraft (1933) with Film Production (1936). Such volumes were not works of criticism, though their ruthless focus on the commercial requirements of British studios generated tart commentary: "In the film industry, more than in most businesses, original thinking is taboo, for our mental processes are done by syndicate. We are the victims of parrot cries..." (Film Production).

Parrot cries rose as well from rank-and-file newspaper critics. Hospitalities at press screenings were lavish. With drink in one hand and the press hand-out in the other, it was easy enough to coast along and offer readers a reflection of the distributors' rosy assessments or the leanings of newspaper proprietors. In a 1933 article, John C. Moore, the Paris and Berlin correspondent for the determinedly advanced magazine film art, generalised scathingly about the British critics. They could write "poor, though sometimes spicy" plot summaries, he said, but their cinematic outlook was amateurish. Of cutting and montage they had an "inborn dislike"; and if they randomly sprinkled references to 'rhythm' and 'continuity', they chiefly used the words "in the wrong connection".

In the mass, perhaps, that was true. Yet among the horde now writing about films several figures stood out for their independence, cleverness, scepticism, and genuine enthusiasm for cinema. Most were published in magazines rather than newspapers; this ensured them greater latitude from editors, and usually greater space. Predominant among them was the novelist Graham Greene (pictured). Money from his novels at this period was scarce; reviewing brought in a regular wage, though his interest in the job was more than financial. As a student, he had contributed film reviews to The Oxford Outlook; later in the 1920s, he had supplied several pieces for The Times (where he worked as a sub-editor), writing in praise of poetic cinema and - dipping into the jargon of the time - 'the rhythms of space and time'. Once launched in 1935 as the critic of The Spectator, he kept film theories in his back pocket; the strength of his pungent criticisms lay more in an eye for visual detail worthy of a cameraman, and a novelist's sure grasp of character and atmosphere. At best, the results displayed a creative engagement with the cinema medium hardly encountered among most of the period's newspaper critics. C.A. Lejeune at The Observer was widely read, but had started dwindling into the writer of readable, witty chatter and the smart debunking of foolish movies: there was less space now for art and principles. Sydney Carroll, famously rhetorical and sentimental at the Sunday Times, rhapsodised about Hollywood nothings with tears in his eyes, much to Greene's own distaste. With Greene, however, the reader's interest was quickly stirred: sometimes by ebullient enthusiasm (for the young Carol Reed); at others by chilly dislike ("as a producer he has no sense of continuity and as a writer he has no sense of life" - that's Hitchcock); and always, in whatever mood, by phrases written with a scythe ("a leg in the library, buttocks over the billiard-table" - Linden Travers in Brief Ecstasy, 1937). The tartness and mischief of Greene's pen led him into trouble: reviewing Wee Willie Winkie (1937) for Night and Day, the new magazine he co-edited, comments about the child star Shirley Temple's purported sex appeal sparked a libel suit from her studio, 20th Century Fox. At the end of the case, which Fox won, Greene and his publishers faced a bill of over £3,500, though by that point lack of funding had already closed the magazine. Greene remained at The Spectator until 1940.

The broadcaster Alistair Cooke offered another independent voice. From 1934 to 1937 he was the BBC's film critic; his fortnightly radio talks were reprinted in The Listener, and he also contributed to Sight and Sound. Cooke's position was that of a jaunty observer of metropolitan life; his distinctive film articles didn't so much offer rounded critiques as present extended jazz riffs on a chosen theme. Coverage of MGM's A Tale of Two Cities (1935), for instance, focussed solely on Ronald Colman's clean-shaven face and camera portraiture in Soviet cinema. In 1937 he edited Garbo and the Night Watchmen, a lively collection of film criticism from England and America, unified by the writers' breadth of cultural perspective and the absence of the doctrinaire. The book is now especially valuable for salvaging criticisms by Greene's co-editor on Night and Day, the translator and journalist John Marks: in his well-written reviews for The New Statesman (1935-36), he saw films whole while weighing their constituent parts, and named the technical teams' names where many others breezed through on a star or a whim. This was unusual. Robert Herring applied common sense to commercial films at the Manchester Guardian, though from 1935 he had more scope to further independent cinema as editor of the magazine Life and Letters To-Day.

Other lively 1930s talents, closer to reporters in attitude, included Cedric Belfrage, now the sharp-tongued Hollywood correspondent for the Sunday Express, and the equally viperous Nerina Shute (Sunday Referee). Elsewhere, John Lawrence, shrouded in anonymity at The Times, was usually sensible. G.A. Atkinson and Jympson Harmon, at the Daily Telegraph and Evening News, had at least the advantage of calling on film history: Harmon, previously an assistant, had been in place as the News critic since 1921, while Atkinson could trace his own lineage in journalism back to 1903.

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