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Criticism: The 1930s: theory and debate by Geoff Brown


image of Raymond Spottiswoode

Raymond Spottiswoode; Klingender and Legg's 1937 book Money Behind the Screen

Theory may have been absent in film reviews of the 1930s, but it filled several significant books. In 1933, Faber and Faber published Film by the German critic and perceptual psychologist Rudolf Arnheim; this translation of his Film als Kunst (1931) received serious attention for its attempt to construct a comprehensive cinema aesthetic. In the process, Arnheim lined up several of the same villains flayed by Rotha in The Film Till Now: the direct reproduction of reality, Hollywood and the commercial film, the aesthetic misfortune of sound. Then in 1935 Faber issued Britain's first home-grown volume dedicated to film theory, Raymond Spottiswoode's A Grammar of the Film. Like Rotha's book, Spottiswoode's Grammar was the product of extreme youth, written when an Oxford student - a time, he wrote later, "when the splitting of hairs seemed to its author more important than making new discoveries." In dry paragraphs, Spottiswoode (pictured above left) dissected what he considered the affective, psychological and aesthetic significance of the film-maker's tools; the dissection was based entirely on theory, not practical experience. (That came shortly afterwards, working with Grierson.) The book, cautiously welcomed, concluded with a baffling diagrammatic folding chart, following a complex family tree back and forth between close-up and finished film.

Apart from the hair-splitting, a contemporary reader may be most struck by Spottiswoode's blithe distaste for the spectators living beyond his ivory tower. Along with Rotha's early aversion to direct representation, he also caught Rotha's horror of mass entertainment, blithely referring to the "lower and lower levels of intelligence" drawn toward cinema and the increasing depravity of public taste. The writers associated with the magazine film art (1933-37), keepers of the flame first lit by Close Up, felt equally free to ignore the mass audience's view of cinema. The editor B. Vivian Braun, more circumspect than Spottiswoode, termed them "the ordinary (sensation-loving) public" - the people satisfied with "glamorous All-Star movies" and the "sensational theatre-on-celluloid presentations of sex, murder, war, comedy, etc." But for film art, he declared, "the real film is a visual poem."

Most writers on film could not brush off the commercial product so readily: out in the cinemas, the commercial product was mostly the only kind available. Yet critics and commentators inside and outside the trade were far from supine; the British film industry during the 1930s underwent particularly close, sometimes heated, scrutiny. In their 1939 book The Film Answers Back, E.M. and M.M. Robson, two Presbyterian Scots of High Tory rectitude, launched the first of several extravagant onslaughts on films as engines of civilisation's decay. Hollywood was largely exempted, but British films like Tom Walls' comedy Second Best Bed (1937) and Alexander Korda's Technicolor fluff The Divorce of Lady X (1938) had to sit in the dock next to the Germans' unhealthy Caligari, which reflected an irrational, confused society "sick unto death".

In the decades to come, critics' moral distaste for films and the society they saw reflected on the screen grew considerably. But in the 1930s, the Robsons' hellfire sermon was the exception; most observers of the industry had smaller, more specific concerns. Two particular issues rose to the surface. One was the employment of foreign film personnel, a speciality of Korda's Denham kingdom and the Gaumont-British studios at Shepherd's Bush. The Association of Cine-Technicians voiced "grave alarm" in a statement publicised in the trade papers in November 1935. Cinema Quarterly's successor, World Film News, in acidic mood, printed a world map with identifying pins showing the birthplaces of the industry's 'flora and fauna'. Reviewers caught and fanned this disquiet, not without some xenophobia. Graham Greene, while sympathetic to individual films of foreign extraction, like Friedrich Feher's The Robber Symphony (1936), took the occasion of Karl Grune's stiff romantic drama The Marriage of Corbal (1936) to launch an unusually bitter attack in The Spectator on the foreigners' bulk employment. "One may at least express a wish that émigrés would set up trades in which their ignorance of our own language and culture was less of a handicap".

No lack of English talent, Greene averred, kept our technicians from studio employment; the hurdle was a lack of English money. "It is only natural," he wrote, "that compatriots should find jobs for each other." Here Greene intertwined with the second issue exercising industry observers in the mid 30s: the financial basis of British production at a time when new film companies, and mysterious bank loans, were mushrooming dangerously. Following warning notes in Kinematograph Weekly, in 1936 Grierson and World Film News financed the preparation of a report into the sources of British film finance, undertaken by the Marxist sociologist and art historian F.D. Klingender and the documentary maker Stuart Legg. The end result was the book Money for the Screen, published early in 1937. They wrote of "tempestuous expansion and curious financing"; and the details given of company holdings, affiliations, and debts helped to tighten the breaks on a production boom already primed to implode.

Towards the end of the 1930s, with the banks retreated, their fingers burned, and numerous studios closed, critics had many fewer British films to review. But the bulk of them did not explore the reasons why; the industrial context of film production mattered far less in a review than the allure of the stars (mostly American), the jokes that might be made at the film's expense, or even, if space permitted, eccentric personal disquisitions (in 1937, Lejeune informed her Observer readers: "The first time I ever heard of The Prisoner of Zenda I was nine, and I had just swallowed a cherry stone.")

By 1939, the year Hollywood unveiled Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, big mainstream American product dominated the horizons in Britain. The special needs and circumstances of the Second World War changed that, and brought a new urgency and patriotism to the business of film reviewing. It also brought a paper shortage, and an increased focus on adult education and cinema's role in society. Yet the core stances and tensions within British film criticism, clearly established by the early 1930s, would not significantly change. Cinema as elitist art; cinema as mass entertainment. Cinema as a visual discourse; cinema as displaced theatre or literature. Criticism as readable trivia; criticism as intellectual theory. There was still much conflict ahead.

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