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Book Bargain (1937)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Book Bargain (1937)
35mm, black and white, 8 mins
DirectionNorman McLaren
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
ProducerAlberto Cavalcanti
CameraF.H. Jones

The production and printing of the telephone directory.

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Perhaps understandably, Norman McLaren's first professional film as director is more a competent but anonymous piece of work than a firework-display of creative flair. It was overseen (uncredited) by Alberto Cavalcanti, who spent much time reining in his young protégé's ideas, scrapping his original sketches and vetoing what might have been a genuinely innovative approach to the film's use of sound because it would clash too much with the planned commentary. (This seems somewhat harsh on McLaren, as Cavalcanti himself was far from averse to sonic experimentation, as seen in the classic Coal Face two years earlier and elsewhere).

So the end result was a solid, unshowy documentary, certainly interesting in itself (it comprises a detailed illustration of every stage of the production of massive telephone directories by means of 1930s technology), but with few recognisably McLarenesque touches. The main technical point of interest is the mixture of normal-speed and slow motion within the same shot, as though McLaren is reining in time to have a closer look at particular processes.

McLaren's love of movement is much in evidence elsewhere - his animator's eye must have appreciated the shot of freshly printed sections piling up, the papers rippling a wave along the line as they're gathered. He's also fascinated by the individual mechanical processes of these extraordinarily elaborate machines with their hooks, suction cups, blades and sorting bays - much more than their human operators, whose presence is barely acknowledged (though we're told in passing that the young women affixing advertisements to the front of each directory are frequently swapped around to relieve the monotony of the job).

McLaren initially trained as a GPO editor (he had just cut Evelyn Spice's A Job in a Million), and this experience shows in a series of well-judged montages. Particularly effective is the climactic sequence demonstrating how the directory has changed massively over the sixty years of its existence, the original 1878 quasi-pamphlet thickening out as the subscriber base increases. At times the commentary seems to exist primarily to hurl impressive figures at the audience: each directory requires 5,000 miles of paper, the HM Stationery Office needs to order 56 tons of ink per year, and so on. This also serves to emphasise that, for all the extraordinary pool of creative talent the GPO was able to amass, the primary purpose of the films was to promote its services and trumpet achievements.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'We Live in Two Worlds: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 2'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (7:36)
McLaren, Norman (1914-1987)
The GPO Film Unit: 1937