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Blue Bottles (1928)

Courtesy of Contemporary

Main image of Blue Bottles (1928)
35mm, black and white, silent, 1940 feet
DirectorIvor Montagu
Production ManagerLionel Rich
ScreenplayFrank Wells
From a story byH.G. Wells
PhotographyF.A. Young
Art DirectorFrank Wells

Cast: Elsa Lanchester (Elsa Lanchester); Joe Beckett (Crook); Dorice Fordred (Girlfriend of Lanchester's); Marie Wright (Landlady); Charles Laughton (Gunman at top of stairs); Norman Haire (Crook)

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A young woman inadvertently helps the police to defeat a gang of robbers.

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Blue Bottles was part of a compendium of films directed by Ivor Montagu in 1928, in conjunction with H.G. Wells (who wrote the stories) and his son Frank Wells (who co-directed); the other films were Day-Dreams and The Tonic. All were made by Angle Pictures and starred Elsa Lanchester in the leading role.

Montagu was a founding member of the Film Society, which showed a number of films not catered for by commercial cinemas in Britain. Blue Bottles reflects the Film Society's influence in two ways: firstly, and most importantly, through its showing of old slapstick films, such as early Charlie Chaplin shorts; secondly, through the showing of contemporary French Impressionist and avant-garde films.

Blue Bottles is mostly slapstick in character. Lanchester's eponymous character is a rather scatterbrained maid who accidentally foils some crooks after blowing a police whistle. The main action occurs in a house that is being burgled and contains many scenes of knockabout humour, such as Lanchester being hit unconscious and then unwittingly apprehending the crooks.

One of the reasons that slapstick films were appreciated by cinema lovers was due to their visual qualities: in Blue Bottles, the action is mostly visual - unlike many films of the period, there are relatively few intertitles. Occasionally Montagu's love of cinematic experimentation is evident. For instance, when Lanchester blows the police whistle, we see a number of police respond to the sound by blowing their own whistles. After a montage showing a series of policemen blowing their whistles, Montagu uses a special filter to show a single policeman's face multiplied on the screen, as if seen through an insect's eyes. The rather hysterical reaction of the police is lampooned using found footage of military troops, fighter planes, tanks and even a battleship.

The film's incorporation of experimentation within a largely slapstick format does seem a little awkward in places, and was criticised at the time, yet such methods represent an attempt by Montagu to extend the canvas of slapstick filmmaking, updating the form for a new age. This approach, however, fell flat with audiences as the three-film package of which Blue Bottles belonged to lost money and eventually led to the demise of Angle Pictures. It should be noted, though, that the films were held up until 1929, when sound film was becoming more widespread. Within such a context, they may have appeared antiquated to some viewers.

Jamie Sexton

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Video Clips
Production stills
Sid Cole: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1987)
Lanchester, Elsa (1902-1986)
Laughton, Charles (1899-1962)
Montagu, Ivor (1904-1984)
Young, Freddie (1902-1998)
20s-30s Avant-Garde