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Pett and Pott (1934)

Courtesy of Royal Mail Group Ltd

Main image of Pett and Pott (1934)
35mm, 29 min, black & white
Directed byCavalcanti
Production CompanyGPO Film Unit
ProducerJohn Grierson
Script (uncredited)Alberto Cavalcanti
 Stuart Legg

Cast: J.M. Reeves (Mr Pett); Marjorie Fone (Mrs Pett); June Godfrey (Polly Pett); Eric Hudson (Mr John Pott); Barbara Nixon (Mrs Anna Pott); Bruce Winston (the judge)

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The story of two neighbouring households, the Petts (conventional but happy) and the Potts (unconventional and quarrelsome).

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Pett and Pott was made for the GPO Film Unit but, unlike many of the documentary films made there, it is a satirical comedy. The film, made to advertise domestic telephone sets, is based around two very different families. The Petts are conventional, happy and have children; the Potts are unconventional and unhappy, without children.

Brazilian-born Alberto Cavalcanti had established a name for himself making French avant-garde films in the 1930s. He had joined Grierson's documentary film unit because he was dissatisfied with the commercial assignments he had been working on in France, and was interested in experimenting with sound. In Pett and Pott, which evolved from an idea by Humphrey Jennings, Cavalcanti managed to smuggle a number of both sound and visual experiments into a rather light storyline.

The first memorable 'experimental' sequence occurs when we see both Mr Pett (a solicitor) and Mr Pott (a debt collector) sit on a tube amongst a number of other businessmen, all dressed in identical suits and bowler hats. A close-up of a newspaper, showing a story with the headline 'Another Suburban Burglary', is followed by a cut to a woman awakening in her bed screaming. The scream merges with the noise of a train going through a tunnel, and there is a cut back to the inside of the tube.

Another memorable experimental sequence occurs when Mrs Pott has become a virtual slave to her own maid. Her toil is expressed through a montage sequence: first, a calendar is shown and is intercut with Mrs Pott trudging up steps with a heavy load of shopping. As the calendar rapidly flicks through the days, the same repetitive image of Mrs Pott is shown, while a sparse, monotonous drum pattern is heard on the soundtrack. This moment recalls a sequence in the avant-garde film Ballet mécanique (d. René Clair, France, 1924), in which a woman's movement going up steps is looped.

These experimental moments only occur occasionally in Pett and Pott, yet its overall structure is carefully orchestrated into a set of formal oppositions and repetitions. The repetitions tend to emphasise the anonymity of public life, while the oppositions stress the private lives of the Petts and the Potts. Eventually, we are led to believe that the installation of a telephone will lead to a more personalised link between the public and the private.

Jamie Sexton

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Addressing The Nation: The GPO Film Unit Collection Volume 1'.

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Video Clips
1. Mr Pett and Mr Pott (2:50)
2. Impossible servants (4:00)
3. Daily drudgery (0:38)
4. A 999 call (3:55)
Complete film (30:24)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Glorious Sixth of June, The (1934)
Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)
Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)
Legg, Stuart (1910-1988)
Wright, Basil (1907-1987)
GPO Film Unit (1933-1940)
20s-30s Avant-Garde
The GPO Film Unit: 1934