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Love Test, The (1934)

British Film Institute

Main image of Love Test, The (1934)
35mm, 63 mins, black & white
DirectorMichael Powell
Production CompanyFox-British Pictures
Screenplay/DialogueSelwyn Jepson
From a story byJack Celestin
PhotographyArthur Crabtree

Cast: Judy Gunn (Mary); Louis Hayward (John); Dave Hutcheson (Thompson); Googie Withers (Minnie)

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A young chemist, working at a laboratory to develop a method to make nitrate fireproof, comes into conflict with his male colleagues when his girlfriend becomes head of the department.

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Michael Powell sometimes used the very circumstances of the cinema in which he worked for story material. In The Red Ensign (1934) for instance, the quota act is the basis for a plot about a shipbuilder determined to stop the beleaguered British shipping industry being run down by ships flying under foreign flags. The Love Test (1935) instead revolves around attempts to render celluloid less flammable, the highly combustible properties of nitrate film stock being one of the reasons why so many movies from the period have vanished.

What is impressive about The Love Test is not so much the hackneyed story (at a research lab, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl), but rather its sexual subtext and frequently stylish presentation. Powell's visual grace notes (with credit also due to cinematographer Arthur Crabtree) include a complicated opening tracking shot (over a minute long) that snakes all around the central research lab; 'framing' the lovers (in a taxi, in the corner of a restaurant, or through a gap in the laboratory equipment) to create more intimate romantic scenes; and giving the climax a small stylistic fillip by having the hero's voice, when suddenly heard in the office through a heating shaft, matched visually by a series of quickly edited shots of the grille to heighten the impact of the scene.

This is the earliest of Powell's films to point to the sensuousness and sexuality which later became so prominent in his work. While using incendiary nitrate dolls for transitions in the stages of the couple's love affair is plain enough, a real surprise is the subtle but clear suggestion of lesbianism in the character of Mary's neighbour, who 'feminises' her with new clothes, make-up and hair-do and is then permanently excluded when Hayward arrives. This is contrasted amusingly with scenes in which Googie Withers gives Hayward kissing 'lessons', in a role that Variety magazine, in its inimitable style, described as "a gum-chewing secretary-vamp who crank-starts Hayward's engine".

These elements reveal the enthusiasm, vigour and humour that mark many of Powell's surviving quota features. In the movie, Hayward finds a commercially viable solution to making nitrate film less flammable; sadly, the film industry itself wasn't able to do so until 1951. The Love Test, a film long thought lost, was, fortunately, restored and re-presented at the London Film Festival in 1990.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. The lab (4:00)
2. Budding romance (3:46)
3. The makeover (4:20)
Complete film (1:00:32)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
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