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Film Society, The (1925-39)


Main image of Film Society, The (1925-39)

The Film Society announced itself to the world on the front page of the Daily Express in May 1925, promising to encourage "the production of really artistic films" by showing those which the trade deemed uncommercial or which the censor refused. Luminaries like H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw were named as supporters, suggesting the degree of cultural recognition the cinema had already won, but the driving force came from a heterogeneous group of younger cinéastes, straddling the film business, Fleet Street and the intelligentsia.

The case for a venue that might show or revive otherwise neglected films was a journalistic commonplace of the early 1920s, put with particular urgency by the Evening Standard's critic Walter Mycroft, and notably by the actor Hugh Miller, in a January 1925 article in the same paper. Miller joined forces with recent Cambridge graduate Ivor Montagu to assemble what became the Film Society's governing council, including Mycroft, Spectator critic Iris Barry, director Adrian Brunel and exhibitor Sidney Bernstein.

Most of the legwork was done by Barry, Bernstein and administrator J. M. (Josephine) Harvey, and the Film Society was launched in October 1925 at the New Gallery cinema in Regent Street, with a bill topped by Paul Leni's Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, Germany, 1924). For most of its 14 seasons it staged eight monthly programmes on Sunday afternoons from autumn to spring, for an audience wanting to see unusual or esteemed films, as Barry put it, "without being forced to seek them out by great pains in odd picture houses". Its bohemian tendencies and social pedigree - it wasn't cheap - made the Society a fixture of the gossip columns.

Its leading lights scoured Europe for films, but the Society's bumpy early seasons were increasingly overshadowed by the failure to obtain the film the membership most wanted to see: Battleship Potemkin (d. Sergei Eisenstein, 1925). Finally, in 1928, largely as a result of Montagu's efforts, the Soviet films began to be shown. In 1929 the Society paid host first to Vsevolod Pudovkin, then in November to Sergei Eisenstein, who came to lecture as well as show the by then venerable Potemkin in a famous double-bill with John Grierson's Drifters (1929). Three weeks later came the debut of an experimental film the Society had helped fund, Len Lye's Tusalava.

The Society underwent a sea change at the turn of the decade. Barry and Montagu departed for the US, while Brunel, whose post-production company had prepared the Society's programmes in the silent era, handed over to Thorold Dickinson, who set out to convert the "conservative sophisticates" in the stalls to the sound film. Dickinson, alongside Grierson and Jacob Isaacs, a lecturer at King's College London, became a mainstay of the Society in the 1930s, with Bernstein and Harvey continuing to handle the practicalities.

The new decade saw the rise of the London art cinemas, threatening to make the Film Society irrelevant, and at the same time the first provincial film societies, a token of its influence. All three were bound in a somewhat fractious relationship, in which the Film Society was prevailed upon to assist in various failed attempts to form a federation of local branches, while competing with Elsie Cohen's Academy cinema for the most promising imports. Much of the Society's strength had always resided down the bill, in shorts rather than features; but enthusiasm had already dwindled by the time war brought it to an end.

The Film Society's role in introducing continental cinema to Britain has been overstated, but its importance within film culture is considerable. Apart from those mentioned, filmmakers with a direct involvement in its affairs included Anthony Asquith and Basil Wright, while Mycroft named Carol Reed and Michael Powell as members. Another director of "really artistic films" who is thought to have attended is Alfred Hitchcock.

Henry K. Miller

Selected credits

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