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Tell Me If It Hurts (1934)

Courtesy of Martin Fairfax-Jones & Associates

Main image of Tell Me If It Hurts (1934)
DirectorRichard Massingham
Production CompanyRichard Massingham
ProducerRichard Massingham
ScreenplayRichard Massingham
CinematographyKarl Urbahn

Cast: Russell Waters (The Patient); Patrick Ross (The Dentist); Freda Silcock (The Nurse); Peter Copley (The Waiter); Richard Massingham (The Customer)

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An attack of toothache in a restaurant forces a man to endure a terrifying visit to the dentist.

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Tell Me If It Hurts (d. Richard Massingham, 1934) is a refreshing example of amateur British filmmaking. Massingham filmed it at weekends and used the rooms of friends and colleagues as sets; the waiting room and surgery were those of his own dentist and the restaurant was the flat of cameraman Karl Urbahn.

The film received a theatrical release, but its visceral emphasis on the pain of dentistry meant a censor's certificate was withheld at first. By 1940, however, Massingham would establish his own production company, making public information films for various government departments.

Massingham's treatment of the mundane subject of an unwelcome visit to the dentist is singular and expressive. He describes the patient's pain with shots of trains and flames, but he also uses editing within scenes to highlight details and form jokes. Examples include the cuts to the patient's feet, which swing in pleasure under his chair as he prepares to eat his dinner, and cross and strain during the dentist's examination. The camera rests on a lone diner, after the patient has passed behind him, to register his smile at another's pain.

In a 1939 article for Sight and Sound, Massingham pleaded that the imaginative development of film technique was hindered by an excessively rigid attention to continuity of detail. The jaggedness of Tell Me If It Hurts is apparent both in its sudden changes of scale, position and duration of shot (there are almost no repeated camera set-ups) and the seemingly disembodied sound. The latter was dubbed, no doubt due to the expense of sound recording but also perhaps because of the freedom it allowed Massingham. It would be a mistake to ignore how he consciously matched his popular style to the commonplace material he dealt with.

Kieron Webb

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