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Stannard, Eliot (1888-1944)

Writer, Director

Main image of Stannard, Eliot (1888-1944)

If Eliot Stannard is remembered at all it will be for the eight screenplays written for Alfred Hitchcock, at Gainsborough and then at British International Pictures (BIP), from his directorial debut The Pleasure Garden (1926) to his penultimate silent picture The Manxman (1929) and including such highly-regarded pictures as The Lodger (1926), Downhill (1927), Easy Virtue (1927) and The Farmer's Wife (1928), all adapted from existing plays or novels.

But Stannard was a seasoned professional long before he worked with Hitch, having already produced scripts for Maurice Elvey (Justice, 1917; Dombey and Son, 1917; Hindle Wakes, 1918) and A. V. Bramble (The Bachelors' Club, 1921), amassing over 100 credits, including adaptations of classics from such literary luminaries as Fielding, Dickens, Emily Brontë and Shakespeare, as well as contemporaries such as Coward, Galsworthy and Israel Zangwill. In 1927 The Kinematograph Weekly called him "easily the most experienced as well as the most prolific of British screen writers."

Stannard gained his introduction to film in 1914 through the work of his mother, a once bestselling novelist who published under the nom-de-plume of John Strange Winter. Though most of the films he wrote are now unfortunately lost, he deserves lasting recognition as one of the first English screenwriters to think seriously and write publicly about a new dramatic form for this developing medium.

Stannard analysed his craft in a series of articles in 1916 entitled The Art of Kinematography and later in a short manual, Writing Screen Plays, published in 1920. His insights are not only revelatory about the role of the scenarist in the film industry of the time but also show him to be an innovative artist honing his skills within the constraints of a commercially driven business to produce narratives which were structured in an entirely different manner from stories written for the stage or the novel.

Stannard maintained that the production of an effective scenario should never be the preserve of "the lowest form of literary hack... a cut-and-slash trade". He was an early champion of a profession which had only recently come into existence: "Some of the Public believe this mystical and almost mythical person merely writes those fragments of explanation or dialogue technically known as sub-titles."

The scenario writer must be "thoroughly experienced in each technical branch of Kinematography; possessed of dramatic training and a sense of Theatre; conversant with the laws of literary construction; a student of psychology and character; and alive to the atmospheric value of costume, furniture, architecture and scenery." Most of all, the screenwriter must be adept at dramatic construction, based upon Stannard's founding principles of Continuity, Atmosphere, Symbolism and Theme.

His approach to Continuity is illustrated by two of the popular plays he adapted for Hitchcock, Easy Virtue by Noël Coward and The Farmer's Wife by Eden Philpotts. For the screen the plot unfolds chronologically, the backstories of the protagonists of both plays are presented as the first act rather than being revealed towards the climax. This not only results in a more causal 'cinematic' narrative, without the need for flashbacks, it also constructs a completely different relationship between the spectator and the central character.

In Easy Virtue we are shown from the outset the scandalous past and shocking divorce of Larita (Isobel Jeans), we know more about her than the other characters in the drama and sympathise with what's she's been through and her attempts to form a new life with a husband from a snooty landed family. The central question for the playgoer is Who is this woman and what is the secret of her past?'; for the filmgoer it is: 'Can she gain true happiness or will the upper-crust in-laws discover her guilty secret?' Stannard's 'straight-line adaptation', takes us into the clandestine life of the central character, furthering his credo that we are not simply interested in what characters do but in understanding their 'motive(s) for doing so.' This method of continuity construction dispenses with the theatrical Surprise of a third act revelation, resulting rather in a pattern of Suspense which would normally be deemed 'Hitchcockian' rather than 'Stannardian'.

Little is known of the actual working relationship between Stannard and Hitchcock, but the young director must have absorbed the seasoned scenarist's focus on the organising centrality of 'Theme'. For Stannard the 'universal error' of bad scripts is that they are "composed of a series of exciting incidents and nothing else... improbable and often impossible situations follow each other in bewildering rapidity... every scene which does not bear directly upon the central theme is a blemish to the scenario."

Stannard was certain that the introduction of sound would be "a ghastly failure". It was for him - his was one of many careers that never survived the transition to talkies. His later life is shrouded in mystery.

Michael Eaton

Charles Barr English Hitchcock (Cameron Books 1999)
Charles Barr 'Writing Screen Plays: Stannard and Hitchcock' in Andrew Higson (ed), Young and Innocent? The Cinema in Britain 1896-1930 (Univ of Exeter Press, 2002)
Michael Eaton 'Hitch and Strange' in Alan Burton and Laraine Porter (eds), Scene Stealing, Sources for British Cinema Before 1930 (Flicks Books 2003)
'The Man Who Wasn't There' Sight and Sound, December 2005
Gerry Turvey Enter The Intellectuals: Eliot Stannard, Harold Weston and the Discourse on Cinema and Art in Alan Burton and Laraine Porter (eds), Scene Stealing, Sources for British Cinema Before 1930 (Flicks Books 2003)

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Downhill (1927)Downhill (1927)

Hitchcock melodrama: a boy's decline after expulsion from school

Thumbnail image of Easy Virtue (1927)Easy Virtue (1927)

Hitchcock melodrama about a divorced woman rejected by society

Thumbnail image of Farmer's Wife, The (1928)Farmer's Wife, The (1928)

Uncharacteristically warm-hearted Hitchcock rural comedy

Thumbnail image of Lodger, The: A Story of the London Fog (1926)Lodger, The: A Story of the London Fog (1926)

Hitchcock's first thriller: a lodger is suspected of murder

Thumbnail image of Manxman, The (1929)Manxman, The (1929)

Hitchcock's last silent film: a melodrama set on the Isle of Man

Thumbnail image of Pleasure Garden, The (1926)Pleasure Garden, The (1926)

First feature from a new young talent - one Alfred J. Hitchcock

Thumbnail image of Ring, The (1927)Ring, The (1927)

One of Hitchcock's best silents: a boxing melodrama with a twist

Thumbnail image of Vortex, The (1927)Vortex, The (1927)

Controversial melodrama from Noel Coward's first play

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