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Birds of Prey (1930)
"So it's you who are the fool after all!"
For his second feature at the newly established Associated Radio Pictures, filmed at Beaconsfield whilst the famous Ealing Studios were still under construction, Basil Dean turned to a crime play from 1928 - The Fourth Wall. The play itself was unremarkable, but for the fact that it was written by A.A. Milne, who would become internationally known for his Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Dean himself adapted the script for the big screen, and altered the name to Birds of Prey (it was retitled again for its US release the following year to the less ambiguous The Perfect Alibi).
At ninety minutes, the film has a slightly inflated running time considering most of the Ealing films released in the early 30s generally lasted between 60-70 minutes. This works against the film, and the first thirty minutes are a confusing mess. Things quickly slot into place when the murder itself is carried out, and we're treated to a Colombo-style killing where we witness the murderers and understand their motives. The suspense is then seeing if their "perfect alibi" is good enough to outwit the police and family of the murdered man.
While at a dinner at a large country house, the retired head of the family, Arthur Hilton (C. Aubrey Smith) tells his guests and family about a time he was working as a police commissioner in Africa, and was working to catch a gang of three men who'd been responsible for a number of local murders. He found himself caught by them first, but they didn't kill him as he didn't carry a gun – therefore they didn't believe he was a policeman and let him go. Hilton later caught the men and was responsible for the hanging of one of them – though due to a discrepancy with evidence the other two escaped with 20-year terms in prison instead of the noose. It then transpires that Laverick (Warwick Ward) – a quiet man and keen birdwatcher, and Carter (Robert Loraine) – a loud, confident man – are the two men that Hilton locked up all those years ago (under different identities) and have been plotting their revenge ever since. The murder is perfectly arranged, making it look like suicide with even the local police believing this to be the case. It's only when Arthur's plucky nephew Jimmy (Frank Lawton) and his inquisitive girlfriend Mollie (Dorothy Boyd) begin their own investigation that they realise all isn't as it seems. Bonus points for spotting Jack Hawkins in his cinema debut.
Indeed, if the script was taken from an unremarkable play, the film itself is similarly unremarkable. The pacing is clunky and the film feels too long. At times the upper-class accents of the women in particular are almost indecipherable (and that's to a native English speaker). The acting varies between wooden and unintentionally hilarious (though the young couple played by Frank Lawton and Dorothy Boyd are far more convincing than the rest of the cast). It seems a little unsporting to criticise Basil Dean excessively for the poor direction, as this was one of his first films, and virtually every director was forced to learn their craft again with the dawn of sound films, but "functional" is probably the most polite way to explain his contribution. There's a "Great Train Robbery" (1903) influence in the first shot as we witness a revolver firing at close range, but overall there is far too much talking - this may have been required in Dean's beloved theatres but in the film there is simply not enough use of the visual aspects of cinema.
However, there remains an undeniable charm to the whole thing. As with Dean's previous film, 'Escape!' (1930), there's a lot of location shooting which shows off the beautiful English countryside. And even though – after the first half hour – the film is terribly predicable, it's still entertaining enough, despite the aforementioned pacing issues.
The Beginning of Ealing
If an "official" list of Ealing films were created, this would be at the beginning; though it was filmed at Beaconsfield as the London site was still under construction. Famed theatre director Basil Dean had conspired with American studios RKO to form Associated Talking Pictures (ATP), which the US company hoped to use to produce talkies with British thespians which could be distributed in both the UK and the US.
'Escape' was the first picture to fall out of this agreement, and was produced in 1930. Though Alfred Hitchcock's 'Blackmail' usually takes credit for being the first talkie produced in Britain, his film was actually produced as a silent, and it was due to Hitchcock's foresight that he introduced sound during filming. However, 'Escape' was conceived as a talking picture from the beginning, and, as Dean later proudly proclaimed, it was the first talking picture to be shot on location, with scenes taking advantage of the Dorset countryside.
To use as a story for this important first ATP film, Dean turned to his friend John Galsworthy, and after much persuasion managed to gain the rights to adapt his play. It was also vital that Dean harnessed the very best of British acting talent, which meant turning to the theatre. He achieved a considerable feat in enrolling a then-giant of the stage, Sir Gerald du Maurier, to play the lead role. du Marier, like most theatrical actors of the period, looked upon the cinema with contempt, but due to a number of unwise financial investments, found the opportunity too good to refuse. His experience on 'Escape' must have done little to improve his opinion, as the old theatrical knight was forced to roll around in mud for take after take in, only to find an entire days' filming rendered unusable due to the incorrect configuration of the primitive sound recording equipment.
du Maurier plays Matt Denant, a man who is imprisoned for assaulting a policeman whilst defending the integrity of a woman (in scenes shot on location in (I believe) Hyde Park). After two years he is presented with an opportunity to escape in thick fog, and we follow his exploits across the countryside, relying on the generosity and discretion of those he encounters to remain at large. A pre-39 Steps Madeline Carroll has a particularly memorable role as a girl who allows Denant to hide in her bedroom.
Basil Dean's eight years at the helm of a pre-Michael Balcon Ealing are often unfairly disregarded as providing nothing but George Formby and Gracie Fields pictures. He directed 'Escape' himself, and with minimal experience, and in what must have been a challenging shoot on location with actors unused to working away from a warm, comfortable stage, he managed to conjure a perfectly entertaining film. We start by witnessing a fox hunt, which foreshadows Denant's fox hunt, and there are shades of Powell and Pressburger's 'Gone to Earth' (1950) in these opening scenes. He admirably achieved his aim of showcasing the English countryside. Alas, there is no evidence here to display Gerald du Maurier's acting ability, despite the fact that this is probably his best role in the few films he made before his death in 1934.
The Good Beginning (1953)
"You know, I think I'll enjoy married life. I always heard it was a miserable state!"
A charming little film which gives a snapshot of 1950s married life and an interesting insight into contrasting attitudes which seem
Johnnie and Kit are a newly married couple, moving into their apartment after a happy honeymoon. This being the 1950s, they've never lived together before and, though their love for each other is sincere, it becomes apparent that they have differing attitudes to certain things in life. Crucially, in 'The Good Beginning', it's about money.
Johnnie is working in finance, and is marked out as showing potential for a promising career. He enjoys the odd flutter on the horses, and popping for his lunch in the local pub. His wife, Kit, believes that they should live frugally, saving up in order to buy the nicer things in life (like a fridge!). In particular she is strongly opposed to buying things on credit ("the never-never"), as friends Brian and Evie are prone to do, despite her envy of their luxurious fur coats and sports cars.
Johnnie, being calm but firm, agrees to never take out credit, but refuses to sacrifice his own luxuries. When he is offered a considerable bonus and promotion at work his thoughts turn to enabling Kit to experience the luxury she has denied herself, though in doing so he enters a deceitful business.
At barely an hour long, The Good Beginning never outstays its welcome, and gives a fun and insightful snapshot into domestic life in the 1950s. It's interesting to see Kit's refusal to buy anything they hadn't yet earned (a now almost old-fashioned notion), contrasted with Brian and Evie's spendthrift attitude (for the entire film Brian and Evie are never shown to suffer any negative consequences for their actions, indeed the opposite is true).
This film has been released on DVD after being all but forgotten for the last 60 years. Its neglect is undeserved. With a tense finale, and compelling story, I thought this was one of the more entertaining British films of its time and though it's not a classic, it certainly deserves a wider audience.
The Girl in the Taxi (1937)
"Like father, like son"
The Baron des Aubrais (Lawrence Grossmith) is the head of the Parisian "Society for the Reward of Virtue". Because of the nature of his position, he must strive to be the very embodiment of Christian morality. This means avoiding women and alcohol, especially. So when his daughter, Jacqueline (Jean Gillie), asks for her father's permission to marry René Boislurette (Henri Garat) the Baron takes it upon himself to investigate the young man's background, proclaiming "like father like son." When he discovers that the man's father is a church warden, he happily agrees to the marriage, so convinced in his beliefs that he doesn't even see the need to meet René beforehand. Relieved, Jacqueline sends her brother, Hubert (Mackenzie Ward), round to fetch her now-fiancé back so that he may finally meet her father. While at René's apartment, Hubert meets the mysterious Suzanne Pomarel (Frances Day), the wife of another man. Meanwhile, the meeting between prospective father and son-in-law doesn't go well, when the Baron recognises René as the young man he saw drunk in a police station a few days ago, when he was proving his point to a fellow league member that children really do take after their parents. Hubert has become smitten with Suzanne and, with help from the amiable René, offers to take her to a show at the Moulin Rouge. It then turns out the the respectable Baron des Aubrais has also been frequenting the Moulin Rouge for some time, and has become known as something of a "sugar daddy" to the young women there, leading to some awkward questions for the Baron when René, Hubert and Suzanne unexpectedly encounter him there.
The Girl in the Taxi was based on a popular 1910 German operetta "Die keusche Susanne" which had translated into a London stage production in 1912. A cinematic adaptation followed in the USA in 1921, before being revived for this 1937 version, produced at Ealing Studios.
The film was directed by prolific French filmmaker André Berthomieu (dramatically rendered as simply "Berthomieu" in the credits), and he shot this English version of the story alongside the French version La chaste Suzanne – a common practice at the time. Henri Garat was the only actor common to both films.
The first half of the film meanders along, with nothing really seeming to happen. There's a song almost forced in during one of the early scenes, which seems at odds with the film. It's a reminder of how popular musicals were at the time and something the audience would have almost expected to see, irrespective of whether or not it aids the story. It's a relief in the second half when the setting moves to the Moulin Rouge and the film is finally injected with some much-needed life, with some of the spirit of the Parisian cabaret shining through. There's a few humorous moments thrown in, with the apparently dignified Baron revealed to be a bit of a cad – just as his son wishes he were himself. The problem is that such moments are few and far between. The Baron is a highlight as an embryonic Terry- Thomas character, but the film's various plots don't seem to hold together well and it's never satisfactorily explained why these characters are doing all of these bizarre things.
The Girl in the Taxi isn't a particularly entertaining film, and – the dynamic Moulin Rouge scenes aside – quickly becomes tedious. Lawrence Grossmith as the caddish Baron is enjoyable to watch, but the other performances are either over-the-top or simply seem disengaged. Overall, there's nothing outstanding about The Girl in the Taxi, though it remains a valuable example of early British musical cinema.
Harmony Heaven (1930)
Let's go Musical, Britain!
By 1930, the transition from silent film to talkies in Britain was almost complete. Alfred Hitchcock's 'Blackmail' had been released the previous year in both silent (for theatres which had not yet converted to sound) and sound versions, and had met with much acclaim. Because of this and the ongoing sound revolution in the USA, Associated British Pictures, who had produced Blackmail, were keen to exploit the popularity of talkies, and what better genre of film than a musical to demonstrate how great sound in cinema can be?
Harmony Heaven was the first of a number of musicals to be produced throughout the 1930s, and aimed to show audiences how much potential sound had in films. Unfortunately, Harmony Heaven is very much a by- the-numbers musical and stylistically is a big step backwards considering the technical standard of films which were being produced only 12 months previously. The story begins with would-be- songwriter Bob Farrell (Stuart Hall, in his one and only lead role) trying to get his song pitched to the producers of a popular stageshow (called, conveniently, Harmony Heaven). His brief audition is a disaster and Bob finds himself being cruelly laughed off the stage by the cast and crew. One of the girl dancers, Billie Breeze (Polly Ward) feels sorry for Bob and tries to cheer him up by making him dinner, and he soon takes a shine to her. She encourages him to write a better song, and he gets to work. He returns to try and get his new song played and ends up unintentionally impressing the theatre director. When Stuart, the star of the show (a "swanker"), tries to trip Bob up, Bob retaliates and knocks Stuart out just as he was due on stage. With no choice, Bob takes to the stage himself and is a huge success, even dragging Billie on stage with him for a number. As his fame grows, his relationship with Billie is put in jeopardy when he is introduced to the mysterious Lady Violet.
The loose story is really just a hook to hang the musical numbers on, and the acting ranges from unimpressive to embarrassing. Stuart Hall in particular has no screen presence and seems happy to be along for the ride. Though I was initially critical about the standard of the musical numbers, the film evidently left enough of a mark to warrant revisiting, and it does have a distinct charm, even accepting that this is musical cinema in its embryonic form. The dancing itself is at least entertaining, but in itself nothing particularly special.
The film is directed by Thomas Bentley whose vaudeville experience qualified him more than most to direct Harmony Heaven, but after making a large number of silent films throughout the '10s and '20s, it was always going to be a big ask for any film director to adapt so quickly to what was effectively a new medium. Though the musical numbers generally sound clear, at times it's virtually impossible to hear what the actors are saying to each other, as the primitive sound equipment just couldn't cope with the acoustics of the large theatre where Harmony Heaven was filmed. Alfred Hitchcock himself, fresh from Blackmail, spent a few days on the set during filming, though there is no evidence of his influence here, nor seemingly any record of his opinion of the film itself.
A lot of these early British films may seem archaic compared to modern standards, but generally if they tell a good story a lot of the contemporary issues can be overlooked. I've recently been watching a number of the early films to be produced at Ealing Studios and really enjoyed them as the technical inferiority rarely gets in the way of the story or becomes a distraction. Unfortunately, in Harmony Heaven, it does. With all that said, this is an important film in Britain's cinematic history, and both the cast and crew were still struggling to keep pace with technology. Influenced by similar films from America, the only way could be up.
The '?' Motorist (1906)
England's answer to Melies!
One of the unfortunate things about early cinema is that we can only judge that which is currently available to us. The vast majority of silent films are now considered lost, and though some directors' later fame ensured that their films endured (Hitchcock for one), some, such as Robert W. Paul – one of the pioneers of cinema – have been less fortunate. Still Paul has fared better than many of his contemporaries, but much of his work sadly remains lost.
R.W Paul was more an engineer than a filmmaker, and at first his only real incentive to produce his own films was to demonstrate their potential. He began by manufacturing replicas of Thomas Edison's revolutionary Kinetoscope in 1894, though by the turn of the century he had set up his own studios in London and was producing short films at a furious rate. After filming such historic events as Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and the ill-fated launch of HMS Bulwark, in 1900 he was commissioned by the army to produce what would now be called a 'recruitment' film, showing what it was like to be in the British army. The finished film, Army Life, was an epic 50 minutes long, making it by far the longest film produced in the world up to that point. Sadly, it's all but lost now, with just a short fragment remaining.
From this point on Paul moved away from covering notable occasions and army reenactments, and moved towards short stories, such as those George Méliès was successfully making in France (incidentally, it was Paul who sold Méliès his first camera in 1896). As well as producing an incredibly ambitious adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol – most of which is now tragically lost – in 1901, he would go on to popularise a number of effects over the next few years such as screen wipes, closeups and double exposures. The culmination of this experience over the previous decade was in Paul's most famous film, The '?' Motorist.
After watching the short film, certain similarities are obvious between The '?' Motorist and his old customer Méliès' A Trip to the Moon (1902). Though not necessarily more sophisticated, Méliès' space film was longer (14 minutes compared to barely over 2 minutes) and after going to the considerable effort of hand-colouring each of the films' individual frames, it's no surprise that A Trip to the Moon has endured far better than The '?' Motorist. There's certainly a whimsical humour here which is only enhanced by the inspiration for the film – Paul's frustration at being issued a fine for excessive speeding in his motorcar, a crime he tried unsuccessfully to defend himself from.
However, though R.W. Paul is the better-known name here, the directing duties were carried out my another character who has become all but forgotten – Walter Booth. Like many of the early filmmakers Booth had begun his career as a magician, and had been collaborating with Paul on some of his more technically impressive films since 1899. By the time of The '?' Motorist in 1906 – his final film with Paul – he was a highly competent director and more than capable of filming some of the challenging effects that were hugely popular with audiences who wanted to see things on the screen which were impossible in real life. He was then recruited by Charles Urban – the most successful film producer and distributor in Britain – where he continued to refine his techniques, and in 1911 made The Automatic Motorist – a more sophisticated remake of The '?' Motorist. It's conceivable that Booth made an appearance in 1901's stop-motion masterclass Undressing Extraordinary – being able to know the exact position to hold as an actor would have required considerable knowledge of the techniques involved – though as no photograph is known to exist of the director we many never know for sure.
The '?' Motorist – like many of Paul's films – is a great, charming little film which was still, even in 1906, ahead of much of the cinema in the rest of the world. The title though, is completely nuts. There doesn't seem to be any information on where it came from, but it seems it was the actual title given by Paul, no typos. Its ambiguity certainly gives almost nothing away, and the moment when what seems like a routine runaway film takes a turn as the carriage drives up a building, over the moon and around Saturn's rings cannot have ceased to surprise audiences.
With his interest firmly in the mechanics of cinema, Paul's output swiftly reduced after Booth's departure, and by 1910 he had moved away entirely from the film business, concentrating his efforts on more scientific subjects. He died in 1943, living more than long enough to witness cinema emerge as one of the leading forms of entertainment – a form in which he'd played a large role in developing. It's just a shame he's not more widely credited for the advances he made in the medium, certainly in Britain. Maybe one distant day some ambitious director will see the potential in a biographical film about Paul, and it can do for him what Martin Scorsese's Hugo did for Méliès? Or maybe that's just my head in the clouds.
Le voyage dans la lune (1902)
The beginnings of cinema with Melies
Film is unusual among other art forms, in that its origins can be firmly established. Consider music, for example: no one can say what the melody to be performed was; likewise no one will ever know what the first noteworthy play to be performed live was. However, because film has existed only in the relatively recent past, and also because at some point all projected motion pictures have left behind their original camera negative, we can fairly definitively create a full appreciation of the history of cinema.
Georges Méliès' A Trip To The Moon cannot, however, claim to be the first ever piece of film to be shot, with that particular honour going to a 1888 feature, Roundhay Garden Scene. At just two seconds long, it's not a classic, and for the next decade film would follow this example, being viewed as something of a novelty. Early films created by entrepreneurs such as the Lumiere brothers and Mitchell & Kenyon simply document everyday goings on, and were no more than a minute long. They were popular because people would pay to see themselves on film, but that was as far at the entertainment went.
And this is where Georges Méliès enters the picture. Méliès had previously worked as a magician before getting involved with film, and whilst his contemporaries were filming workers leaving factories or dancing on a lawn, Méliès was pushing the boundaries of what was achievable on celluloid. By the time he produced A Trip To The Moon, he had been creating special effects based on his experience as a magician, for six years. Previously his films had been loose 2-3 minute works with very little story to hold them together, so when he released the epic, 14-minute A Trip To The Moon, the public had never seen anything on this scale.
Even to have a full story, rather than just an adaptation of a single scene, was quite a revolutionary idea. In A Trip To The Moon we see a team of astronauts (one of which is played by Méliès himself) build a rocket and cannon, to fire them up to the moon. They crash into the eye of the moon (in one of the most iconic shots of early cinema) and once on the moon, aliens (Selenites) appear. The astronauts discover they can make these aliens disappear in a puff of smoke if they hit them with force, and proceed to destroy masses of the creatures, including their leader. Outnumbered, the astronauts run back to their rocket and plummet back down to Earth and into the sea. This was based on a Jules Verne story, From The Earth to the Moon (1865), and is conveniently labelled as the very first "science fiction" film. You could fairly say that every subsequent sci-fi film owes a debt to A Trip to the Moon.
This was all thrilling stuff to an audience of 1902, who had never really seen anything like it before. Watching it back now, it inevitably looks archaic, with none of the closeups or characterisation we'd eventually come to expect from cinema. Méliès obviously loved the cross-cutting technique and used it to death here, but ultimately it's apparent that he was just trying to create an entertaining 14 minutes of escapism for audiences to enjoy. He succeeded admirably, and can have had no notion that his film would still be celebrated so long after its production. We have to spare a thought for poor Méliès at this point, who had created A Trip To The Moon with commercial success in mind, and intended to release the film in America for profit. An unscrupulous Thomas Edison, however, got there first and released the' film himself, depriving Méliès of any future profits. This contributed to Méliès' eventual bankruptcy in 1913, when he was forced to become a salesman to earn a living, as depicted in the ode to early cinema that is Martin Scorsese's Hugo (2011).
Unlike a lot of later landmarks in the history of cinema, A Trip To The Moon only lasts a few minutes and has a basic storyline, so you can easily watch it on a coffee break or while waiting for the toast to burn. Méliès went to the trouble of hand-colouring the entire film, and it's even had a recent restoration which finally brings it close to the stage it was well over a century ago. The copyright has now long since expired, so you can easily watch this on YouTube, but I'd encourage anyone to try and watch the hand-coloured version which is infinitely superior. Though it may look primitive A Trip To The Moon is where cinema really got serious, and in 14 minutes you can witness for yourself the birth of an art form.
Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)
"In picturing this event an odd character discovered that motion pictures were being taken and it became impossible to keep him away from the camera."
It's strangely appropriate that this should be the first intertitle of the first film to be released that featured Charlie Chaplins' immortal character: The Tramp. From his very first appearance, primitive though it is, he is undeniably engaging, though there is nothing in Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. to suggest the character was endearing enough to be a long-term fixture, let along the icon he became. Considering Chaplin himself would go on to appear in a staggering 35 films over the next 12 months for Keystone, it seems it was just as impossible to keep him away from the camera. But this is the place it all started for The Little Tramp.
A century has now passed since the Keystone comedies producer Mack Sennett decided to make a short film with director Henry Lehrman and new actor Charles Chaplin at the Kid Auto Races on Saturday January 10, 1914, and to watch the 6-minute film today is to look back onto a world completely alien to anyone alive today. Even the title is cumbersome and obscure. The Kid Auto Race, in this case the Junior Vanderbilt Cup Race, was a short-lived event where the streets were closed off in Venice and young teenage boys were encouraged to race each other in their own home-made carts, usually powered by motorcycle engines. The race was officially administered, and for the winner there was a considerable prize of $250 on offer. To see boys racing what are effectively motorcars around the roads, with no safety equipment whatsoever, only adds to the modern disconnection with the film. It's to this usual backdrop that Chaplin debuted his creation to a large audience for the first time.
The most fascinating aspect of Kid Auto Races is the reaction of the audience to Chaplins' presence. Film cameras were still uncommon at the time, so there would have been a degree of excitement about appearing in a film (one woman apparently had no intention of being immortalised on nitrate, and visibly hides behind a programme for the duration of a scene with Chaplin right in front of her), but more than that we see their amusement and interest in the strange looking fellow jumping around in front of the camera. Mack Sennett had found the Tramp character hilarious when Chaplin first experimented with it on the Keystone lot, but looking around the many faces in the crowd, they are all smiling or laughing, even if they are slightly bemused. If this was an indication of how audiences might react when the character was shown in theatres across the country, then it was a positive one.
The film is all improvised, with Chaplin and the "director" the only apparent actors. There's also the virtually unprecedented scenes in which the camera is filming another cameraman hand-cranking the camera on screen which Chaplin is larking around in front of – in one of the first examples of this happening. Despite this on-screen camera, Chaplin regularly breaks the fourth wall, and it's inconsistent throughout which camera is being addressed.
As entertainment, even the most enthusiastic film historian would have a tough job making a case for Kid Auto Races aging well. The film is almost like an artists' original sketch for what would eventually become a magnificent painting. There are many better Chaplin shorts, and many better shorts featuring The Tramp. But as a historical document, showing the origins of this great character, this is absolutely invaluable and it's easy to imagine in another 100 years people watching this to see exactly how Charlie Chaplin debuted The Little Tramp.