All the world's a stage, alas

Reframing British Cinema 1918-1928
July 2, 2004

Right from the start, a defensive tone colours Christine Gledhill's study of post-First World War British silent cinema. Not surprising, perhaps.

Despite recent revisionist efforts, the consensus still holds that - the ambitious young Alfred Hitchcock excepted - British film-makers of the period lagged woefully behind their American and mainland European counterparts. In The Parade's Gone By (1968), his classic study of silent cinema, Kevin Brownlow summed up British postwar silent movies as "with few exceptions crudely photographed; the direction and acting were on the level of cheap revue, they exploited so-called stars who generally had little more than a glimmer of histrionic talent, and they were exceedingly boring".

Gledhill's aim is not so much to refute these charges as to sidestep them. Acknowledging that British cinema of the 1920s is often stigmatised as overly theatrical, she sets out to propose that theatricality - here interpreted as deliberately staged action - can be seen as a positive quality within the context and conventions of the period, linking it to the representation of social tensions and boundaries.

"Through dramatic construction, set design, performance mode and role-playing," she suggests, "protagonists are not only separated from the audience but from each other by divisions between private and public spaces." But Gledhill casts her net even wider; "theatricality" as she defines it "can be extended to other arenas of public or semi-public 'acts': for example, the law court, the concert, the already mentioned carnival, nightclub and cabaret, the country-house ball, wedding breakfast, harvest festival, civic ceremony, birthday party and so on".

This definition deflects attention from the essential crux. By "theatricality" in this context, most critics mean the kind of stage-bound, overemphatic mugging that so many British players brought to their silent film work, ignoring the camera's intimate gaze.

Such limitations may not have affected all British films of the period, but all too often they did, and Gledhill never quite addresses this point.

Even so, her book performs a valuable service in resurrecting and re-evaluating a whole host of forgotten movies. For it was not only Hitchcock who possessed a true cinematic eye; a good many other film-makers did, even if they lacked his distinctively obsessive preoccupations. In particular, she does overdue justice to Maurice Elvey, probably Britain's most prolific director (more than 300 films in a career lasting from 1913 to 1957) and certainly one of the most unjustly neglected. In such films as Hindle Wakes (19), Elvey demonstrates an easy command of the language of silent cinema. The narrative flows smoothly and in the location-shot Blackpool funfair sequence, his camera exuberantly swoops and hurtles, shooting night-for-night, a rarity at the time. Elvey may not have been typical but, as Gledhill makes clear, his achievement and those of a few of his peers meant that British silent cinema was never quite the disaster area it has often been taken for.

Philip Kemp is a freelance writer on film.

Reframing British Cinema 1918-1928: Between Restraint and Passion

Author - Christine Gledhill
Publisher - BFI Publishing
Pages - 224
Price - £48.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 0 85170 891 9 and 889 7

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