Anna Massey, ‘Hollywood Beyond the Screen: Design and Material Culture’ (Oxford: Berg, 2000)

Anna Massey’s book takes a very different approach to that of Mary Ann Doane, although there is some overlap in their concern with how women engaged with the content of movies during the first half of the 20th century. Rather than using psychoanalytic theory as her starting point, Massey focuses on ‘edifices and artefacts…object-based material culture’ in order to explore the impact of American movies on British popular culture and design style. Her scope is far ranging, tracing the relationship between films and design by looking at the architecture of shops, cinemas and factories, interior room design, fashion, cigarette brands, advertisements, beauty products and family photographs. Unlike Doane’s work – which she cites – her writing is firmly rooted in real personal experiences, as is brought to life vividly by the inclusion of photographs of her mother and grandmother, with their own anecdotes about how their lives were affected by Hollywood movies.In her introduction to this book, entitled ‘Reclaiming the Personal and the Popular’, Anna Massey argues for the importance of embracing two strands that are often neglected in academic writing: a deliberate choice, spurred by the realisation that in much academic literature ‘affirmation of my own history and experience seems to be missing.’ (p.4)

 Joan Crawford and Dorothy Sebastian in Our Dancing Daughters (Beaumont, 1928) 

Using evidence drawn from these diverse sources and family anecdotes, Massey demonstrates the extent to which British popular and material culture was influenced at all levels by American style, as mediated through Hollywood, noting also how British intellectuals and establishment figures were determined to resist this Americanization which they associated with loose morals and subversive social mobility. There are four chapters, divided into rough chronological periods. The first of these, The Jazz Age, discusses developments between 1918 and 1929 when Hollywood eclipsed Paris in terms of influence on design, leading consumers in Britain to start looking towards America for the lead in matters of taste and style. A large chunk of this section looks at the films Our Dancing Daughters (Beaumont, 1928) and its sequel Our Modern Maidens (Conway, 1929) which propelled Joan Crawford to leading lady status and showcased Cedric Gibbons stunning art deco sets as well as Adrian’s daring costumes – which are discussed at length by Caroline Young’s book. Great concern was felt, both in America and Britain, about the dangers of young women trying to copy the behaviour exhibited in these films, and Massey quotes from women’s personal accounts of how they adopted the short skirts and flapper hairstyles worn on screen. A more specific expression of British resistance to Hollywood’s encroachment was the Cinematograph Film Act of 1927, although as the author makes clear, most of these attempts to hold back the American tide soon gave way in the face of popular and commercial demand – indicative of the tensions between elitist distaste for American culture and its mass popularity.  In Chapter Two, Bright Style in Dark Days, – the largest section of the book – the author traces how art deco evolved into the more streamlined art moderne style and the impact this had on British culture during the early 1930s, particularly in the form of architectural design in the south of England. Films discussed include Grand Hotel (Goulding, 1932,) Dinner at Eight (Cukor, 1933) and Top Hat (Sandrich, 1935).

Joan Crawford’s home in Our Dancing Daughters

The third chapter on Cold War Cultures covers the period during and just after the Second World War, including the impact of Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ fashion line launched in 1947, and postwar British resistance to American influence in the shape of British design fairs and the moral concern over the influence of rock ‘n’ roll, recalling how the film Rock Around the Clock (Sears, 1956) was banned by councils in Birmingham, Liverpool, Bristol and Belfast. She discusses Bette Davis in Now Voyager, the ‘Americanized left-bank glamour of Hepburn’ (p.160), Hollywood actresses’ endorsement of beauty products and the short-lived British magazine Film and Fashion. A concluding section,  Post-modern glamour. A postscript, brings in some of the author’s own personal experiences of relating filmgoing to choices in dress and cultural attitudes, noting how the 1970s saw a revival of 1930s fashion, for instance through Mia Farrow’s stylish outfits in The Great Gatsby (Clayton, 1974).

The book should encourage readers to think more broadly about the cultural significance of classic films and the complex intersections that occur between the movies, avant-garde design, high fashion, popular culture and mass market commodities. The diverse and nuanced interplay between personal, popular, architectural and cinematic topics makes for a stimulating read, but it does create some problems for the author in trying to impose some order on the material and draw the various strands of her analysis together into a strong conclusion.

This will be the final post for the #ClassicFilmReading summer challenge this year, and for anyone who hasn’t done so, I’d recommend you check out the Out of the Past website for other reviews in the challenge as well as a wealth of material on all aspects of classic cinema

Stefan Sharff, ‘The Art of Looking in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”‘ (New York: Limelight Editions, 1997)

Sharff (1919-2003) was born in Poland, moving in 1939 to Moscow where he joined the Film School before being apprenticed to the director Sergei Eisenstein in Kazakshtan. He later moved to America where he worked as film-maker for the UN, continuing to make documentaries while teaching film at Columbia University.  Here he wrote Elements of Cinema (Columbia University Press, 1982) and Alfred Hitchcock’s High Vernacular. Theory and Practice (Columbia University Press, 1991) which includes a shot by shot analysis of Notorious (1946), Family Plot (1976) and Frenzy (1972). This work has clearly laid the ground for The Art of Looking, in which Sharff devotes his attention exclusively to Rear Window with the aim of demonstrating that ‘cinema art can be depicted as a work composed, not unlike an orchestral piece of a large painting.’ He does so over five chapters, beginning an introduction ‘The Art of Seeing, the Art of Looking’, followed by Chapter 2’s ‘Rear Window’ which provides a synopsis of the story, an outline of Hitchcock’s approach to the film and the techniques he uses in Chapter 3’s ‘Bricks and Mortar’ (pp.22-101) followed by the heart of the book, Chapter 4. Shot by Shot, with Timing and Dialogue (pp.104-78) which provides a formal and technical scheme of the entire film, with an exhaustive description of all 796 shots in the film. Chapter 5 winds up with some ‘Concluding Remarks.’

                                               James Stewart and Grace Kelly in a scene from Rear Window 

One of the interesting things to me about Sharff’s book is his argument that Rear Window ‘promotes the primacy of visual information and the merits of silent film’ (p.8). As he observes, almost 35% of the film is silent, without dialogue, and this is in keeping with a generally disparaging attitude towards dialogue in Hitchcock’s film and his desire to use visual language as the primary means of communicating plot and character. As Hitchcock remarked to Truffaut during their conversations in 1962, ‘dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms’ (Hitchcock, by Francois Truffaut. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983. p.222.) This rather disparaging attitude towards film dialogue indicates that he regarded the real language of cinema as being primarily visual, and this underpins Sharff’s desire to reveal to readers the meticulous care with which Hitchcock crafted his visual imagery, presenting a shot-by-shot analysis that offers valuable insights into how Rear Window has been composed and edited.

Boris Rautenberg’s painstaking panoramic rendering of James Stewart’s view of his courtyard reiterates Sharff’s point  – there’s a lot going on in this film.

Although the book is obviously a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the formal elements within the film, Sharff makes the case that Rear Window is really a form of metafiction, holding up a mirror to its viewers to challenge them about the whole process of cinema-going and the nature of looking, gazing, seeing what others see, what it means to watch and to be watched. While this is a concept that could be debated at length, perhaps the the most important thing one gains from reading The Art of Looking is a realisation of the masterful skill with which the film is constructed. Sharff’s comparisons of Hitchcock to an architect as well as a composer are well-founded, and his exhaustive frame-by-frame analysis drives home the extent to which the director crafted every single shot. It should be noted too that this was the first book to publish the entire script of the film, including all the dialogue.

Given that the book came out in the same year that commercial DVDs were launched, it is almost certain that Sharff watched Rear Window on VHS or 16mm, which means that this process of putting this book together must have been a painstaking – not to say tedious – matter. It also means that the quality of the still images reproduced here leaves much to be desired by today’s standards. However, the solution to this is obvious – go and watch the film again, which is no doubt what the author would like readers to do once they’ve read the book. Is that not what #ClassicFilmReading is all about?

 

This was another entry in the #ClassicFilmReading series for 2018

 

Harry Harrison, The Technicolor Time Machine (London: New English Library, 1970)

At first sight The Technicolor Time Machine might seem an odd choice for a classic film reading. After all, author Harry Harrison (1925-2012) was a doyen of the science-fiction community, beginning his career as an illustrator for the EC Comics titles Weird Fantasy and Weird Science before going on to write and edit numerous science-fiction stories, novels and anthologies. This book first appeared as a three-part serialised story in Analog Science Fiction and Fact (March–May 1967 issues) as ‘The Time Machined Saga’.

The original magazines in which the story first appeared, along with artwork by John Schoenherr

While there’s no denying its credentials as a piece of science-fiction, The Technicolor Time Machine can also be read as a satire of the film industry during Hollywood’s Golden Era, and indeed it was those elements of the book that I found most enjoyable.

At this point a quick recap of the plot would probably be in order. The story begins at the offices of Climactic Studios, where hack director Barney Hendrickson and corrupt studio owner L. M. Greenspan are facing financial ruin within a matter of days.

Only a miracle can save the studio, and this miracle comes in the person of eccentric scientist Professor Hewett, who claims to have built a time machine – the vremeatron – that would enable Hendrickson to go back in time and make a historical movie without the need to pay for any set construction or extras. This is the essential ‘gimmick’ of the novel, but as the story progresses, the notion of time travel is exploited more and more as a strategy for smoothing out difficulties in the film’s production.

In the first instance of this, to buy them some time, the Chinese-American scriptwriter Charley Chang is sent back to the Precambrian Era where he works away on a remote island in solitude for a month, returning to the present day with a script entitled Viking Columbus about the founding of the Viking settlement of Vinland in North America. Having obtained a script, cast and crew travel back to the Orkney Islands ca.1003 AD where they hire a real-life Viking – and larger than life character – named Ottar to be their guide and Norse interpreter. Ottar eventually takes over the leading role when Hendrickson’s vain star actor, Ruf Hawk, injures himself during filming – a replacement that has unexpected consequences for the leading lady, the voluptuous Slithey Tove.

Slithey Tove as imagined by artist Bruce Pennington on the front cover of my copy of the novel

As befits a story originally published in a science-fiction magazine, there are some serious efforts to get to grips with the complex mechanisms of time travel, but these are not pursued for their own sake – rather, they form an important part of the plot as Hendrickson struggles to meet the deadlines and needs to find ever-more desperate ways to save time.

Issues about the saving, passing and good use of time are at the heart of the story, which gives the author ample scope to lampoon Hollywood’s attitude toward the past. Jokes are made not only about Hollywood’s disregard for historical accuracy, but also the general illiteracy in matters of history and culture: ‘Eric the Red? You want us to get blacklisted with a commie picture’? Filmmakers are portrayed as mercenary individuals, churning out films with titles such as The Creature’s Son Marries the Thing’s Daughter, The Pfc. from Brooklyn and Teen-age Beatniks’ Hophead Rumble, which lie just on the borderline between absurdity and near-credibility. Despite the strongly satirical tone there are some nice little touches that make the cinematic setting of the story almost believable. The camera man Gino Cappo uses an 8mm Bolex camera to try out some angles, and later expresses his concerns about light exposure – ‘I should have loaded this up with Tri-X. It’s five in the afternoon’ – before offering his thoughts on the future of the movies. ‘You haven’t heard the last of Cinecitta yet, Mr Hendrickson, not by a long shot. The new realism came out of Italy after the war, then the kitchen-sink film that the British picked up. But you’ll see, Rome ain’t dead yet..’

As events in Vinland take a turn for the worse, death – in a very real sense –  threatens not only the Vikings but also the 1960s film crew. By the end of the book it becomes clear that – even if they succeed in eluding arrows, axes, spears or drowning – there will be serious consequences from their reckless time travel. As Professor Hewett explains, with the help of a handy diagram (in which A1-Z1 is the world time line, with A1 the past and Z1 the future, and A-Z is the timeline navigated by the film crew):

The film-makers must go back in time at B, arrive at C, stay till D and then return to E:  the graph must always read ‘B-E’, never ‘E-B’, otherwise K – ‘the interchange of energy point, where the scales of time are balanced’ – would not exist. Readers who are reminded of the prohibition in Ghostbusters  – ‘never cross the streams’ – will probably also recall the dire warnings in Back to the Future about what might happen if one meddles with the past. There will no spoilers here, and anyone wishing to find out what happens to Barney, Slithey and co. will have to read The Technicolor Time Machine to find out. Hollywood has been the setting for countless novels and the subject of many a satire, but combining these with a well-crafted science fiction tale provides a rare treat, even if the tone may at times be too whimsical for certain tastes. A BBC radio adaptation was broadcast in 1981 as part of the Saturday Night Theatre series, and there were rumours some twenty years ago that Mel Gibson had bought the film rights – although whether he is the best person to be at the helm of such a project is open to question. In the meantime, the clever concept of The Technicolor Time Machine has inspired a great number of book illustrators and the cover art for the myriad paperback editions are well worth exploring.

 

This post was written as part of the 2018 #classicfilmreading challenge.

 

Ministers of ‘the Black Art’

My newly-submitted thesis, alongside various items involved in its creation

 

Yesterday, on 5 March, I submitted my thesis, Ministers of ‘the Black Art’: the engagement of British clergy with photography, 1839-1914. As many of you know, I’ve been working on my Ph.D since September 2014, but my research into Victorian clergy-photographers stretches back many years prior to this. It was my original intention to write a book on the topic, but when publishers showed no interest and the opportunity arose to apply for doctoral studies, the project was turned into a Ph.D. The viva will follow in a couple of months and we’ll see how that goes, but in due course I expect to adapt the thesis for publication as a book.

Ministers of ‘the black Art’ looks at clergymen from all denominations – Anglican vicars, cathedral precentors, Catholic priests, monks, Methodist missionaries and so on – who were active photographers between 1839 and World War One, exploring the relationship between their religious background and culture, and their photographic work. This is a topic that has been overlooked by both photo-historians and church historians, largely because there are very few researchers who possess sufficient knowledge of both disciplines to make the connections. Having spent many years with my feet planted squarely in both camps, it seemed a good idea to attempt it myself.

Conceptual theories do not interest me, and so the thesis focuses on what people actually did on a grassroots level, looking at original photographic material – paper prints, glass negatives, lantern slides etc – and examining a wealth of printed and manuscript material from archives, museums and libraries all around the country: theological works, printed sermons, diaries, correspondence, exhibition catalogues, photographic society log books and ephemera. I managed to identify over 200 clergymen-photographers (and yes, it’s a shame that they’re all men – but inevitable given the period in question) and amassed a huge amount of information about their work. I think this project can contribute a great deal to our understanding of Victorian visual culture and I have really enjoyed the challenge of shaping my mass of handwritten notes (some written last century) into an ordered argument. It’s been hard work, and I won’t deny that finally submitting my thesis brings with it a sense of relief, unburdening and liberation. Time now to prepare for the viva, and also crack on with other projects. Further developments will be announced here….

Rev. Roderick C Macleod, 'Mitford Castle with Mrs Macleod'

Rev. Roderick C Macleod, ‘Mitford Castle with Mrs Macleod’

Joseph Pike: the ‘happy Catholic artist’

 

Joseph Pike: The Happy Catholic Artist

My latest book, Joseph Pike: The Happy Catholic Artist (Kibworth: Matador, 2018) is a detailed biography of a master of the art of pencil drawing. Joseph Pike (1883-1956) produced evocative sketches and illustrations that were commissioned by authors, architects and publishers, reproduced in books and on postcards, sold as prints and exhibited on the walls of the Royal Academy.

It was due to his postcards of Caldey Island – drawn in 1913 – that I became interested in Joseph Pike, and you can read all about this on my original blogpost here. After reading this, one of the artist’s grandsons contacted me, and we began discussing the idea of my writing a short memoir about the artist. What began as a fairly modest project ended up being rather larger than originally intended, but the Joseph Pike’s friendship and collaboration with Benedictine monk Bede Camm meant that I was able to incorporate some of my PhD research on visual culture and monastic life. With access to family papers and photographs, augmented with my own collection of Joseph Pike artwork and knowledge of the Catholic literary revival, there was ample material for a detailed and illuminating biography.

Further research in various archives uncovered more little-known details and rare illustrations, and I was able to show how developments in the publishing world and printing technology impacted upon his work, as well as exploring the importance of the Catholic faith side in his personal and professional life – his acquaintance with Bede Camm and other leading figures in Catholic cultural life, such as Ronald Knox, played a key role in shaping his career as an illustrator.

Joseph Pike: The Happy Catholic Artist (Kibworth: Matador, 2018) – ISBN 9781788037778 – is available from various outlets, including direct from the publisher here 

An e-book is also available, ISBN 9781788034746

I would love to hear comments and feedback from anyone who has read the book or wishes to share their thoughts on Joseph Pike and his art.