Early & Silent Film

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Posted by keith1942 on May 7, 2013


This was the second film directed by Anthony Asquith, his third appears to be lost and his fourth Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) was screened at the National Media Museum in 2012. Underground is a melodrama set around a story of love and passion between the quartet of leading characters. Bill (Brian Aherne) works on the Underground, Bert Cyril McLaglen) at the Power Station. Nell (Elissa Landi) works in a large Department Store whilst Kate (Norah Baring) is a seamstress/dressmaker who works at her bedsit. There is early romance but then rivalry and jealousy create a dramatic intensity, which leads to a visually exciting climax.

Brian Aherne was a fairly new leading man [he starred in Asquith’s first film Shooting Stars, 1928) and he later migrated to Hollywood where he had a number of starring parts. One of his memorable roles there was in Beloved Enemy (1936), set in the period of the Irish Rebellion against colonial rule, with Aherne playing a character clearly based on Michael Collins. Elissa Landi was educated in England and in the British Theatre before taking up films. She later moved to Broadway and then on to Hollywood. Cyril Mclaglen was one of the three brothers of the more famous Victor Mclaglen. All four had careers both on stage and in film. Norah Baring had already played the female lead in Asquith’s Cottage on Dartmoor. In both films she gives dramatically and emotionally convincing performances.

Stanley Rodwell and Karl Fischer were in charge of cinematography and lighting respectively, and both had worked on Asquith’s first film. Shooting Stars is also an exceptionally fine film, though unfortunately there is not a current print good enough to screen. Karl Fischer came from the German film industry and bought with him their expertise in chiaroscuro lighting. Ian Campbell-Gray, the Art Director, had also worked on Shooting Stars and the film blends locations and studio set-ups. Some of the sets are rather obvious, symptomatic of the often inadequate production values of the British Industry in this period.

Rachel Low [in her magisterial The History of British Film, 1971] describes the film’s production and some of the critics’ comments.

“It is ironical that this, which with Shooting Stars was one of the first British films to employ a lighting expert, the German Karl Fischer, should have angered some audiences not only by its `distorted’ angle shots but also by its `murky’ lighting. While the public was made uneasy by the traces of Russian and German influence, the highbrows were able to find other faults. Asquith was attacked by Harry Alan Potamkin, for example, for failing to portray the lives of the working classes properly: … [Paul] Rotha perhaps was nearer the truth in suggesting that Asquith had not as yet acquired maturity and still retained some of the brilliance for its own sake which had been so noticeable in Shooting Stars.

In retrospect these criticisms appear to seriously miss the mark. Asquith, with his production team, makes effective use of techniques that had impressed audiences and critics when they were seen in the Soviet and German masterpieces of the early 1920s. Asquith most likely saw most of these at the London Film Society, one of the few places where they were screened. There was a serious lack of an ‘art cinema’ approach in the UK. And critical attitudes appear to have been an important contributory factor. What stands out in the silent films directed by Asquith is both a careful study of the new techniques developed in Europe, in art and avant-garde films, but also an intelligent use of these techniques in popular narrative cinema.

The presentation of the working class characters is one weakness in the film. Brian Aherne and Elissa Landi are not convincing as ordinary working people. Moreover, whilst they have some well-performed scenes together Elissa Landi tends to be over-emphatic at moments of high drama. Cyril McLaglen and Norah Baring are more convincing in their proletarian roles, though Mclaglen is also somewhat over-emphatic at times. [This was a tendency noted by critics in the period in contrast to the increasing naturalism of Hollywood acting]. It is Norah Baring who stands out in the cast; she is both fully convincing and achieves great effect with a minimum of affectation. Her best scenes are where she conveys an emotion with some look or gesture; this can be seen in several sequences where she uses a neck-scarf to enhance her looks. Asquith’s subsequent Cottage on Dartmoor has a much greater consistency of performance, and at its centre is also a fine characterisation by Baring. The film’s extras are also generally convincing, with one brief but loveable performance as a laconic Landlady of the local pub.

Whilst Underground does not achieve the narrative and cinematic complexity of Cottage on Dartmoor, the chiaroscuro effects [as in film noir] comment both on the characters and their emotions and actions. There are two particular scenes that stand out, both set on a staff stairwell on the underground. In the first, with Bill and Nell, the shadows on the wall presage the development of their relationship. In the second, with Bill and Kate, the looming shadow accentuates the drama that follows.

The location work is also commendable. The shots of busy commuters on escalators and on platforms give a real feel of the great metropolitan transport network. And Asquith is willing to show us extraneous action which is not essential to the plot but which fills out the story and the context. There is also a fine sequence set in a country park. One shot seems a trial for the later opening sequence of Cottage on Dartmoor. The whole sequence has an idyllic feel. Viewing a series of British silent films has made me aware of how frequently they make excellent use of the British landscape. There is general praise for the rural drams of French cinema in the 1920s. But there are recurring sequences in British films that have an equally effective naturalistic feel.

The final Power Station sequences are both full of dramatic action and also have a definite science fiction flavour, [possibly another German influence]. Here the film moves into thriller mode. Alongside some excellent exterior camerawork Asquith utilises the fast cutting associated with Soviet films. This creates a palpable tension and excitement. The editing throughout the film is carefully considered and executed. There are a number of memorable transitions. At the end of one interior sequence there is a close-up of a flower on a dresser and then there is a cut to a glove on a similar dresser in a new scene. At the end of that scene there is a cut from a close-up of a hand holding a glove to a close-up of a different hand holding the matching glove.

The flowers in particular are one of the symbols that Asquith uses in the film. All the main characters are seen at some point holding flowers. In three cases these are from the counter at which Nell works in the Department Store. As the opening title informs us, ‘light and shade’ are part of the lives of the people who use the underground, and chiaroscuro is a central theme in the film. There are a number of effective mirrors shots and several subjective sequences using superimposition’s and fast cutting.

The other point to make is that Asquith and his team are able to use a minimal amount of Intertitles. This may also be an influence from the German industry, and F. W. Murnau in particular. There are whole sequences where the developments rely on the actor’s movements, gestures and expressions. This is real mastery of the silent format.

The talents of Asquith reached their full success with Cottage on Dartmoor, but the qualities that make that one of the outstanding British films of the 1920s can all be seen here. In the later film these very qualities have developed in confidence and complexity. They had already been visible in the earlier Shooting Stars, though that film has weaker production values.  

The British Film Institute restored the film in 2009. Now to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the London Underground they have re-issued the film in a Digital Cinema Package [with a recorded music accompaniment on the soundtrack]. The original 35mm print was usually screened at 22 fps, so this digital version has probably had some frames added to achieve the 24 fps currently used in digital projection. The film generally looks excellent though the digital format is noticeable at some points.  The BFI’s restoration work does full justice to the visual qualities of the film which is now about 9 minutes longer. It is a shame the film is not currently available on 35mm

The screening at the National Media Museum had an accompaniment on the piano from our regular contributor Darius Battiwalla. Less is more with Darius. His playing brings out the emotional and psychological aspects of the film without overpowering the images and titles. At this screening he frequently used recurring rifts and high pitch chords, moving to lower darker tones as the film moved to its climax.

UK, British Instructional Films, 1928.

Black and white, in a Digital Cinema Package, running time 93 minutes.

 Producer: H. Bruce Woolfe, for British Instructional Films.

Filmed at the Elstree and Cricklewood Studios and on location on the London Underground and at Lots Road Power Station in Chelsea. Distributed by Pro Patria Films.


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