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Silent Britain

August 10th, 2006 (08:10 pm)

© 2006 D. Gordon

Every once in a while national archives dip into their vaults and compile collections on their national film histories. Film Australia, a documentary house owned by the Australian government, started fairly early on with History of Australian Cinema, 1896 to 1940 (combining documentaries from 1964 and 1979). The National Film Preservation Foundation (associated with the Library of Congress) has put out numerous collections, including the stellar Treasures from American Film Archives and the followup More Treasures from American Film Archives - although it was two Brits (the awesome Kevin Brownlow and David Gill) who put together the seminal Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film for Thames Television in 1980. And earlier this year, the British Film Institute and BBC4 put out Silent Britain.



Silent Britain surveys British cinema from the birth of film to 1929, when the first sound movie, Hitchcock's Blackmail, was released. It's an excellent effort to cover what was going on in the United Kingdom, but it's narrated by the annoyingly smarmy Matthew Sweet, known in Britain for his well-received book on British cinema, Shepperton Babylon. Forget the intense reaction shots / look of concentration on Matthew's brow as he interviews this and that expert; forget him "looking into the past" as he gazes as a location where a film was shot a good century earlier. Matthew's main crime is that, in analyzing film history, he's at best confusing history and at worst purposefully ignoring facts. He continually brings up Edison and how Edison attempted to lay claim to a number of innovations in the new medium. Edison was quite capable of doing that - and he had the resources - but Edison wasn't the same as the United States. Hollywood exists in great part because a good number of movie pioneers who were Edison's competitors were trying to get out from under Edison's hold on the industry. And let's give credit where credit is due - trust and all, some of Edison's work most definitely advanced the nascent industry. He was working with sound from the beginning. And he used his resources to record a number of people (Annie Oakley, Wild Bill Hickok) who otherwise might not have made it to celluloid.

Sweet also points out British firsts and claims that British filmmakers invented things such as the first screen wipe (Mary Jane's Mishap, 1903) and early edit / narrative / focus in-out techniques. He claims that Brighton and Hove were the earliest film centers. The problem with that claim is the problem facing silent history in general: most silent films - possibly as many as 90% - just don't exist anymore. Given that the first film was shown in France, and the second in Egypt (the Lumière brothers immediately sent representatives worldwide to market their invention), we just don't know what techniques other filmmakers were working out independent of the UK. There's no mention of Alice Guy Blaché, who is thought in other circles to be the first director of a narrative story period - in fact, there's no recognition that there are any other filmmaking countries besides the US. There's no consideration that innovations may have been happening simultaneously elsewhere. He's got points to make - Edison very well may have lifted the plot of Daring Daylight Robbery in making The Great Train Robbery - but they're just not fleshed out as much as they should be. He describes Birth of a Nation (1915) as the first big screen epic, conveniently forgetting what the Italians did with tales like Cabiria (1913) - which Griffith openly admitted had inspired him. And I think it's a bit ironic that the man he describes as the "Bill Gates" of the new industry was Charles Urban, a native of - Cincinnati, OH.

Once Sweet and the documentary get into the 1920s and major figures, however, the narrative gets interesting. Ivor Novello gets a good dela of recognition, as does the early Hitchcock, Anthony Asquith, and Eliot Stannard (now there's a tragedy). There's clear proof given of why recent DVD releases such as Hindle Wakes and Piccadilly were well deserved. And he offers some interesting hypotheses why the United Kingdom's silent output is usually looked down on: ignorance / scarcity of actual works, combined with a contemporary film magazine, Close-Up, which quite regularly put down British output, and the greatness of 1930 British filmmaking may have all combined to make silent Britain seem to be less than it was. But I think that the handling of the material makes Silent Britain less than it could have been.