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I've been writing up reviews of films seen at the Cottage Road cinema's classic film nights here for a while, but last night the Hyde Park Picture House offered an equivalent of its own: an evening of 1940s cinema. I went along with planet_andy, big_daz and ms_siobhan - who had really thrown herself into the spirit of the evening by taking the cinema management's encouragement to dress in period style to heart. She wasn't the only one, either. I'd say there were probably about 50-60 people there, of whom at least ten had taken the opportunity to dress up, and some of whom had really gone to town. Unlike at the Cottage Road cinema, we didn't get any dodgy vintage adverts at the start of the programme, but we did get two short films before moving on to the main feature.

19a. Listen to Britain (1942), dir. Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister

The first short was a 20-minute film about a day in contemporary war-time Britain. It's a kind of montage of sounds and sights, partly aiming to boost public faith in the British spirit, but also simply to capture and evoke the experience of the times. Obviously a lot of its interest lies in its wartime setting - but it is a very beautiful piece of film, too.

It felt to me like there were three main pillars to it: the land, the machinery and the people. Thanks to the first in particular it had a great sense of space - we saw wide open skies, corn waving in the breeze, trees rustling on the edges of the fields. The second was obviously of huge importance to the war effort, and people's sense of Britain's capacity to see off the enemy threat through technological achievement and hard labour, so we also got lots of stirring images of trains, radio broadcasting, factories and so forth.

The third pillar - the people - included plenty of workers digging up potatoes and operating machinery, as you would expect. But it also presented some very intimate footage of ordinary people enjoying small pleasures - dance-halls, lunch-time concerts, children watching tanks go by. This in particular went well beyond what I would normally expect from a propaganda film, really capturing the feel of the people shown without seeming to sentimentalise or heroise them.

I'd really recommend this if you're interested in war-time Britain, or just in technically-proficient documentary film-making. You can see the whole thing at the link in the title, or on YouTube.

19b. 6 Little Jungle Boys (1945), Halas and Batchelor Cartoon Films

Next we saw a 10-minute black and white animation, in much the same style as Disney cartoons of the era, but designed to educate soldiers sent to the far east about basic health precautions. We follow the fortunes of six soldiers, who kiss goodbye to their girls at the start of the film and march off in perfect synchrony to the jungle. But one by one, five of them gradually succumb to a series of horrible diseases - foot rot, scrub typhus, dysentery, malaria and (coyly non-specific) V.D. They are consigned to bed in the military hospital, while the only remaining active soldier wins a medal for bravery in the field, and returns home to kisses from all the girls!

Obviously it is very much Of Its Time. The enemy the soldiers are sent to fight is represented as a satan-figure; the V.D. is contracted from a smoky foreign temptress; and we noted that while the film was graphically detailed about the symptoms of all the other diseases, the soldier who contracted the V.D. was merely made to look rather ashamed from his hospital bed. Cute and interesting, though, and also viewable in full on YouTube.

19c. Perfect Strangers (1945), dir. Alexander Korda

The main feature followed the story of a married couple played by Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr, who are stuck together in a comfortable rut. The narrative begins in 1940, with him as a rather down-trodden book-keeper in the city, and her as a mousy house-wife. But he is about to go off and join the Navy, and, left behind with nothing but his army pay to support her, she soon follows him into the Wrens. Three years pass during which they don't see each other at all, but do do lots of new things, meet interesting people, and discover a self-confidence and joie de vivre that they didn't know they had.

Both are tempted by extra-marital romances, but these don't come to anything, and eventually they find themselves returning to London for ten days of coinciding leave - now distinctly underwhelmed at the prospect of being reunited with the dull, timid partner they remember. In fact, the wife in particular gradually resolves on the journey there to ask for a divorce - and does so, with the husband quite readily agreeing. But they somehow end up in a local pub together all the same, and begin to discover that although they have both changed, they've actually changed in very much the same directions. There is a little to-ing and fro-ing, and a few home truths emerge - but I am sure you will not be surprised to learn that the ending is a happy one. It reminded me, in fact, of The Pina Colada song - a late '70s take on the same classic story.

Like the first short film of the evening, the main feature took me rather by surprise by being a great deal more slickly put-together than I expected. It's easy to assume that war-time films were all made on a shoe-string budget, but actually the little programme that we were given on entry to the cinema pointed out that people turned to the movies in droves during the war as a form of escapism, so in fact the film industry was booming during this period (as, in fact, the film referenced in my icon also demonstrates). This particular film also included more in the way of non-textual structuring and symbolism than I would have expected for this period. So, for instance, the first meeting between the husband and the wife after three years takes place in total darkness, sitting on the Thames embankment during the blackout - and this is where they agree to divorce one another. But afterwards, when they go into the pub, they are suddenly bathed in light, and there both of them begin literally and metaphorically to 'see' all the changes in one another for the first time.

Also quite surprising was the portrayal of the female characters in the film. The whole structure of the story is very balanced between the husband and the wife, with equal weight given to each of their stories, which are presented in intersecting segments while they are apart. So it is a concurrent story of the emancipation of both genders, and one which isn't afraid to show the husband as rather spineless at the beginning, or the wife as strong and independent at the end. Again, the programme notes set this in context - the war created a climate of freedom for women which is easy to forget because it then dropped away again for a couple of decades afterwards, while the lady who wrote the screenplay was apparently doing so from a consciously feminist perspective.

Indeed, it reminded me rather of Sarah Waters' The Night Watch, and not only because of the blitz setting and the general climate of female emancipation which it depicted. Both husband and wife obviously go off into single-sex environments when they sign up, and on both sides there are a fair few scenes with their fellow-servicemen and women which are capable of sustaining a queer reading. I thought this was especially true on the wife's side, though - for example in scenes where she and a female friend curl up very intimately against each other during an overnight train journey to London. Obviously neither character comes anywhere near being portrayed as explicitly queer: the wife is, well, married, and the friend later turns out to be engaged. But it's there if you want to look for it.

Anyway, a very enjoyable evening all round; and capped off by a jolly nice late dinner in Hyde Park, too. Posters outside the cinema promised Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth, complete with a new musical score, next Saturday night - but I can't actually see anything about that on the Hyde Park Picture House's own website. Still, if it's on, ms_siobhan and I are going. Anyone else?

Edit: The Last Man on Earth is now on the official Hyde Park Picture House site, too - so definitely a goer!

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( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 14th, 2010 09:01 pm (UTC)
I was about to advocate the Last Man on Earth film to you after reading a load of Wikipedia synopses the other day. I hope you have fun :)
Jun. 14th, 2010 09:03 pm (UTC)
Also it seems like the foot rot soldier had it a bit hard, not getting a kiss!
Jun. 15th, 2010 08:22 am (UTC)
I think the reason why the ones who'd caught diseases didn't get kisses wasn't so much because of the particular diseases they'd caught as because of the fact that they'd been confined to hospital, so hadn't been able to win any medals (like the last soldier).
Jun. 14th, 2010 09:41 pm (UTC)
The Last Man On Earth with Animat live re-score is definitely on, 6-8pm, it's poss not on the website because it's a hire-out (by Moor Music Festival) and I suspect a bit of a last min booking: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=17947247088&v=wall#!/event.php?eid=108011049246057&ref=mf
Jun. 15th, 2010 08:22 am (UTC)
Cheers. Are you reckoning on going yourself, then?
Jun. 15th, 2010 08:29 am (UTC)
Nah, I don't like missing Doctor Who live unless it's unavoidable and I'm skint anyway. Does look decent, though.
Jun. 15th, 2010 08:45 am (UTC)
Oh arse - I forgot about the impact on Doctor Who YET AGAIN! Still, at least I'll be able to catch up later that same evening this time.
Jun. 14th, 2010 09:58 pm (UTC)
You MUST come to York to House of Avalon which is a new vintage clothes shop and cafe. It's a charity which raises money for people with learning disabilities and the back room cafe sells cake and tea and coffee on proper china with black and white films on a reel all day. Fab!
Jun. 15th, 2010 08:06 am (UTC)
Oh that sounds lovely - count me in too :-)
Jun. 15th, 2010 08:24 am (UTC)
Ooh, does sound good. I wonder if it's something rosamicula might be up for when she's up in early July?
Jun. 15th, 2010 08:51 am (UTC)
Good thought!
Jun. 15th, 2010 09:25 am (UTC)
I'm a little surprised by your assumption that shoe-string budgets might result in less well-made films. Have you read Michael Powell's autobiography?
Jun. 15th, 2010 09:36 am (UTC)
Obviously, as a fan of both Doctor Who and low-budget horror movies, I'm well aware that great things can be achieved on a tiny budget. I only meant that this had higher production values than I'd expected - extensive sets, quite a lot of pyrotechnics, lots of extras, that sort of thing.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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