The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935)

FeaturedThe Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935)

Although rather awkwardly titled and largely forgotten today, the 1935 film The Passing of the Third Floor Back was very popular in Britain upon its release. It draws together two features of the interwar British film industry that have been discussed across various previous posts on this blog. Like, for example, Pygmalion and The Lodger it is based on existing source material. In this instance, this was a short story and play both written by popular writer Jerome K. Jerome before the First World War. The film also draws on high-profile European talent in its director, Berthold Viertel, and its star, Conrad Veidt. This highlights the ongoing international nature of the British film industry between the wars.

Conrad Veidt was a hugely popular and famous German actor with a long career in silent cinema, most notably with lead roles in such classics as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Anders als die Anderen (1919), the latter being a landmark of LGBTQ+ silent cinema. In 1933, Veidt left Germany in light of Hitler’s recent assumption of power; as well as him having politically opposing views to the nazi’s, Veidt’s wife was Jewish.[1] Veidt established himself in Britain and made twelve films for British studios until the outbreak of the Second World War. Film historian Sue Harper considers The Passing of the Third Floor Back ‘the apotheosis of [Veidt’s] acting career.’[2]

The film’s director, Berthold Viertel, was an Austrian émigré filmmaker and friend of Veidt’s. After making The Passing of the Third Floor Back, Viertel only made one more film, 1936’s Rhodes of Africa. Like Veidt, Viertel’s political sympathies were left-of-centre, which comes through clearly in their version of The Passing of the Third Floor Back. The short story and play on which the film were based did not foreground class issues in the same way, indicating that these were specifically scripted in for the film. Incidentally, the script of the film was co-written by Alma Reville, Hitchcock’s wife and frequent scriptwriter.

The film’s rather awkward title refers to the room Conrad Veidt’s character, an unnamed Stranger, takes in the boarding house of Mrs Sharpe. At the opening of the film, we see Stasia, the young housemaid, try and grow a flower in the house’s kitchen. She gets scolded by the stern Mrs Sharpe, and frequent allusions are made by both Mrs Sharpe and the other boarding house guests to Stasia’s background as a young ‘delinquent’. Then the Stranger arrives at the door, asking for a room. Mrs Sharpe leads him up to the back of the top floor, presenting him with a tiny room overlooking rooftops. Although Mrs Sharpe is expecting the Stranger to haggle and argue, he instead compliments the room and placidly accepts her terms.

The rest of the film takes place over three days only. On the evening of the Stranger’s arrival, two of the other boarders are due to get engaged. Young and pretty Vivian is entering into this engagement with the odious Mr Wright because it will save her family from financial ruin. In reality, Vivian is in love with a young architect who also lives in the house. During evening dinner, the Stranger stares intently at Vivian, and she decides not to go through with the engagement. Throughout the rest of the evening, the Stranger keeps using this ‘mesmerising’ stare to mentally force people to act in accordance with their true desires. Another boarder, keen to amuse everyone with superficial show tunes on the piano, is convinced to play classical music instead. A conversation the Stranger has with the architect leads the latter to admit that he too is in love with Vivian.

Conrad Veidt as the Stranger, using his ‘mesmerising’ power

The next day is a Bank Holiday Monday, and the Stranger generously offers to take the whole boarding house party out on a steamer to Margate. Mrs Sharpe allows Stasia to come along, and for the first time the servant girl is accepted as a full member of the house party. On the boat, everyone enjoys themselves. The Stranger has a conversation with Miss Kite, one of the lodgers who is ‘the wrong side of thirty’ and very insecure about her looks. When Stasia falls off the steamer, Miss Kite jumps into the water without hesitation to save her. Her conversation with the Stranger has (temporarily) allowed her to stop worrying about her appearance. Miss Kite’s heroic deed earns her the appreciation of the pianist.

Stasia moments before she falls off the steamer in The Passing of the Third Floor Back

Although everyone seems improved by the Stranger’s gentle attentions and insistence on good manners, one man is not impressed. Wright, who got spurned by Vivian, is a rich man who profits off slum housing. Having lost Vivian, he makes it clear to the Stranger that evening that he will do everything he can to swing the pendulum of change the other way. He explicitly addresses how the Stranger has influenced everyone to ‘do good’, and how he will remind everyone of their baser emotions. Indeed, the next morning, Wright’s influence leads to quarrels and frustrations across the house. People appear to have forgotten what kindness and politeness can do to make everyone’s life more pleasant.

Wright confronts the Stranger in The Passing of the Third Floor Back

At the end of that day, a burglar kills Wright. Initially, the house blame Stasia; then the Stranger. Their mob mentality, once its revealed they were wrongfully accusing their peers, provides a wake-up call to the Stranger’s kindness. He leaves the house, satisfied that he has now made a lasting impact on the lodgers’ worldviews.

Throughout, the Stranger is quite clearly analogous to a Christ-like figure, advocating kindness in every action. Wright appears to be set up as a sort of Lucifer, and the discussion between Wright and the Stranger tantalisingly suggests that Wright ‘recognises’ the Stranger and the two have been at odds before. Yet the film grounds these Christian analogies in practical class-based discussions, particularly by making Wright a profiteering landlord. Although the religious undertones make The Passing of the Third Floor Back a somewhat dated and unfamiliar viewing experience for modern audiences, its social commentary (unfortunately) still feels very relevant.

The Passing of the Third Floor Back can be viewed on YouTube; the short story on which the film is based can be read here.


[1] Sue Harper, ‘Thinking Forward and Up: The British films of Conrad Veidt’, in The Unknown 1930s: An alternative history of the British cinema, 1929-1939, ed. Jeffrey Richards (London: IB Tauris, 2000), 121-137 (p. 122)

[2] Ibid., p. 132

Trouble Brewing (1939)

Featured<strong><em>Trouble Brewing</em> (1939)</strong>

Lancashire singer and comedian George Formby was an extremely popular entertainer during the interwar period. He had an instantly recognisable brand: catch-phrases such as ‘Turned out nice again!’; songs full of gentle innuendo and always accompanying himself with his banjolele (a cross between a ukulele and a banjo).

Supported by his wife Beryl as his manager, Formby made a series of comedy films in the second half of the 1930s, at the rate of two a year. These were often directed by Anthony Kimmins, a writer and director who also worked with that other Lancashire star, Gracie Fields. Kimmins and Formby’s sixth collaboration was Trouble Brewing, which was released in July 1939 and could serve as an antidote to the ever-increasing concerns about impending war in Europe.

In Trouble Brewing, Formby plays George Gullip, a newspaper printer at a fictional daily tabloid. George wants to be a detective, and has developed a type of ink which is impossible to rub off, to help him take fingerprints. The police are on the track of a gang which is distributing counterfeit money. When George and his friend Bill are duped by the gang, they team up with secretary Mary to unmask the gang once and for all.

George (George Formby), left, and Bill (Gus McNaughton), right, at work in the print room in Trouble Brewing

The film takes its title from the beer brewery which the counterfeiting gang uses as a front for their operations. As is common for these 1930s comedies that are primarily showcases for individual stars, Trouble Brewing consists of a series of set pieces which are only loosely strung together by a plot. George and Bill get duped on the racetrack; their subsequent investigations have them dress up as waiters at a private party; join a wrestling match; break into the police inspector’s home (and accidentally kidnap him); and confront the criminal gang in their brewery. At each stage, the script allows Formby plenty of physical comedy. His scenes with Mary and other female characters are opportunities for George to serenade them with his songs, even if they are more cheeky than romantic.

George subjected to a wrestling match in Trouble Brewing

In Trouble Brewing, the line between journalism and policing is blurred to the point that it almost disappears. When George says to his superiors as the paper that he wants to become a detective, the newspaper proprietor harrumphs that being a journalist is pretty much the same thing. Although in reality, printers and journalists had very distinct professional identities, George moves between the basement print room and the editorial offices with relative ease. Mary, who works as the secretary to the newspaper’s editor, appears to know George and Bill and treats them as her direct colleagues.

The police in Trouble Brewing have been ineffective in rounding up the counterfeiting gang, which has been at work for at least six months at the beginning of the film. Yet the two printers and the secretary manage to close the gang down in a matter of days. There are plenty of other British interwar films in which journalists collaborate closely with the police, but Trouble Brewing takes this a step further by focusing on main characters who are not even actual journalists. At the same time it is tacitly assumed that George wants to get promoted and work as a journalist, which he achieves at the end of the film when both the newspaper proprietor and the police inspector are duly impressed with his work in rounding up the criminal gang.

Trouble Brewing gives Formby plenty of opportunity to exploit the sexual innuendo he was known for, not only in his songs but also in the scene when he and Bill serve as waiters at a private house party. The party is thrown by an opera singer, whom George and Bill suspect may be part of the criminal gang. George has gotten the singer to put her fingerprint on a piece of paper, but she put that piece of paper in the top of her stocking. When the woman sits down to speak to a male guest at her party, George creeps under the table in an attempt to get the paper. The woman naturally assumes that her conversation partner is touching her leg under the table. This joke is repeated three separate times, causing the singer to shout at and slap at the various men she sits down with. For modern spectators, it is perhaps clearer that such a joke primarily works for male viewers; female audience members may find little to laugh at here. This indicates that Formby’s primary appeal was to men, whereas Gracie Fields aimed her jokes and songs at a broader audience.

George under the table in Trouble Brewing

Trouble Brewing ends in the beer brewery where the gang is hiding. Here physical comedy takes over, with actors running up and down stairs, hiding in barrels, and hanging on ropes. The brewery contains several vast vats of beer, which are left uncovered. Bill lands in one and becomes inebriated almost immediately; the same eventually happens with the counterfeiting gang members. The apparently instantaneous effects of alcohol on the men underlines how far the events on screen are removed from reality at this stage of the film. It has developed into slapstick, harking back to earlier cinematic traditions.

Unlike another 1939 film set in a brewery, Cheer Boys Cheer, which makes direct reference to Nazi Germany, Trouble Brewing offered audiences complete escapism. Money laundering and the circulation of counterfeit money were popular tropes in interwar crime fiction, but they were far removed from the real-life horrors of war and fascism. The film expanded on the already-established cinematic narrative that journalists could effectively solve crimes, by presenting three workers as skilled detectives. The film’s happy ending no doubt provided audiences with welcome escapism as the international political situation deteriorated.  

George (George Formby) and Mary (Googie Withers) end up in a beer barrel at the close of Trouble Brewing

The Gaunt Stranger (1938)

Featured<strong>The Gaunt Stranger (1938)</strong>

As has been noted previously on this blog, the work of detective fiction writer Edgard Wallace was often used as source material for British interwar films. Wallace was a prolific writer, so despite his early death in 1932, there were plenty of opportunities to translate his work to the screen for years afterwards. One such crime thriller is 1938’s The Gaunt Stranger. What sets this story apart from most British interwar crime fodder is that, very unusually, the criminal escapes the police at the end of the story.

Like so many interwar texts, The Gaunt Stranger existed in multiple formats and under different titles. Wallace originally published the story as a novel in 1925 under the title The Gaunt Stranger. Shortly after its publication, Wallace adapted it for the stage in collaboration with celebrated acter Gerald Du Maurier under the same name. In 1926 Wallace re-published the novel, now titled The Ringer, with some modifications to the text based on the stage production. The Ringer appears to have been put on stage again in 1929, and was also adapted as a film in Britain in 1928, 1931 and 1952. The second of these films was directed by Walter Forde, who in 1938 directed the story again under the auspices of Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios, but this time under the book’s original title.

The story of The Gaunt Stranger is almost as intricate as its production history. Set over a period of only 48 hours, it centres on lawyer-cum-criminal Maurice Meister, who receives warning that he is to be killed on 17 November, in two days’ time, by the notorious criminal ‘The Ringer’. Everyone in England, including Scotland Yard, believed the Ringer to have been killed two years’ previously in Australia. After the Ringer’s apparent death, Meister took in the Ringer’s sister as his secretary. It is insinuated that his relationship with the woman was more than just professional, and she committed suicide on 17 November the previous year. The Ringer appears to have come back from the dead to avenge his sister.

The Scotland Yard team is made up of DI Alan Wembury, Scottish police surgeon Dr Lomond, and Inspector Bliss, who has recently returned from Australia and who was the man who ostensibly killed the Ringer two years previously. Wembury calls in the help of small-time criminal Sam Hackett, who is one of the few men in England who would be able to recognise the Ringer. Wembury also has an admiration for Meister’s current secretary, Mary Lenley, whose brother Johnnie is also a criminal recently released from Dartmoor. Finally, in the course of the investigation the police identify and question Cora Ann, the Ringer’s American wife.

DI Alan Wembury and Mary Lenley in The Gaunt Stranger

With a runtime of only 71 minutes and a comprehensive cast of characters with complicated interrelations, The Gaunt Stranger moves at a rapid pace. Nonetheless, Forde makes effective use of repeated panning shots of empty rooms inside Meister’s house. The film opens with several shots of these empty rooms, ending with a shot of Meister playing his piano. Similar shots are repeated several times during the film, to stress Meister’s solitary living arrangements and highlight his vulnerability. As the 17 November dawns, Scotland Yard effectively imprison Meister in his own house to ensure he stays safe. Little do they know that the danger will not be coming from outside the house.

The closed circle of characters and the physical closure of Meister’s house set The Gaunt Stranger up as a classic murder mystery. What remains unclear until the end, however, is the identity of the Ringer himself. Johnnie, the criminal brother of secretary Mary, is a possible contender. More suspicious is inspector Bliss, who so recently returned from Australia. He acts oddly throughout the film, and seems reluctant to trust Wembury or collaborate fully with the investigation. Wembury does not know Bliss personally, opening up the possibility of him being someone other than who he pretends to be. Cora Ann also behaves oddly, first insisting that her husband is dead, before changing her story and admitting that he is still alive.

Johnnie Lenley and Sam Hackett in The Gaunt Stranger

Meister himself is also anything but a sympathetic character. Like other books of the period, Wallace opted to make his victim an unpleasant character, so that the audience is not too concerned whether the murder is prevented or not. More unusually, however, Wallace also arranged for the Ringer, when his identity is eventually revealed, to make a spectacular escape from the police and the country. Once the Ringer’s identity is confirmed, it is clear to the audience in retrospect that Cora Ann has been playing along with her husband throughout the film. Their escape, which involves piloting a plane from a nearby airfield, was clearly planned in advance.

The Ringer and Cora Ann escape in The Gaunt Stranger

The police in The Gaunt Stranger are depicted as organised and capable. They effectively arrest multiple people throughout the film and are not fooled by Meister’s attempts to come across as a respectable lawyer – they are fully aware of his criminal activities. When Sam Hackett, the criminal informer, attempts to steal some of Meister’s silverware, he is apprehended by a Bobby almost immediately. Johnnie, too, is arrested as soon as he tries to break into a house. The film puts some of the police’s technological infrastructure on display, such as telegrams and cars wired with radios. Nevertheless the Ringer’s unscrupulous nature allows him to escape despite the police’s efforts. The Gaunt Stranger is one of the few British interwar films which entertains the possibility of a fallible police force that can be outwitted by master criminals.

The Gaunt Stranger is available on DVD from Network on Air.

Let Me Explain, Dear (1932)

Featured<strong>Let Me Explain, Dear (1932)</strong>

The introduction of sound film in Britain around 1930 opened up more opportunities for filmmakers to produce comedies based on dialogue rather than slapstick. As London’s theatre sector was thriving, many comic plays transferred over to the silver screen. Popular plays such as Pygmalion were turned into films, and of course a whole series of popular farces performed at the Aldwych theatre were also adapted.

Almost more than any other genre of film, comedy is specific to the time and place in which it was made. An adaptation of a 1915 comedy play made in 1932 is a good example of this. Let Me Explain, Dear was based on the play ‘A Little Bit of Fluff’, the full text of which is available to read online. ‘A Little Bit of Fluff’ was a great success when it was first staged and it ran for the majority of the First World War at the Criterion Theatre, no doubt giving audiences a welcome respite from the war news (the theatre poster available on Wikipedia highlights that the Criterion was ‘built entirely underground’ and therefore safe in case of air raids).

The play was adapted into a film in 1919 by the short-lived Q Film Productions company, and again in 1928 for a larger-scale production starring Betty Balfour as one of the female leads. Let Me Explain, Dear is the first sound film adaptation of the play; all three adaptations are produced in Britain for the domestic market, as they cater to a specific cultural sensibility. ‘A Little Bit of Fluff’ is positioned as a farce, but its comedy is much broader than that of the Aldwych farces that had become so popular by the time Let Me Explain, Dear was released.

The story of the film, which is only slightly evolved from the play, is simple enough. George Hunter is married to Angela, a domineering woman who holds the financial purse strings in the relationship. When George believes Angela to be away from home, he meets Mamie, a glamourous young woman with an undefined job in some sort of performance-related industry. Mamie has borrowed an expensive pearl necklace from a banker boyfriend.

Mamie (Jane Carr) and George (Gene Gerrard) getting cozy in a taxi in Let Me Explain, Dear

The necklace accidentally ends up with George and then Angela. In an attempt to retrieve the necklace or make enough money to buy a replacement, George ropes in the help of his neighbour Merryweather to scam a newspaper insurance scheme. Eventually personal relations, necklaces, and scams get hopelessly tangled up before George ends up reconciled with Angela and Mamie returns to her banker boyfriend.

One of the ways in which the film has updated the original play text is through the inclusion of the apparently newfangled and fictitious concept of the ‘water taxi’. At the opening of the film, George takes a ‘water taxi’, a speedboat across the Thames, because he sees Mamie inside it. Due to George’s clumsiness, the taxi ends up crashing into the side of a much bigger vessel. This accident later forms the basis of George’s attempt to claim insurance money from his newspaper. In the original play, the alleged accident was that of a bus. The inclusion of the water taxi allows for some spectacular shots of the boat speeding across the Thames – and by 1932 buses were much safer than they had been in 1915, perhaps making the idea of a bus accident slightly less believable.

The ‘water taxi’ in action in Let Me Explain, Dear

The fact that George tries to scam money from an insurance scheme run by a popular newspaper also does not appear in the original text. In the play, the insurance scheme is run by the bus company itself – prior to the unification of London Transport in 1933 separate bus companies maintained the various routes across London. By the time Let Me Explain, Dear was made, the ‘newspaper wars’ were in full swing and popular newspapers tried to gain more subscribers in part by offering generous insurance schemes. Let Me Explain, Dear uses this to bring its plot right up to date for contemporary viewers.

Let Me Explain, Dear has the occasional moment of verbal wit that has stood the test of time – when Angela reveals the pearl necklace she has found in George’s overcoat pocket, she snaps ‘What do you say to that?’ George’s friend Merryweather responds: ‘I don’t know, I’ve never talked to one before.’ Mostly, though, the blatant sexism underpinning the entire plot and dialogue alienates the film from modern viewers. The relationship between George and Angela appears to be solely built on mutual distrust and annoyance. When Merryweather asks George how he came to be married to Angela, his response is ‘I just sort of sobered up and there she was.’

Merryweather (Claude Hulbert); Angela (Viola Lyel) and George (Gene Gerrard) in Let Me Explain, Dear

Whereas in the play it is made clear that George is such a bad entrepreneur that his work activities were actively costing the couple money, and that is why Angela has demanded he stop ‘working’, in the film Angela appears to solely want to emasculate George by paying everything for him. George’s quick work to woo Mamie is not judged, and Mamie herself is a cardboard character who prances around in underwear and starts screaming hysterically (and then faints) when she thinks her pearl necklace has been stolen.

Mamie (Jane Carr) relaxing at home in Let Me Explain, Dear

Lead actor Gene Gerrard also co-wrote and co-directed Let Me Explain, Dear; a feat he repeated in the same year with Lucky Girl, another light comedy adapted from a stage play. Alhtough there is not much to recommend Let Me Explain, Dear to modern audiences, it is a necessary reminder of the range and variety of output of the British film industry during the interwar period.

Let Me Explain, Dear is available on DVD from Network Distributing.

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Cinema management

As going to the cinema became Britain’s most popular leisure activity in the 1920s and 1930s, there was increased attention for the business side of managing cinemas. Working in the cinema industry now became a viable career path, albeit mostly for men. Cinemas also increasingly became parts of chains such as Odeon and ABC. These chains set up their own internal training schemes and rotated management staff between cinemas to ensure consistency of service.

The interwar period also saw a big increase of the print market, including the appearance of many trade papers, guides, and ‘self-help’ books. The majority of the population still left school at 14, and there emerged a vibrant culture of self-improvement and lifelong learning. In one of the main trade papers for the cinema sector, Kinematograph Weekly, cinema managers were encouraged to constantly learn from one another and improve their craft. In addition, several handbooks were published in the interwar period which purported to teach the budding cinema manager how to best run a picture palace. Together, these articles and books demonstrate what were considered the most important aspects of the cinemagoing experience at the time.

In 1934, Kinematograph Weekly reprinted a lecture given by a supervisor at ABC, for an audience of assistant managers keen to advance their careers. The lecture demonstrates the wide range of skills managers were expected to have: knowledge of engineering, the ability to retain staff discipline, but also knowledge of accounts and figures and the ability to market the cinema’s films to the public. The speaker claims a manager needs ‘professional integrity beyond reproach, a cool head for emergencies and tact sufficient for the average international diplomat.’[1] Statements like this are clearly designed to make the audience feel they have chosen a challenging and rewarding career, even if its professional standing or pay was nowhere near that of lawyers, doctors, or diplomats.

The lecture also advised that managers should be in the cinema from around 10am, and stay until the end of the final screening. It was considered good practice for managers to be at the front of house in evening dress at the end of the night, to personally wish patrons a good night. It is clear from this article that the role of a manager demanded long hours and knowledge on a wide range of subjects. At the same time, the manager had a clear position of authority in the cinema and did not have to undertake manual labour such as cleaning or carpentry, like the other staff.

Three years after this lecture was published, a guidebook appeared which was sanctioned by the Cinema Exhibitor’s Association (CEA), the professional body for cinema owners. Like the lecture, the author of the book is keen to stress the emotional appeal of the cinema manager’s job, describing it on the book’s opening page as ‘a real man’s job’ with ‘grave responsibility’; a job that is ‘enthralling’, ‘creative’ and requiring continuous learning.[2]

The book continues to provide very detailed information on how to manage the day-to-day operations of a cinema, implying that its intended audience was those who were new to the business and not assistant managers who already had significant experience. A substantial proportion of the book is concerned with advice on staff management. Depending on the size of the cinema, a manager could be in charge of anything between half a dozen and several tens of staff. Both the Kine Weekly article and this handbook advocate daily inspections of staff, to instil discipline and check for cleanliness.[3] The front-of-house staff were expected to adhere to strict rules on appearance: ‘the hair of all uniformed male attendants must be cut short at the back and sides, and their face and hands kept clean.’[4]

There were a handful of female cinema managers in the interwar period, but they were very much considered to be the exception rather than the rule.[5] As noted above, the 1937 guide describes cinema management as ‘a real man’s job’, perhaps restating the supposed masculinity required for the role in response to a small but growing number of female managers. During the Second World War, the CEA had to allow women much more access to cinema work to allow cinemas to continue operating.[6]

Both the handbook and the lecture quoted here are fairly light on what education (if any) is required for cinema managers. Whilst similar books aimed at cinema operators (projectionists) stress that theirs is a skilled role requiring technical expertise, the guidance for managers mainly highlight the variety and responsibility of the role.[7] Provided the aspirant manager felt confident that he had the physical and mental ability to manage a varied job, these sources present the role as an achievable career goal for anyone who wanted to pursue it.

Want to read more about employment in 1930s cinemas? I recently published a more in-depth article on this topic which you can find here.


[1] S. Simpson, ‘The Principles of Kinema Management’ in Kinematograph Weekly, 5 April 1934, p. 41

[2] JH Hutchison, The Complete Kinemanager (London: Kinematograph Publications, 1937), p. 1

[3] Ibid., p. 91

[4] Ibid., p. 83

[5] In 1934, the Ideal cinema in Lambeth was managed by a Miss M.A. Ball, Kinematograph Weekly, 8 February 1934, p. 58; and the Queen’s Hall in Catford was managed by a Miss M Woodroffe from 1916, Kinematograph Weekly, 22 Feburary 1934, p. 36

[6] Rebecca Harrison, ‘The Coming of the Projectionettes: Women’s Work in Film Projection and Changing Modes of Spectatorship in Second World War British Cinemas, Feminist Media Histories, vol. 2, no. 2 (2016), 47-70

[7] W.S. Ibbetson, The Kinema Operator’s Handbook (London : E. & F. N. Spon, 1921), p. 1

Films by the GPO: Night Mail (1936) and N or NW (1938)

FeaturedFilms by the GPO: Night Mail (1936) and N or NW (1938)

One of the features of interwar Britain is its rapid modernisation and the expansion of its infrastructure. This extended to the General Post Office (GPO) which looked after the expanding telephone network as well as paper mail delivery and the sending of telegrams. Although telephones rapidly became more widely used during the interwar period, placing phone calls outside one’s own exchange district, or outside of working hours, could still be a very costly affair. Writing letters remained very popular, and of course most business affairs were also conducted by writing. With the introduction of long-distance commercial flights in the 1920s, it became possible to send and receive letters to all corners of the Empire much more quickly than before.

In 1933, the GPO established its own film unit, to produce documentaries and propaganda films about the GPO’s work. Britain already had an Empire Marketing Board which produced films to favour the Empire, so the establishment of a specific unit for the GPO was a small step. The GPO film unit was headed up by pioneering director John Grierson.

In 1936 the GPO produced a documentary short about the postal train which travelled from London to Scotland every night. Night Mail has become a documentary classic, mixing art with fly-on-the wall footage of the postal service in action. WH Auden wrote a poem for the documentary, which features as its voice over, and the music was written by Benjamin Britten.

In its runtime of just over 23 minutes, Night Mail shows real postal workers in the business of running the nightly postal train from Euston up to the highlands. On its route, it passes railway workers, passengers on other trains, and farmers. The infrastructure of the railway line is intimately connected with the vast infrastructure of the postal service, which ensures that any letter is delivered to the correct address in record time. Cutting through the country from south to north, the postal train is depicted as cutting through all layers and sections of British society. A high-tech control room, which was in constant connection with station managers up and down the line, ensured that the whole system kept running smoothly.

The control room in Night Mail

The rural scenes the train passes are juxtaposed with the ingenious systems the GPO had devised to ensure maximum efficiency. Postal workers up and down the line hung bags of post from poles, destined for towns further up north. These bags which were picked up by the train as it sped past through a specially designed system. At the same time, workers on the train chucked out bags of mail for postal workers to pick up and distribute. Inside the carriages, dozens of men sorted individual items of post into pigeonholes at high speed.

Postal workers sorting post on the train in Night Mail

Where Night Mail presents the successful running of the postal delivery system as a collective endeavour which uses the latest technology to benefit the whole country, a film made by the GPO film unit a few years later focuses on the personal side of sending post. N or NW was made in 1938, several years after the first introduction of lettered postcode districts in central London. Postcodes in central London are based on compass points, so N for north London, SE for South East and so on.

Map of postal districts in N or NW

In N or NW we are introduced to Jack and Evelyn, a young couple who have recently had an argument. Evelyn is writing a letter to Jack, which she relates to us in voiceover. Jack has been ‘simply beastly’ to her: he got angry with her for going to a party with a male friend. Evelyn demands that Jack sends her a written apology by return post, otherwise the relationship is ‘ruined’.

Upon receiving this missive, Jack is eager to apologise and he quickly pens his response. However, when it comes to addressing the letter, he cannot remember if the postcode for Evelyn’s home in Islington is N or NW. He eventually plumps on NW. We then return to Evelyn, who has waited in vain for Jack’s letter to arrive and is now writing him another one, in which she encloses the ring he gave her. But! Just as Evelyn is about to leave the house to post this final rebuttal, the postman arrives with Jack’s apology.

Evelyn and Jack go out picnicking the water in the countryside, their relationship restored. It is revealed that the post office corrected the address on Jack’s letter, changing the postcode from NW to N. A postman informs the audience that writing addresses clearly and without errors will ensure prompt delivery. However, the film implies that even if you do make a mistake in the address, the GPO is there to correct your mistakes and avert disaster.

Watch N or NW

N or NW has an experimental formalism belied by its thin and sentimental storyline. The film is full over superimpositions, characters speaking to camera and other surprising shots, all set over an upbeat jazz soundtrack. Like Night Mail, it paid attention to its form as well as its message. The films combine instruction with visual innovation. Despite their different perspectives, both presented the postal service as kind, community-based and highly efficient and reliable.

Night Mail can be viewed for free on BFI Player by people in the UK.

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The Wrecker (1929) and The Flying Scotsman (1929)

During the silent film period, which in Britain lasted until roughly 1930, film production was a very international affair. Because the majority of the film’s plot was communicated to audiences with gesture, movement and facial expressions as opposed to dialogue, directors could relatively easily make films outside their own national context. One such director was the Hungarian Géza von Bolváry. Von Bolváry started his film directing career in Germany where he worked for most of the 1920s. In 1928, however, British International Pictures invited him to spend a year at the London studios. During this year he directed three silent films: Bright Eyes and The Vagabond Queen (both starring Betty Balfour), and The Wrecker.

The Wrecker was based on a 1924 play by the same name, which was also turned into a novel published in 1928. It is a prime example of the kind of cross-medial adaptations on which many interwar films are based. It is also one of several interwar British films which foreground public transport as a prime site of action.

The hero of The Wrecker is Roger ‘Lucky’ Doyle, the nephew of a train company magnate. A nefarious criminal, known only as ‘The Wrecker’, is repeatedly facilitating train crashes on Lucky’s uncle’s trainlines. Together with Mary, his uncle’s secretary (played by Benita Hume), Lucky attempts to uncover the Wrecker’s true identity. Eventually, with the help of the Wrecker’s female accomplice Beryl, Lucky finds out that his uncle’s business rival Ambrose Barney is behind the train crashes. Barney runs a company of long-distance charabancs, and the public’s panic about train crashes is boosting his own business. Lucky publicly denounces Barney, and of course wins Mary’s affections as well.

The Wrecker’s main selling point, both when it was released and today, is that Southern Railway allowed the studio to use its real rolling stock. Von Bolváry staged one spectacular train crash on a disused railway line, which is shown near the start of The Wrecker. The use of the real trains (as opposed to models) heightens the veracity of the crash scene and counteracts the sometimes somewhat overblown silent screen acting. The spectacle of the train crash was a draw for contemporary audiences. The value of the train crash sequence is underlined by the fact that its footage was reused for the Walter Forde-directed The Ghost Train which was released two years later.

The train crash in The Wrecker (1929)

Shortly after The Wrecker was released, cinema audiences could enjoy another train-based film with spectacular stunts. The Flying Scotsman, directed by Castleton Knight, was also released in 1929. This short feature is about an engine driver, Bob, who is working his last day on the London to Edinburgh line. A disgruntled ex-employee makes it onto the train with the intention of causing an accident. Bob’s daughter and a younger train colleague work together to avert the disaster.

Pauline Johnson, who played Barney’s accomplice Beryl in The Wrecker, takes the role of the leading lady in The Flying Scotsman, which sees her walking on the outside of an LNER train while it is in full motion. Johnson did the stunt herself, and like the crash scene in The Wrecker, the authenticity of the action creates a high-impact scene.

Pauline Johnson clambering down the side of a moving training in The Flying Scotsman (1929)

High-speed rail travel was not a novelty in interwar Britain. Trains had been running ever faster since their introduction in the early 19th century, and rail travel was popular for long-distance journeys and holiday travel. Although newspapers occasionally reported on the risks passengers faced on public transport, those risks were mainly due to other passengers, not technical faults. The almost simultaneous production of The Wrecker and The Flying Scotsman did not respond to a wider social anxiety about the safety of rail transport. Rather, it is likely that the technological advancements at the end of the silent era allowed directors to move their cameras more freely, which in turn enabled them to capture stunts and high-speed transport more effectively.

With the introduction and rapid expansion of sound film from 1930, cameras once again became static as they had to be connected to microphones and be kept still to avoid the recording of ambient noise. Filming actors clambering down the side of moving trains was no longer possible. By 1935 the climax of the action-comedy Bulldog Jack sees Jack Buchanan clamber over the top of a moving Tube, in an attempt to stop the rogue driver from crashing the train. Shots of characters inside the Tube are interspersed with shots taken from the front of the train and from platforms, and shots of Buchanan clambering horizontally across a ledge. The rapid editing gives the viewer the illusion that Buchanan is really on top of the train, but there is no doubt that the stunt is not real.

Although the introduction of sound film allowed for different types of storytelling on the screen, it also caused the loss of some visual capabilities which took decades to recover. The introduction of sound made film plots more dependent on dialogue, which also reduced the possibility of actors and directors working across national boundaries.

Bulldog Jack can be viewed on YouTube.

Looking on the Bright Side (1932)

FeaturedLooking on the Bright Side (1932)

By 1932, Gracie Fields was already a huge star. Although she’d only appeared in one film, 1931’s Sally in Our Alley, she had been a major stage star and popular singer since the mid-1920s. After the big success of her first film, it was quickly followed up with a second one which showcases both Field’s singing talent and her comic wit.

In Looking on the Bright Side Fields plays Gracie, first in a series of film roles in which her character have her name, to provide the illusion that she is essentially playing herself. Gracie is a manicurist who lives in a flat in a modern housing estate in London. Her boyfriend, Laurie, is a hairdresser in the same beauty parlour, and lives in a flat opposite Gracie. He is also a budding songwriter who is looking for his big break.

Directors Basil Dean and Graham Cutts make the most of the stage set with its symmetrical staircases running up the front of the building. During the film’s opening, all inhabitants of the estate sing along to Laurie’s newest song in a scene reminiscent of stage musicals. Laurie’s song is the titular ‘Looking on the Bright Side’ which reflects the particular brand of working-class optimism on which much of Fields’ stage persona traded.

Gracie and Laurie in their adjacent flats in Looking on the Bright Side

In the beauty parlour, where Laurie and Gracie work as a team on actress Josie Joy. When the couple tell Josie about Laurie’s new song, she offers to introduce them to her manager, Oscar Schultz. Gracie is sceptical but Laurie enthusiastically jumps at the chance to further his career. When Laurie’s song is a success with Schultz, Laurie gives up his hairdressing job and is swept off his feet by the attentions of Josie Joy.

Laurie doing Miss Josie Joy’s hair in Looking on the Bright Side

Gracie is left behind on the estate. She loses her job when the arrogant Josie Joy comes in for a manicure and Gracie is unable to treat her civilly. After briefly taking a job as a female police officer – a section of the film mostly used to showcase Fields’ comic talent – Laurie sees the error of his ways and he and Gracie reunite for a big singalong at the estate.

Fields’ celebrity persona was inextricably linked with her own, working-class Lancashire roots. She retained her strong northern accent throughout her career, and her films celebrate working-class community over individual fame and riches. The class conflict in Looking on the Bright Side is introduced when Laurie is first invited to play his songs for Oscar Schultz. When Laurie and Gracie arrive at Schultz’ suite at the Dorchester Hotel, a busy cocktail party is in full swing. The women present call each other ‘darling’ and use expressions like ‘it’s a scream!’ – expressions which the down-to-earth Gracie would never use.

After Laurie and Gracie perform their song, Schultz singles out Gracie and tries to persuade her to agree to a role in his next musical production. Although Schultz’ intentions appear to be honourable, his way of cornering Gracie and persuading her to drink another cocktail put her off, and she declines his offer. Laurie, in the meantime, is sitting at the piano surrounded by women and does not want to leave the party with Gracie. Instead he stays out till 3.30am, much to Gracie’s dismay.

Laurie’s dreams to make it big in showbusiness are portrayed as naïve and, to a certain extent, wrong. This is partly because his talent as a songwriter is limited; without Gracie, he struggles to write good songs and eventually Schultz sacks him. Gracie, on the other hand, is genuinely talented but is not interested in pursuing fame. Instead, she prioritises the community of the estate over individual ambition.

The sense of community is not only shown in the estate-wide singalongs that bookend the film, but also in Gracie’s relationship with her neighbour Hetty and Hetty’s young daughter Bettina. No explanation is given for Bettina’s absent father. Hetty works as a police officer and Gracie frequently looks after Bettina when Hetty is on duty. The very warm and natural relationship between Fields and the child actor provides a strong counterpoint to the vacuous lovemaking between Laurie and Miss Joy.

Fields acting with Bettina Montahners in Looking on the Bright Side

The section in which Gracie signs up with the Metropolitan Police has little relevance to the plot. Female police officers were still relatively rare in 1932, and they were certainly not regularly portrayed on screen. Predicably, the rigid enforcement of rules within the corps is used to set up some physical slapstick comedy situations for Fields. Although Fields quickly decides to leave the Police force, it is not the notion of female police officers which is rejected, but rather the idea that Fields herself would be suitable in such a controlled environment.

Looking on the Bright Side takes a reasonably meta approach to the business of song writing and song-selling, as the film itself was clearly a vehicle for selling records and sheet music of the songs it includes. At the same time, it obfuscates its own part in commercial song writing by presenting other careers and industries as more valuable and viable.

Listen to Gracie Fields sing ‘Looking on the Bright Side’
Featured

Hints and Hobbies (1926)

By 1926, cinemagoing was firmly established in Britain, and it was transforming from a working-class hobby to something rather more respectable. Super cinemas, which offered lounges and tearooms as well as screenings, were designed to attract middle-class women. Film historian Ina Rae Hark has argued that cinemas tried to draw in female customers by “attempting to create a dream home in which the woman could (…) enjoy complete freedom from responsibility for its maintenance.”[1] Like the department stores that appeared in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, super cinemas gave women a respectable place to go when they were out in town: a female equivalent for male clubland.

Inside the screening room, audiences did not just see a single film, but rather a varied programme of features, cartoons, informational films and advertisements. In 1926, silent film director A.E. Coleby, who had previously directed morality tales such as The Lure of Drink (1915) produced a series called Hints and Hobbies. Twelve episodes of this weekly bulletin survive in the BFI National Archives and are available to view online for UK-based audiences. These amusing films provide insight to the range of topics which were deemed relevant and suitable to a largely female audience.

Each episode of the series is about fifteen minutes long and covers a series of topics for a few minutes each. The very first Hints and Hobbies starts with a ‘Pets Column’ featuring kittens and puppies, showing that a version of the cat video has been a crowd pleaser for over a century. It then moves to a woman demonstrating how you can make a large decorative vase out of cardboard – for the use of dried flowers only one presumes! It is introduced with the title: ‘An Interesting Hobby which can be made to help pay the rent (?)’ It is evidently not going to be the most effective way to earn extra cash, but this does show that the target audience for this segment are women who are not poor but still could do with some more disposable income.

The penultimate sketch included in episode one is clearly aimed at the same audience. Titled ‘If only husbands were like this!’, it shows a married couple at the breakfast table. The woman receives a number of bills for recent clothes purchases: £8 8s for two hats, £10 10s for a ‘costume’, and £21 for an evening dress. This was serious money in 1926, but the fictional husband is unperturbed. ‘Quite alright, darling’, he says, and even says his wife should have treated herself to a second gown. E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady, no stranger to the lure of the boutique and the subsequent bank overdraft, would no doubt have appreciated this scene.

Hints and Hobbies also reflected modern concerns of the time, such as road safety. As this blog has noted previously, the interwar period saw a huge increase in car ownership but little in the way of safety regulations. In lieu of driving licenses or instructors, poor driving was rife. The first episode of the series exhorts drivers to be mindful of others when overtaking one another; the second episode asks female drivers specifically to not be ‘Miss Kareless Kornerer’ when taking a left-hand turn.

Along with the household and cooking tips included in each episode, Hints and Hobbies also took the traditionally feminised profession of nursing and used it to teach first aid to a wide audience. Lady Superintendent Mrs Webb from the St John’s Ambulance Brigade was on hand to demonstrate how to dress a wound in the palm of one’s hand, or how to make a splint for a fractured leg. Seven years after many women had trained as nurses during the First World War, these segments taught a new, younger generation of women the principles of emergency care. Mrs Webb appears in her uniform, capably handling the tools of her trade to fix up male patients.

The penultimate surviving episode of Hints and Hobbies veered away from accepted femininity and treated its audiences to something rather more transgressive: jiu-jitsu for women. The alarmist intertitle ‘You never know when the following may happen to you’ is followed by a sequence showing a young woman being attacked by a male loafer, who tries to steal her handbag. Luckily for the victim, a capable female motorist steps out of her car, grabs the man, retrieves the handbag, and ends with throwing the attacker to the ground. When returning the bag to the first woman, she tells her ‘My dear, it behoves every girl to-day to be able to protect herself…If you will come to the address I will give you at 7 o’clock to-night I will give you a few hints.’

It’s no surprise that this particular episode of Hints and Hobbies has been embraced by some LGBTQ viewers as representing an example of ‘lesbian erotica.’ Dressed in short tunics and standing on mattresses, the two women demonstrate several self-defence moves on one another. This no doubt also gave straight male viewers plenty of ‘visual pleasure’ but the casting of the man as the villain rather than hero in this segment, and a final shot of the two women embracing and leaving the room with their arms around one another, give plenty of space for a queer reading.

Little else appears to be known about Hints and Hobbies – who decided which topics to include, which cinemas they were shown at, or why the series did not last. However, even without any additional information the series provides plenty of insight into what the producers thought would entertain and inform their mostly female audiences. The changing gender norms of the period are reflected in the content that veers from tips on how to remove ink stains from aprons to improvising fancy dress for your next flapper party.  

The full Hints and Hobbies series can be viewed for free by UK-based viewers on the BFI Player.


[1] Ina Rae Hark, ed, Exhibition: The Film Reader (London: Routledge, 2001), chapter 12, Ina Rae Hark, ‘The “Theatre Man” and the “Girl in the Box Office”, pp. 143-154 (p. 145)