Paul Robeson

FeaturedPaul Robeson

Paul Robeson was born in 1898 in New Jersey. He became an actor, singer, activist and athlete, and was one of the very few prominent black actors to appear in British interwar films. Robeson lived with his wife in London between 1928 and 1939, during which period he studied Swahili and phonetics at SOAS, University of London. In London he appeared on the West End stage as Othello (1930) – the first black man to play the role on the West End stage in a hundred years.

Robeson was a popular actor and singer, and a well-known figure in London society. When, in 1929, he and his wife were denied entry to the Savoy grill room due to their skin colour, the matter was reported in the national press. The Savoy, however, flat-out refused to admit that it operated a colour bar and provided no explanation why the Robeson’s were refused entry.

On British film sets, Robeson also encountered racial prejudices. After appearing alongside his wife Eslanda in the art-house Borderline (1930), Robeson’s first commercial role in British film was 1935’s Sanders of the Rivers, directed by Zoltan Korda. The film was based on a selection of short stories by Edgar Wallace, published in 1911. The Edwardian context in which the source material was written was scarcely updated for the film. Sanders, played by Leslie Banks, is a colonial administrator in Nigeria. He is presented as firm but just, and has a paternalistic attitude towards the tribes which live in ‘his’ part of the Empire. Robeson plays Bosambo, a trusted native who provides Sanders with intelligence. When warring breaks out between the tribes, Basambo helps Sanders restore the peace.

Significant parts of the film were shot on location, which the marketing material claimed lent an air of authenticity to the plot. However, as one viewer has commented, the film appears to have been shot in East Africa rather than Nigeria or elsewhere in West Africa – to the untrained, white, British viewer these two disparate regions apparently looked the same. The film features several African tribes in crowd scenes and performing rituals. Rather than providing an ethnographic account of indigenous culture, these scenes show ‘wild’ Africa as the white colonial gaze imagined it to be.

Robeson distanced himself from the film after it appeared, on the grounds of its sympathetic portrayal of colonialism. Yet he continued to find himself in the bind that the only roles offered to him as a black man were those which also included racist or patronising depictions of African culture. In his next British film, Song of Freedom (1936), Robeson plays a dock worker, Johnny Zinga, who has a powerful voice. This film, at least, allows Robeson to show off his considerable singing talent.

Johnny is catapulted to fame after he is heard singing in his local pub, in the predictable ‘rags to riches’ success story that so many British films of the period included. But Johnny does not simply get famous: he is also discovered to be the rightful king to an African island. Johnny travels to the island and tries to rule it as best as he can, but eventually decides to return home to his old life in the London docks. Life on the (fictitious) African island is depicted as primitive, with Robeson once more asked to don ‘traditional’ native dress for these scenes. It was no doubt titillating to white audiences to see the chest of the 6”3’ Robeson on display for their consumption. Additionally, the suggestion that the one black dockworker in London is also a member of a royal family further undermines the perceived differences between African culture, with its supposed multitude of royal families, and the British Empire, over which one monarch reigns supreme.

Paul Robeson in Song of Freedom (1936)

The following year, Robeson was once again cast in an adaptation of a popular fiction, this time the Victorian novel King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. The novel appeared in 1886 and was one of the first British novels to be set in Africa. In the film, explorer and adventurist Allan Quartermain agrees to help a young Irish woman whose father has gone off into the African wilderness to find the fabled King Solomon’s diamond mines. Robeson plays Umbopa, a native guide to the party.

When Quartermain, Umbopa and the others get captured by a native tribe ruled by the despotic Twala and the witch-doctor Gagool, Umbopa reveals that he is in fact the legitimate heir to the tribe’s throne. Eventually, Quartermain and Umbopa manage to persuade the tribe to overthrow Twala and the party find the entrance to King’s Solomon’s mine, which turns out to exist. They find the missing father inside the mine and manage to escape before the mine is destroyed.

The portrayal of the native tribe in King Solomon’s Mines leans heavily on depictions of mystical rituals and supposed witchcraft. At the same time, their leader is styled a ‘king’ and the title appears hereditary in the manner of European monarchies. Umbopa is, in contrast, calm, educated and righteous. He is, however, treated as exceptional among his peers, a fact further underlined by his royal heritage. The overall depiction of indigenous African tribes in the film leans heavily on stereotypes of barbarianism and primitivism.

Robeson returned to the US at the outbreak of World War Two. His increasingly radical left-wing political views put him under government scrutiny, and he was denied a passport for several years, effectively trapping him in the US. Although he continued to record songs, Robeson stopped acting after 1942. Although he was a high-profile star during the 1930s, the racism pervasive in British society pigeonholed him into roles where he had to repeatedly act out white fantasies of indigenous cultures; and play characters who unquestioningly submitted to white colonial rule.

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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)

Lady in Danger (1934)

FeaturedLady in Danger (1934)

Actor-director-manager Tom Walls was a popular comic actor on the interwar stage and screen. From 1922 onwards he produced and (often) starred in a series of enormously successful farcical plays at the Aldwych theatre. Many of these plays were turned into films in the 1930s, often with Walls directing. At the Aldwych, a steady cast of actors quickly formed, which took roles in each of the plays. Alongside Walls, the other male lead was Ralph Lynn; supporting roles were taken by Robertson Hare, Mary Brough, Winnifred Shotter and Yvonne Arnaud. The scripts were usually supplied by Ben Travers.

After sound film became a viable proposition in Britain, the Aldwych team recorded their repertoire for the screen at speed. Their first film, Rookery Nook, was produced in 1930. Then followed two more films in both 1931 and 1932, three films in 1933, another two in 1934 and the final one in 1935. After the supply of stage productions was exhausted, there followed another five films, based on original scripts, starring both Lynn and Walls (1935-1937). Both men also appeared separately in films during the 1930s, either with or without other Aldwych cast members.

One such film, associated to the Aldwych farcical tradition but not quite a part of it, is Lady in Danger. Walls plays the male lead opposite Yvonne Arnaud, an originally French actress who gave up a promising career as a pianist in favour of the stage.[1] Theatre remained her primary occupation throughout her career, but Arnaud also appeared in twelve films during the interwar period. Half of these were related to the Aldwych team.

Lady in Danger was written by Ben Travers specifically for Walls and Arnaud, although Travers initially intended it to be a play rather than a film.[2] The film plays on their strengths and their personas, which by 1934 would have been extremely familiar to their audiences. Walls plays a charmer and ladies man, as he does in most of his films (and indeed as he appears to have been in real life). Arnaud’s secret weapon was her enduring French accent and supposed ignorance of the nuances of English, which could be played up for laughs. After more than a decade of regular collaboration, Walls and Arnaud had a great chemistry and rapport which is clear on the screen.

Lady in Danger starts in the fictional European state of Ardenberg – a ‘Ruritania’ setting such as this was gratefully used by film writers of the period to add some foreign flavour to their films without getting bogged down in cultural or historical accuracy. Ardenberg is on the verge of a revolution, during with the royal family will be deposed. British businessman Richard Dexter (Walls) flies into the country to retrieve stolen bonds. Before he leaves, the leader of the Ardenberg revolution asks him to escort the Queen (Arnaud) to Britain to keep her safe. The Ardenberg King has found refuge in his Paris apartment.

Upon arrival in London, Dexter has to keep the Queen hidden to ensure her continued safety. It proves difficult to hide her in his London flat, particularly when his fiancée Lydia stops by. Dexter moves the Queen to a country cottage, where the sparks between the couple fly. Ultimately, however, the Queen decides to return to Paris and join her husband. It’s made clear that the King regularly enjoys affairs, which lessens the severity of the Queen’s transgression. The monarchy is restored in Ardenberg and Dexter returns to Britain and to Lydia.

As can be expected for a comedy, the plot of Lady in Danger is rather thin, and mostly there to provide Walls and Arnaud with opportunities for verbal sparring. Sample dialogue includes Arnaud, after getting settled in the cottage and unpacking her luggage, announcing: ‘I am ready now for bed – I have undone all my clothing!’ Travers’ writing had a reputation for these types of jokes which stayed just on the right side of the BBFCs censorship rules, and the Sunday Times noted that ‘Skating on thin ice is this author’s speciality, and the riskiness of some of the double entendres is astonishing.’[3]

For a modern viewer, the ‘risqué’ jokes ensure that Lady in Danger is still funny and watchable, even if the characters are concerned about things such as what the housekeeper may think about an unknown woman sleeping in Walls’ spare room. It is (still) refreshing to see an actress in her mid-forties play a part in which she unapologetically pursues an affair and then also decides to walk away from a charming man in favour of her professional obligations. Arnaud seems to thoroughly enjoy the role in which she gets to boss everyone around.

Although Lady in Danger is not one of the original Aldwych farces, and it does not provide the same brand of humour that films with both Lynn and Walls deliver, it is still very funny. It is less silly than some of the team’s other films, and may appeal to audiences who find farcical humour difficult to enjoy. It also showcases Arnaud’s comic talent and allows new generations to discover this renowned actress.

Lady in Danger is available to view on the Internet Archive.


[1] Mark Newell, Oh, Calamity! The Lost, Damaged and Surviving Films of the Aldwych Farces and Farceurs (Kibworth: The Book Guild, 2020), p. 255

[2] Ibid., p. 170

[3] Ibid. p. 171

Murder in Soho (1939)

FeaturedMurder in Soho (1939)

On the eve of the Second World War, Associated British Picture Corporation produced Murder in Soho, a gangster flick starring American actor Jack La Rue (not his real name, obviously). The presence of Italian-American La Rue, with his cleft chin and strong jawline, brings Hollywood glamour to what is otherwise a crime film with an extremely thin plot. Murder in Soho appears to be a solitary British outing for the actor, although he did take the opportunity to get married whilst visiting London for the film’s shooting.

Like the almost contemporaneous They Drive By Night, Murder in Soho works hard to incorporate American slang into its dialogue, presumably to appeal to younger audiences. They Drive By Night, however, was produced by the British arm of American studio Warner Brothers. Murder in Soho comes from a British production company that was Hitchcock’s home for many of his silent films including Blackmail (1929); Murder! (1930)and The Skin Game (1931). Alongside these British thriller/crime films, ABPC (which previously operated as British International Pictures) also produced musical films such as Harmony Heaven (1930) and Over She Goes (1937). They did not have a strong background in producing American-style crime films – and it shows.

The plot of Murder in Soho is extremely thin. La Rue plays nightclub owner Steve Marco, who runs the ‘Cotton Club’ in Soho. He has just hired a new singer for the club, Ruby Lane. Steve is interested in Ruby as he thinks she has ‘class’. He doesn’t know, however, that Ruby is married (but separated from) Steve’s British associate Joe Lane. When Joe betrays Steve and steals £2000 off him, Steve kills Joe. Soon police inspector Hammond comes asking questions. He recruits Ruby to work with him and reveal Steve’s criminal activities. Also in the mix, although largely superfluous to the plot, are a journalist called Roy Barnes who frequently visits the club and falls in love with Ruby; Steve’s ex Myrtle who he has dumped in favour of Ruby; and performing duo ‘Green and Matthews’ who also work at the club.

The ‘Cotton Club’ in Murder in Soho

Murder in Soho contains all the popular elements of a 1930s crime film: a nightclub; an international criminal gang; a singer; a police inspector; a journalist. Yet these elements are not fused together with a compelling plot or livened up by any original ingredient. Indeed, the film’s insistence to try and introduce Americanisms into the narrative detracts even more from the action. Steve and his henchmen speak in thick Italian-American accents. The character ‘Lefty’ in particular, who is the young comedy sidekick, litters his dialogue with references to ‘dames’ and ‘cops’. The name of the club obviously refers to the famous Harlem nightclub – but there were no British Cotton Clubs and the name does not have the resonance in Britain as it would do in the United States. Steve employs Black bartenders in his club – again a practice which was much more common in the States than it was in Britain. Compared to depictions of nightclubs in other British films of the 1930s, the Cotton Club in Murder in Soho feels more like a replica of a Hollywood set than of anything resembling British nightlife.

Gun-toting American gangsters in Murder in Soho

The very opening of Murder in Soho also presents a version of Soho that was much more deliberately criminal and seedy than what is usually presented in British films. Familiar shots of the neon lights of Piccadilly Circus are interspersed with a close-up shot of a roulette table; a shot of an underground dive bar; and a shot of two prostitutes propositioning a man in an alleyway. Unlike the majority of British films of the period, which worked to preserve an image of London and Londoners as ultimately adhering to the law and to a high moral code, Murder in Soho explicitly positions Soho as a criminal space. Granted, the main criminal element in the film is foreign, but Joe Lane is British, as is Myrtle, Steve’s scorned ex who ends up killing him. Soho here is a lot seedier than the Soho portrayed in, for example, Piccadilly (1929).

Rather surprisingly, then, Murder in Soho also contains plenty of comic notes, and a few secondary characters who are only included to provide comedy relief. Most notably, the performing duo Green and Matthews, which weave throughout the narrative. Lola Matthews is portrayed by Googie Withers, who this early on in her career already had made a name for herself as an excellent comic actress. As Lola she patters on non-stop, innocently flirting with every man and completely oblivious that her dance partner Nick Green is besotted with her. A frequent club visitor whose role is simply credited as ‘Drunk’ provides diversion in scenes when he tries to eat with chop sticks or enters the dancefloor for a solo performance. These interludes do undercut the drama and suspense that the film attempts to create at other points.

Murder in Soho is a late-interwar curiosity – a film that tries to appeal to British audiences by inserting American glamour; a film that tries to be both serious and funny at the same time; and that ends up feeling like a painting-by-numbers effort that adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

Murder in Soho is available on DVD from Network on Air

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Mr Smith Wakes Up (1937)

Although the 1930s are primarily remembered for the rise of right-wing politics across Europe, including the increased popularity of the British Union of Fascists (see blog posts here and here), there were of course also activists on the left of the political spectrum. Although the Labour party served in the opposition rather than the Government from 1931 until the outbreak of the Second World War, the 1930s saw the start of some social reforms, particularly in housing and medical care.

In 1937, the Co-op sponsored a short film designed to encourage viewers to question some of the tenets of capitalism and free markets. This information film, Mr Smith Wakes Up, would have been shown in cinemas as part of a mixed programme of features, newsreels and cartoons. Advertisement films from the period were often also lengthy and designed as mini-narratives, making them quite close in appearance to this short film. Mr Smith Wakes Up, however, does not aim to sell goods but rather to influence people’s political thinking.

In Mr Smith Wakes Up, we are introduced to William and Elizabeth, a middle-aged and fairly wealthy couple who live in a nice suburb in a house called ‘Utopia’. Their house is worth a couple of thousand pounds and all the other people in the area are of the ‘better class’ which William defines as them being ‘mostly on the stock exchange.’ The vast majority of houses sold in 1930s Britain were worth less than a thousand pounds, so it would have been immediately clear to the contemporary viewer that William and Elizabeth are well-off. They also still keep a parlour maid and a cook, despite the ever-increasing servant problem significantly raising the cost of keeping servants.

William and Elizabeth are unexpectedly visited by Mr Smith, a friend of their son who had been to Africa. We never learn Mr Smith’s first name or which part of Africa he is from. By his own accord, he has come to the ‘great civilization’ of Britain to learn how it is set up, so that he can take it back to his tribe which he himself describes as ‘very primitive people’. For the remainder of the film, Mr Smith asks William and Elizabeth about how things like housing, medical care and food distribution are arranged in Britain. William consistently takes the position defending capitalism and the free market, whereas Elizabeth acknowledges that there are problems with wealth distribution in the country.

When discussing housing, for example, Mr Smith asks if all people in England own their own homes. William admits that this is not the case, but that the working classes can live in rental homes on ‘nicely planned’ housing estates. His arguments are accompanied by shots of one such an estate. Elizabeth then points out that there is still a housing shortage and that the new estates may lead people to have long and expensive commutes. She also raises the prospect of slums, which were still commonplace in pre-War British cities. The audience is duly presented with shots of slum housing, followed by images of very skinny children being examined by a doctor, when Elizabeth points out that slum living makes people ill.

Later on in the discussion the three actors discuss food distribution, re-armament and the ‘cost of living’. Wages have risen, but so have the costs of food, housing and heating, meaning many people are still struggling to make ends meet. In phrases that will sound very familiar to viewers in the early 2020s, William argues that people need to economise more, while Elizabeth points out that for large, low-income families there is nothing left to economise on.

Unfortunately, there are no opening credits preserved to the film so it is not possible to identify the actor playing Mr Smith, but it is safe to presume he was either born in Britain or one of Britain’s overseas territories in the Caribbean. Like American actor and activist Paul Robeson, who was often forced to portray stereotypical African tribesmen, the character of Mr Smith supposedly comes straight from an African rural tribe. At the same time, he also wears a very smart suit and overcoat when arriving at Utopia, and his English is flawless. Although his skin colour causes some consternation when he first arrives at the house, Mr Smith is accepted because he is able to pass as a gentleman, and he does not criticise any aspect of Britain. He even praises the food available in Britain as superior to African food, which stretches credibility.

At the end of the film, Mr Smith states that a nation should give its people food, health and protection. The preceding discussion has made clear to him that Britain is failing to provide this to all its citizens. His voice is accompanied by idyllic scenes of African tribes working and playing together. He argues that African tribes do not go to war as long as there is sufficient food available; and that if they do go to war, their methods of combat are more equal than those of Western nations. Nonetheless, he remains grateful for what William and Elizabeth have ‘taught’ him, and takes his leave.

After he has gone, Elizabeth looks in on the kitchen. Cook is just packing her bag to go home, and decides to take left-over meat to cook for her husband, as otherwise it will only go to waste. Elizabeth indulgently smiles and lets her take the food, and then tells the parlour maid she can go up to bed even though the washing up has not been completed. From her position of privilege, Elizabeth generously allows her staff these luxuries. William sits in the study pondering whether ‘peace and plenty’ are as adequately provided for in Britain as he had assumed. There is no indication, however, that either will take any further-reaching political action as a result of their conversation. Instead, their actions stay on the personal plane.

Despite the leading role of Mr Smith, and the film’s sympathetic portrayal of ‘African’ culture, it is clear that its target audience is white. Contemporary audiences for Mr Smith Wakes Up were unlikely to have recognised themselves in William and Mary – cinema viewing remained largely an activity for the working- and lower-middle classes, who were more likely to already be sympathetic to the left-of-centre views the film espouses. Although the filmmakers may have wanted to encourage people like William and Mary to re-consider their political views, it is doubtful whether many wealthy people would have seen the film or taken any notice of it. Although Mr Smith Wakes Up gives modern audiences insight into the socio-political debates and concerns of the late 1930s, it possibly was not effective in generating political change at the time it was created.

Mr Smith Wakes Up is available to view on YouTube.

Brooklands

FeaturedBrooklands

Brooklands race course was an institution in interwar England. Opened in 1907 in Weybridge, just south of London, it was the world’s first purpose-built, permanent racing circuit. Coinciding with the rise of car manufacturing in England, Brooklands was used to test out and perfect new car models. Like greyhound racing and horse racing, Brooklands races became a popular entertainment. Each race held the potential for injury and death, which piqued the audiences’ interest.

Still from Death Drives Through (1935) which was shot at Brooklands

The Brooklands track could be shaped into different configurations, but was mostly used as a long oval lap, made of concrete, and concave, so that the outer edges of the track were higher than the middle (like a modern indoor speed cycling circuit). Footage shot in 1928 shows how cars started on a flat section, and how drivers were positioned outside their vehicle at the start of a race. Pit stop booths were available for technical check-ups during the race. Although the cars in this particular footage look fairly similar to normal road cars, there were plenty of racing cars being developed also.[1]

Examples of these racing cars are on display in the 1935 film Death Drives Through, directed by Edward L. Cahn. Most of the action of this film is set in and around Brooklands, as the main characters of the film are two rival race car drivers. Kit Woods (Robert Douglas) is an up-and-coming driver who built his own race car and used to drive on local tracks before being talent-spotted and contracted to appear at Brooklands. Once he arrives there, established racer Garry Ames (Miles Mander) does everything within his power to destroy Kit’s reputation, including causing accidents on the race track. Death Drives Through features a staged crash at Brooklands which ends in the death of a driver, highlighting the potential for danger which was contained in each race.

A 1938 Gaumont newsreel features footage of a real Brooklands crash. Because the driver in that instance survived the accident, the newsreel commentator can play the incident up as thrilling entertainment, which was ‘filmed exclusively by Gaumont British News’.

‘Mr Clayton was flung out into the trees….miraculously he escaped death although he was seriously injured…his car was reduced to wreckage…below the banking outside the track it was a crumpled mess…hardly to be recognised as a car.’

The newsreel as a whole is titled ‘120 M.P.H CRASH AT BROOKLANDS’, making no bones about the fact that the crash, rather than the overall race, was what was expected to be of interest to audiences.

Racing drivers became celebrities, to the point that by the mid-1930s, their endorsements were featured in Castrol car oil adverts. Drivers not only competed in England, but also participated in European competitions which potentially increased their profile even more.[2] The British Government gratefully used the fame and prestige of some drivers in its own ‘Safety First’ campaign, launched in 1934. The purpose of this campaign was to increase road safety. In the absence of any formal driving test, racing driver the 5th Earl of Howe patiently explains to viewers how to indicate and overtake, and advises against canoodling with a lover whilst driving a car. Although none of the regular traffic rules would apply on a race track, the audience is still asked to presume the Earl to be an expert adviser, both due to his title and his status as a racing driver.

Racedriver John Cobb endorsing Castrol XXL – Front page of the Daily Express, 11 August 1934

There were plenty of women racing at Brooklands too – like aviation, car racing was a sport in which technical skill, rather than physical strength, were paramount. Despite initial opposition, from 1932 onwards women were allowed to compete in the same races as men. One of the most famous female drivers, Kay Petre, appears in the 1938 video showing a crash, referred to above. There are plenty of stories about other female drivers available on the Brooklands Museum website.

A final note on the audiences to these races. The 1928 footage referred to at the top of this blog shows an audience apparently exclusively made up of middle-aged men in three-piece suits and top hats. By 1938, the audience is much more mixed both in terms of gender and (judging by the clothes) social status. There are plenty of men visible in flat caps, or even, no hats at all. There also appears to be a much larger crowd than ten years’ prior.

This change reflects the overall change to car ownership which happened in parallel, away from the race track. Whereas car ownership had started off as something exclusive and only available to the very wealthy, by the end of the 1930s cars were affordable to most middle-class families. This greater exposure to car driving likely also increased interest in car racing. Although most racing drivers came from privileged backgrounds (if not from the actual aristocracy, then at least from wealthy families), there was always the possibility for a ‘regular’ person with technical knowledge and talent to establish him- or herself. Death Drives Through pandered to this fantasy, as Kit is exactly the kind of enterprising and plucky hero whom audience members could relate to. The tracks of Brooklands become not just a space for thrills and entertainment, but also a site of dreams of social mobility.


[1] Bart H. Vanderveen (ed), British Cars of the Late Thirties, 1935-1939, (London: Frederick Warne & Co, 1973)

[2] Bernhard Rieger, ‘Fast  couples’:  technology,  gender  and  modernity  in  Britain  and  Germany  during  the  nineteen-thirties”, Historical Research, vol. 76, no. 193 (August 2003), 370

Fascination (1931)

FeaturedFascination (1931)

Three years after his directorial debut, the silent film The First Born (1928), Miles Mander tried his hand on two sound films. The first, The Woman Between, was an adaptation of his own stage play ‘Conflict’. The second, Fascination, was based on another writer’s script. Unlike some actor-directors, like Tom Walls, Mander decided to restrict his duties to directing only and did not appear in either film.

Fascination’s main attraction for modern audiences is the starring role of future ‘Hitchcock Blonde’ Madeleine Carroll, appearing here four years before her famous role in The 39 Steps opposite Robert Donat. According to the DVD sleeve notes, only one 35mm copy of Fascination survives in Britain, of which the sound and image quality leave something to be desired. It is, however, eminently watchable, not only for Carroll’s performance, but also as an interesting counterpoint to The Divorce of Lady X which was released seven years later. Both films deal with marital fidelity, but whereas the later film treats infidelity as a comic subject and accepts its existence as a matter of course, Fascination is much more moralistic on the subject.

Madeleine Carroll as Gwenda Farrell in Fascination

Fascination opens with a scene in a children’s playroom, where a little boy and girl are playing with a toy train set. They are Larry and Vera, the protagonists of the film. Mander’s directorial style comes across immediately in the close-up shots of various toys, which give an emotive impression of the room from a child’s perspective. He shuns any establishing shot of the space. In foreshadowing of Larry and Vera’s later troubles, the toy train runs of the rails and Larry, in trying to fix it, breaks the tracks altogether. However, the children quickly make up and a third boy, who had been playing in a corner, orders that they should be ‘married’; a mock ceremony ensues.

The film then briefly moves to Larry and Vera’s courtship as young adults (Larry is ‘in his last term at Oxford’ studying to be an architect) before moving on to a time three years into their marriage, when the main action of the film begins. Vera and Larry have been established as a devoted couple, who laugh and play together and commit to a series of ten ‘commandments’ of marriage, which include ‘telling the other everything that matters’ rather than the more traditional expectation for the wife to obey the husband.

Vera and Larry courting in Fascination

Three years into the marriage, there are no children yet (more on that later) but Larry has established himself as an up-and-coming architect/interior designer and Vera is a content housewife. Larry has received a request to do the interior design of an apartment for a famous stage actress, Gwenda Farrell, who is currently starring in the hit play ‘Fascination’. Gwenda, of course, is played by Madeleine Carroll. Reeling from a recent break-up, Gwenda is taken by Larry and he is smitten by her. The reasons for his attraction to Gwenda are never explained; the audience is asked to assume that it is inevitable for a happily married man like Larry to fall in love with another women based on her looks and glamour alone.

After an initial meeting in a cafeteria, ostensibly to discuss the business of the flat, it is Larry who suggests that they go out on the river for the rest of the day and have a picnic. Once outside, he starts flirting with Gwenda and she calls him a ‘silly boy’ and tells him not to ‘spoil things’. However, she immediately follows this up with an invitation to supper in her flat – and as if the audience needs reminding, Mander here inserts a shot of a sign in the adjacent pond which announces ‘Danger’.

Although Larry is clearly an active and willing participant in the affair, it is no surprise that Gwenda is presented as the primary guilty party, as she reciprocates his attention and moves the relationship along. At the night of the supper (where we can assume the relationship is consummated), Vera is starting to get upset with Larry’s frequent absences from home. Her suspicions are confirmed when Gwenda sends Larry an intimate letter which Vera reads. But even here Vera has not done anything illicit or objectionable: Larry has eye trouble and asks Vera to read his letters out to him, even encouraging her to open the one marked ‘Personal’. Vera does not reveal to Larry what she has read and burns the letter without him being any the wiser.

Larry visiting a very modernist optician in Fascination

Although Larry by this point is starting to feel very conflicted about his affair and wants to end it, Gwenda ostensibly still has too much of a hold on him to enable him to break things off. Thankfully for him, his wife has found a solution. Vera writes to Gwenda under false pretences and invites the other woman to her marital home. Here, rather than having an argument, Vera explains that she loves Larry and wants to protect her marriage, so she is happy to silently consent to his affair with Gwenda. In Vera’s reasoning, if she were to cause a big fuss, Larry would be driven into Gwenda’s arms more.

Before Gwenda has a chance to respond to this proposal, Larry comes home – Vera hides Gwenda quickly behind a curtain. Larry confesses his affair to Vera, begs her forgiveness and offers to write to Gwenda immediately to break off the relationship. Gwenda decides to reveal herself and explains to Larry that Vera, in her generosity, had agreed to him continuing the affair just to keep her marriage intact. She insists on ending her relationship with Larry now that she has met Vera.

Vera warmly says goodbye to Gwenda in Fascination

Fascination ends with the contrast of Gwenda, smoking alone in her dressing room and forcing herself to get ready for yet another night’s performance; and Vera and Larry, cuddled together in a chair where Vera reveals to him that she is pregnant.

Larry and Vera happily reunited at the end of Fascination

Unlike in The Divorce of Lady X, then, divorce is an impossible outcome in Fascination. If Vera had opted to divorce Larry, she would have had to stand the shame and exposure of the divorce court, with a famous actor cited as co-respondent in the case. Clearly, for a respectable middle-class woman this was not really a route to contemplate, even without the added complexity of pregnancy or children. Her willingness to allow the affair to continue, then, is perhaps less magnanimous than the film presents, and more pragmatically her only option.

Yet, by perpetuating the narrative that single women ‘steal’ husbands away from faithful wives; and faithful wives should accept this and allow husbands to come back in their own time, Fascination clearly sides with patriarchal norms. Vera’s ostensible agency is in fact non-existent- something also stressed by a scene where she visits Larry’s office to ask him for household money. Fascination presents marriage as the route to a woman’s happiness, and independence and professional success as poor substitutes. Despite the increasingly progressive position of women in British society by the early 1930s, this film demonstrates that cultural texts often still expounded traditional viewpoints.

Emlyn Williams

FeaturedEmlyn Williams

George Emlyn Williams was born in the tiny Welsh village of Pen-y-ffordd in 1905. As a Welshman with dark colouring and an unusual name, Williams appeared very different from popular interwar actors such as Laurence Olivier and Brian Aherne, both of whom performed in West End theatre at the same time. Unlike that other famous Welshman of the period, Ivor Novello, Williams steered clear of musical theatre and nightclubs in favour of writing and performing in plays exploring murder and criminal psychology.

After attending grammar school and undertaking some schooling in France on a scholarship, Williams won a scholarship to Oxford, where he became involved with the Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS). Williams was supposed to graduate in 1926, but instead of studying for his exams he wrote a play, Full Moon, which was put on at the Oxford Playhouse under the management of J.B. Fagan. Williams decided to move to London without completing his degree when Fagan offered him a small walk-on part in the production And So To Bed, in which Edmund Gwenn and Yvonne Arnaud appeared as the principal players.[1]

This modest role marked the start of a long West End career, in which Williams combined acting with writing and directing, regularly casting himself as the lead for his own productions. In his autobiography, Williams presents the years from 1926 to 1935 as ones in which he finds his feet both professionally and in his personal life. After numerous failures and some mild successes, the book ends with the first West End performance of his play Night Must Fall, which Williams credits as his ‘first solid success’[2] – it ran for a year and a half before transferring to Broadway for another 64 performances.

Night Must Fall is based on a notorious murder case of the interwar period, the ‘Crumbles Murder’ case of 1924. Patrick Mahon, a charming Richmond-based salesman, struck up an extramarital affair with typist Emily Kaye. Kaye fell pregnant, and Mahon led her to believe that they would travel to South Africa to start a new life together. Instead, he murdered her in a cottage on the Sussex coast and dismembered and destroyed her body so thoroughly that very little of it was found during the police investigation. What particularly spoke to the public’s imagination is that, less than 48 hours after the murder, Mahon picked up another woman and spent a few days at the cottage with her, whilst Kaye’s partly-dismembered body was in the next room.[3]

Williams combined this story with the equally notorious murder perpetrated by Sidney Fox, who in 1929 killed his own mother by strangling her and subsequently set her hotel room on fire to cover his tracks. In Night Must Fall, Dan, a charming man (modelled on Patrick Mahon) strikes up a friendship with a rich but cranky old lady and her niece Olivia. Whilst the niece suspects that Dan is a murderer, she still falls in love with him and helps him stay out of the hands of the police. Eventually, Dan murders the old lady and steals her money – although Olivia wants to help Dan escape, the play ends with him being arrested.

In his autobiography, Williams states that he had initially been interested in adapting the story of Fritz Haarman, a German serial killer who murdered at least 27 boys and young men in Hanover, in 1924. Williams was bisexual and identified with Haarman’s young victims: poor or homeless men, in some instances selling sex for money, lured back to Haarman’s flat with promises of food and shelter. ‘Yes, it could have happened to me’, acknowledges Williams. Although the story is clearly close to his heart, British theatre censorship laws absolutely precluded the depiction of a homosexual, paedophilic murderer.[4]

Alongside this career as theatre author and actor exploring the darker side of life, Williams also appeared in films. One of his first appearances was as the comic best friend to the protagonist in the Oxford comedy Men of Tomorrow (1932). Although the film was a commercial failure, it did bring Williams exposure and he was voted the most popular British actor by the readers of Film Weekly, ahead of Leslie Howard and Jack Hulbert.[5] This in turn landed Williams with a contract at Gaumont-British, where he wrote as well as acted. His first gig with them was writing the dialogue, and starring in, Friday the Thirteenth (1933). He subsequently worked on the Jessie Matthews vehicle Evergreen and supplied dialogue for the 1934 Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Although his contract with Gaumont was not renewed beyond 1935, Williams stayed active in film for the remainder of the interwar period, and beyond. As well as adapting Night Must Fall for the screen, he also acted in a range of genres such as the comedy Night Alone and the thriller They Drive By Night (both 1938). In 1936, he was cast as Caligula in Joseph von Sternberg’s unfinished I, Claudius, opposite other such greats at Charles Laughton, Flora Robson, and Merle Oberon.

Later in his career, Williams toured with an innovative one-man theatre show called Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens, in which he delivered parts of Dickens’ novels in a manner similar to how Dickens himself toured in the 19th century. He remained interested in murder, and wrote a book about the Moors murders in 1968. Williams continued to be active as a writer and actor until close to his death in 1987.


[1] Emlyn Williams, Emlyn: A sequel to George (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 13

[2] Ibid., p. 449

[3] Colin Evans, The father of forensics: the groundbreaking cases of Sir Bernard Spilsbury and the beginnings of modern CSI (Thriplow: Icon, 2007), pp. 140-147

[4] Williams, Emlyn, pp. 213-221

[5] Ibid., 319

The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

FeaturedThe Divorce of Lady X (1938)

Just as the end of the 1920s saw the introduction of sound film in British cinema, by the time the 1930s drew to a close, a new innovation was introduced: Technicolor – or more correctly, three-strip Technicolor. Earlier versions of ‘two-colour Technicolor’ had been used in Hollywood since the First World War, for example for segments of Carl Laemmle’s 1925 The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney. Three-strip Technicolor gave more realistic colour images, and is the process which is famously used in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Technicolor required financial investment, so it took some years to bring it to Britain. The first British Technicolor film was Wings of the Morning, made in 1937. It was followed hot on its heels by a film of Britain’s most lavish film producer, Alexander Korda. A Hungarian by birth, Korda moved in Britain in the early 1930s, when he’d already worked in Hollywood and various European film industries. In 1933, he had a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic with The Private Life of Henry VIII, a lavish period piece that depicted Henry Tudor belching and stuffing his face with food at regular intervals. The role of Anne Boleyn is played by Merle Oberon, in one of her first substantial screen roles.

Korda cast her again as the female lead in The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1934, and also in The Private Life of Don Juan in the same year. By 1939, the pair were married, although the marriage only lasted to the end of the Second World War. During their courtship, they made The Divorce of Lady X (1938), in which Oberon stars opposite Laurence Olivier. This comedy, with its frank discussion of divorce and extramarital relations, shows how ‘propriety’ became less important in Britain towards the end of the interwar period.

The Divorce of Lady X is a re-make of a 1933 film, Counsel’s Opinion, which Korda also produced. Both films are based on a play by Gilbert Wakefield. The 1933 film, whilst favourably received upon its release, is no longer extant. The Divorce of Lady X, by contrast, was syndicated for TV release in the US in the 1940s, and is widely available on DVD and online.

The story of The Divorce of Lady X centres on that favourite trope of British interwar cinema: a man and a woman, who are not married, are forced to spend a night together in a (hotel) room. Nothing untoward happens, but everyone assumes the couple must be having an affair. A similar trope is used in Night Alone, as well as numerous Aldwych farces, such as A Cuckoo in the Nest, Rookery Nook, and Lady in Danger. In The Divorce of Lady X, Leslie Steele, a young socialite, and Everard Logan, a divorce lawyer, are thrown together due to an impenetrable fog, which leaves them both stuck in the same central-London hotel. Leslie talks Logan into sharing his suite with her – her sleeping in bed, him on a mattress in the adjacent sitting room.

Laurence Olivier as Everard Logan, getting ready for an
uncomfortable night on the floor in The Divorce of Lady X

During the course of the evening Logan incorrectly assumes Leslie is married. The next day, a member of his club, Lord Meere, comes to Logan’s office and asks him to arrange for a divorce from Lady Meere, as the latter spent the previous night in the same central-London hotel, with a man in her room. Logan assumes that Leslie, who has not given him her last name, is Lady Meere, and that he unwittingly has become both the barrister and the co-respondent in Lord Meere’s divorce suit.[1]

Logan continues to court Leslie, telling her he does not care that his career will be ruined, as long as she will marry him after she’s obtained her divorce from Lord Meere. Leslie continues to play along, although she herself has also fallen in love with Logan. Eventually, Leslie meets the real Lady Meere, and the two women concoct a plan to reveal the truth to Logan. Logan is initially embarrassed by being taken for a ride and he storms off to France, but Leslie follows him onto the boat and manages to change his mind.

Leslie (Merle Oberon) nursing a sick Logan (Laurence Olivier) on the boat to France

Right from the outset of the film, it is made clear that Logan has had multiple affairs – when Leslie comments that his pyjamas are hideous and he should dump the woman who buys them for him, he shoots back ‘we parted six months ago!’. At the same time, he rings up another woman to apologise for not being able to see her that evening, due to the fog. Although Leslie is not explicitly shown to have any lovers of her own, she is very confident and flirts with Logan in a way that makes it unlikely that he is her first love interest. The real Lady Meere, moreover, is repeatedly quoted as having had four husbands and several ‘episodes’ with other men, and at the end of the film it is made clear that she is cheating on Lord Meere. Crucially, none of this is depicted as wrong or objectionable; although all characters admit that four divorces is perhaps a bit much, Lady Meere is also shown to be a sympathetic and attractive woman. When Logan admits to his assistant that he (as he thinks) has fallen in love with a married woman, it is a matter of amusement rather than embarrassment, and divorce is depicted as largely normalised.

Lady Meere (Binnie Barnes) and Leslie (Merle Oberon)
plotting on how to break the truth to Logan (Laurence Olivier)

This representation of marriages as likely not lasting nor monogamous clearly presents a challenge when the central relationship of the film must also fulfil narrative convention. For the audience to be invested in the relationship between Leslie and Logan they must believe that it will end in a happily ever after, not a marriage that will quickly dissolve because one or both parties are conducting affairs.

To resolve this, The Divorce of Lady X uses the trope of the woman-as-saviour: Leslie, for all her modern manners, is essentially a respectable girl. When she first meets Logan, he is extremely cynical about women, due to his experience in the divorce court. This cynicism reaches a high point during a withering closing-arguments monologue in one of his divorce cases, which Leslie witnesses from the public gallery. ‘Modern woman has disowned womanhood, and refuses man’s obligation!’ he thunders. ‘She demands freedom, but won’t accept responsibility! She insists upon time to “develop her personality”, and she spends it in cogitating on which part of her body to paint next.’

Laurence Olivier as Everard Logan, spouting against Modern Woman in court

Little wonder that Leslie is not impressed after hearing that speech! But no fear – her steadfast conviction that she is the one to save and reform Logan is rewarded in the end. When she follows him onto the boat to France at the film’s close, the choppy waters give her a chance to mother and nurture Logan. Her triumph is crowned by a final scene in the divorce court, in which Logan’s speech is the opposite of his earlier outburst. Appearing now as the defence of the woman accused of divorce, rather than as counsel for the husband, Logan gushes that his client is ‘a woman – that unique and perfect achievement of the human species (…) especially evolved for the comfort and solace of man.’ The message is clear: Leslie has managed to persuade Logan that married life is, after all, best. The open discussion of, and jokes about, divorce that form the backbone of The Divorce of Lady X point towards the ‘permissive society’ of post-War Britain; but its resolution of the protagonists’ story in a traditional marriage shows that in the 1930s the stability of conservative traditions still held sway.

The Divorce of Lady X can be viewed on the PBS website.


[1] In British divorce law, a co-respondent is a person cited in a divorce case as having committed adultery with the respondent ie. the half of the couple not initiating the divorce.