Pa Puts His Foot Down (1934)

FeaturedPa Puts His Foot Down (1934)

With the rapid increase of car ownership in interwar Britain, it is no wonder that car production companies started to produce high-end advertisements to persuade the public that their cars were superior to all others. In 1934, Zoltan Korda, brother of Alexander Korda, produced a 15-minute advert for Daimler subsidiary company BSA cars. As with other adverts produced in this period, this film would have been shown in cinemas as part of a mixed programme.

Pa Puts His Foot Down starts with several high-angle establishing shots of Piccadilly Circus. There are few road markers and vehicles are seemingly randomly moving around the roundabout. By 1934, the majority of vehicles on the road are motorised: double-decker buses, private cars, taxis, and trucks. Closer shots of traffic, however, also reveal cyclists, bike couriers and the occasional horse-drawn cart. Pedestrians do their best to avoid traffic as they cross the road. These shots are clearly taken on location in Central London.

We are then introduced to Pa and his daughter Betty, who are standing on a pavement trying to cross. For the shots in which the characters are talking, they are clearly on a sound stage mocked up to look like a pavement with a series of shop-fronts. Betty tries to persuade her father several times to cross the road. Each time the shot of her stepping off the pavement in the studio is followed by a shot of a vehicle rushing close by, clearly shot on location. This gives the illusion that the actors really are in Piccadilly Circus.

Betty tells her dad he should ‘just cross over’, after which he starts grumbling about the dangers of modern traffic. It transpires that Pa used to drive a car in the past but now is too nervous to drive. Rather than owning up to his fear, he pretends that modern cars are too expensive, which of course gives his daughter the opportunity to tell him (and the audience) that ‘good cars are quite cheap nowadays’ and ‘the best people drive themselves nowadays’.

After this exposition dialogue which has placed the notion of cheap, reliable cars in the audience’s mind, Pa tries to cross the road himself. In quick succession we see Pa stepping off the pavement; a police officer directing traffic; a close-up of a car; the daughter shouting at Pa; the police officer looking alarmed; Pa’s hat on the asphalt; a female passer-by screaming; and Pa gathering his hat off the road. The final shots are overlaid with the sound of a car horn honking. Korda effectively conveys the illusion of a near-miss without having to stage a stunt or even have any of the actors get close to a moving vehicle. Although Pa Puts His Foot Down is a sound production, this sequence is heavily indebted to silent cinema conventions.

Once Pa is safely back on the pavement, a car pulls up and a young man jumps out, who immediately greets Betty in a very familiar way. She explains to Pa that they met ‘at a dance somewhere’ and that the man has a ‘good job in the motoring business’. The young man promptly offers to drive the pair to their destination – home in the country, 30 miles outside of London. Pa gets bundled in the back seat whilst Betty sits next to the driver.

Immediately after they set off, the young man starts explaining to the daughter that his Daimler BSA has gears but no clutch, because of the Daimler Fluid Flywheel. With a rather dreamy voice, the man starts talking about this innovation, at which point the image cuts away to a diagram demonstrating to the audience the inner workings of this novel gearbox. The Daimler BSA essentially was halfway between a car with a manual clutch and an automatic car. It still had gears, but rather than having to manipulate the clutch pedal and gear change at the same time, the driver could ‘pre-select’ the next gear and then press the clutch pedal at their leisure.

After a minute and a half of diagrammatic explanation, we cut back to the trio in the car where the daughter asks some more detailed questions about how the gearbox works in practice. After several more minutes of explanation, the man invites Betty to try it for herself. Although she previously stated quite confidently to her father that she drove cars, she now minimises her abilities by hastening to add she drives ‘very little’. Naturally, this is no impediment to her being able to drive the Daimler BSA with ease. When Pa wakes up and is alarmed to see that his daughter is driving, the man says it’s quite alright, as ‘this car would be safe in the hands of a child’. The fluid flywheel is so successful that even Pa is starting to get interested in its operation.

After a few more demonstrations of gear changes and brakes, the trio arrive at their destination. While the daughter invites the man in for a drink, Pa subjects the car to a closer inspection. Over a drink, Betty states she is determined to raise the money to get herself a Daimler BSA car. The man immediately ups the ante by suggesting they get engaged. Although Betty quite reasonably counters that they hardly know one another, she falls in with the plan quite readily. Clearly half an hour’s conversation about fluid flywheels has convinced her of the match.

When the couple try to find Pa to get his consent, they realise that he’s driven off with the car and is driving it round the common. When Pa returns he tells the man ‘I thought, if you go off with my daughter, I’ll go off with your car.’ He follows it with saying that he’d always heard the pre-selector gearbox described as an ‘effeminate thing’ but that this was ‘utter rubbish’. When Betty asks him if she may get engaged to the man, Pa jokes that he won’t ‘find her as easy to control as the car’ and then suggests a ‘bargain’: ‘You take the girl, I take the car’.

At this, the end of the advert, both car and woman are commodified and put on equal footing with one another. At the same time, the advert has taken great pains to portray the BSA car as both easy to handle for inexperienced / female drivers, and robust and ‘masculine’ enough for male or experienced drivers who wanted to show off their driving skill. The diagrammatic explanation of the flywheel may appeal to technically-minded viewers, whilst the subsequent practical demonstration demonstrates its benefits to a less specialised audience. Rather implausibly, extensive talk about car technology is also presented as the way to a woman’s heart.

Pa Puts His Foot Down can be viewed on the BFI Player (UK only)

Co-operette (1938)

FeaturedCo-operette (1938)

The Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS), now the Co-operative Group, has had a presence in Britain since 1863. From its foundation, it set itself apart from other grocers with the notion of ‘dividend’: members who purchased goods from the business would also get a share of the profits – the more goods purchased, the bigger the dividend returned. In the interwar period, the CWS was a wholesaler supplying goods to a range of local co-operative grocers, particularly in the north of England.

In 1938, CWS produced Co-operette, a substantial advertising film for the company’s products. A version of the film is available to watch for free on the BFI player, (for those based in the UK). The BFI copy of the film lasts around 15 minutes, and appears to be incomplete. Nevertheless, the available footage gives a great insight into British advertising films of the late 1930s. A film like this would be shown as part of a cinema screening, which at the time usually comprised of a combination of feature films, educational films, cartoons, trailers, and advertisements.

Like a shampoo commercial produced two years’ previously, Co-operette is framed around the deceit of being ‘on set’ whilst the advert is being filmed. The first shot after the opening credits is of a shooting script, which describes the opening credits we have just seen, and the announcer we are about to see – although the shot ‘close up of shooting script’ does not appear.

Close-up of the shooting script in Co-operette (1938)

The announcer tells the audience who will be featured in the film: comedian Stanley Holloway, band leader Debroy Somers and his band, comedian Harold Walters, and the ‘Six Co-operettes’: a dancing troupe of young women in skimpy outfits. (The fact that the famous and popular Stanley Holloway barely features is an indication that this may not be the full film). The next sequence moves us on to a film set, where Debroy Somers and his band are set up on a sound stage, ready to be recorded. In the set’s lobby, a Co-operette walks past whilst chatting to a man dressed in native American costume, to heighten the effect that this is an active film set on which multiple productions are being shot. Harold Walters plays Sam Small, a character in fact developed by Stanley Holloway who by 1938 would have been very familiar to audiences. Throughout the fifteen minutes, Sam Small serves as the comic relief character who creates confusion on the set.

When filming of Debroy Somers and his band is about to get started, Co-operette serves up a series of close-ups of crew members on the set shouting for ‘QUIET!’

This over-emphasis on the need for absolute silence on the set make the inevitable disruptions of the hapless Sam Small onto the set’s operations even more impactful. The close-up shots are sharply angled, lending an unexpectedly expressionist air to proceedings which is not repeated at any other point in the film.

As Debroy Somers and his band get going for their first song – on a beach set with some women in swimwear decorously arranged in the foreground – the band’s trio of singers start a Co-op-themed song to the tune of ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’:

There is a Co-op in the town
And there, my true love sits her down
And well she knows each penny she could spend
Will go towards her dividend

At this point the scene changes to a shot of a young, fashionably dressed housewife, who is pointedly unpacking her CWS-bought groceries, taking care to position the labels carefully towards the camera.

A housewife unpacking Co-op goods in Co-operette (1938)

This song seamlessly blends into the next one, in which the singers describe the various customer types of the Co-op in catchy rhymes accompanied by visual representations of these customers: a retired couple (“Charles and Jane live all alone/in a four-room flat they call their home”); a young man buying his wedding suit (“Lovely fit/I must admit”); a young woman who cleverly saves money on day-to-day purchases so she can still dress fashionably (“She knows the way to shop/where value is the top”); a young married couple of whom the husband always tries to eat everything in the larder immediately after the wife has done her Saturday shop at the Co-op.

Despite the inclusion of the young groom, women are firmly established as the Co-ops main customer base. They are pithily categorised and visualised as ‘maid’, ‘widow’, ‘flaunty extravagant queen’ and ‘housewife that’s thrifty’. These four women are then shown to harmoniously share a pitcher of lemonade, drinking ‘to the health of CWS.’

From left to right: ‘housewife that’s thrifty’; ‘flaunty extravagant queen’; widow; maid

This section takes up about half of the fifteen-minute video. It is followed by a dance sequence of the six ‘Co-operettes’, after which the most surreal part of the film is launched: the ‘Carrot and Onion dance’. Against a set of three larger-than-life tins (Vegetable Soup, Butter Beans, and Carrots) two female dancers emerge. One is dressed in an orange suit that covers her entire body with a green head-dress; the other in a green, short-skirted dress.

Onion and Carrot emerging for their dance

As Carrot and Onion they dance a graceful pas-de-deux in which they overcome the difficulty of Onion’s smelly leaves. Their performance is followed by more work by the Co-operettes, this time tap-dancing. The final minutes of the film include more comic relief by Harold Walters, and a final song by the Debroy Somers band:

In every town there is a store
You pay much less, you get much more
For CWS has goods galore
For you, fair maid

Remember, remember
From January to December
There are always goods in store
For you, fair maid

The film ends with a title card reading that ‘All the goods featured in this film are CWS products’ – but hardly any goods are featured with any prominence. The first housewife featured is shown unpacking products, and there are some shots of a full larder, but in either case it is not possible for the audience to easily identify what the products are. The only packages that are really clear are the three enlarged cans used as the set for the ‘Carrot and Onion’ dance. No foodstuffs are mentioned by name in any of the songs.

Instead, the focus of the whole film is about the customers who shop at Co-op, and how the organisation caters to what the film presents as the full range of different women. In what is an early example of customer segmentation, women are primarily distinguished by their marital status (unmarried, married, widowed). However, whilst the film may be presumed to target women as the primary shoppers, the repeated display of the ‘Co-operette’ dancing troupe instead suggests a male target audience. During these dance sequences, the deceit and comedy of the sound stage set is dropped in favour of a more straightforward attempt at Hollywood glamour.

Co-operette shows how a British firm used cinematic conventions to create an advertising film that was much more about selling a concept than about selling specific items. The overall effectiveness of the film is, perhaps, somewhat reduced by its attempt to provide comedy, catchy songs, stage performance, and the Carrot and Onion dance which appears to be in a genre all of its own. Despite the overt messaging in the film implying that only women are the CWS’ customers, the film’s varied format indicates that it tries to appeal to all audience groups in the cinema, including men and children.

Co-operette can be viewed for free on BFI Player, for readers based in the UK.

Friday Night is Amami Night

Friday Night is Amami Night

Let’s talk about the biggest and most famous hair product of interwar Britain: Amami shampoo. It was scarcely possible to read tabloid newspapers for any length of time and not see one of the ubiquitous adverts for this brand, with the strapline ‘Friday Night is Amami Night’ used consistently across the interwar period. The brand targeted young women and encouraged them to cultivate a habit of washing their hair with Amami shampoo on Fridays. By encouraging its users to all use the product on the same day of the week, Amami attempted to build a communal experience for women in the interwar period.

In addition to this persistent print campaign, Amami also released an advertising film in 1936, which is available to watch on the BFI Player for anyone based in the UK. Advertising films such as this one would be shown in cinemas, which tended to screen programmes of around three hours in length that contained a mixture of feature films, news reels, cartoons, and perhaps an ‘interest’ film.[1]

The short film, entitled Crowning Glory, is directed by Andrew Buchanan, a Putney native who directed a small number of non-fiction shorts in the 1930s and 1940s. Crowning Glory is his first known directing credit, but it is none the less ambitious for that. The film stands out for its rather laboured commercial messaging, but also for its unusual formal choices. It also highlights who the ideal Amami customer was; and demonstrates the values with which Amami intended to align itself.

The first tongue-in-cheek device the film employs is in the opening credits; after listing the various actors against their character names, the final entry on the list is ‘The Audience – Yourselves’. This is followed by a shot of a film director walking onto a film set, and looking into the camera to directly address the audience. He invites the viewer to ‘join [him] in the interesting experiment of making’ a film. Immediately the film sets up the pretence of a live interaction between audience and character, in a manner still regularly used by children’s TV programming, today. This device serves to enhance the audience’s emotional investment in what is shown, making them feel complicit even though they do not truly have any agency over it.

The director’s journey to make a film is the framing device for the whole short. He states that the subject is ‘one dear to every woman’s heart: her hair’, thus reaffirming Amami’s central brand message that its shampoo should be used by all women, as all women cared about their hair. However, the film’s subsequent visualisation of ‘every woman’ is, unsurprisingly, rather limited.

The film proceeds to show the audience British women in different environments. In the first section of the film, the director finds a woman going for a walk in the countryside (‘a girl who symbolises the British love of the open air to perfection’); a young woman working in a London office (she ‘symbolises the feminine touch in commerce’); a society girl (‘equally important’ to the working woman); and a young woman swimming in a swimming pool (‘the girl who most truly represents sport’). Throughout these scenes the director comments about the women’s excellent hair, and is reassured that no matter what activity, Amami Shampoo and Wave sets can ensure women’s hair stays in tip-top shape.

In the scenes concerning the first, second and fourth woman, the director is physically present in their environment with his hand-held camera, and we can hear his voice in voice-over as if originating behind the camera. This format wavers slightly when we are introduced to the society girl, as she is getting ready for a party in her boudoir. Although the voice-over makes it clear the director is observing her, he is not physically shown to be in the same room as her, giving the scene a more voyeuristic feel. Crowning Glory then changes track and shows the party this society girl is attending as a more straight-forward fiction film sequence. The voice-over disappears and partygoers talk amongst themselves. The film director, however, is also present at the party and spends a few minutes making gags about the party’s other attendees.

Although the film sets these four examples up as representing a wide range of women, they are of course in truth a very narrow representation of femininity. All four women are young, slender, white, apparently unmarried and childless, and middle-class as a minimum. The cinema audiences to which this film was shown was potentially much more diverse. The assertion at the start of the film that ‘every woman’ cares about her hair, combined with the clear visual messaging that only women of a specific type represent ‘the British woman’, likely lead to some female viewers of this advert feeling excluded from the film’s message.

After showing the swimming woman, the film breaks the fourth wall even more decisively. The director is shown in close-up, addressing the camera directly. He tells the viewer: ‘You are going to provide the climax to this picture’; the shot changes to a circular frame to signify the view through a camera lens. Inside the circle, a cinema audience is visible. A woman gets up from her seat and starts walking up the aisle, closer and closer to the camera until she ‘smashes’ it, which is signified by a cartoon scene transition.

In the subsequent shot we see the woman, later identified as Betty, arrive home and talk to a female friend. The very first shot of this sequence is framed as if it is on a theatre stage, adding a further layer of complexity to the advert’s interlocking layers of fiction. Betty’s friend berates Betty for not looking after her hair properly, and decides that a wash with Amami shampoo is in order to lift both Betty’s hair and spirits. The friend stresses that the shampoo should be used ‘every Friday night’ in keeping with the Amami brand.

Looking after your hair is explicitly stated to be as the key to keep a man’s interest and affections. The shampoo is followed by a wave set treatment which is so successful, Betty barely recognises herself. Her ever-attentive friend reminds her to use the wave set every night, and the shampoo every Friday night. The film concludes with Betty not only successfully winning the affections of Dick, her suitor, but also with her friend’s suitor commenting on how well Betty is looking. The closing shot, naturally, has the shampoo’s slogan emblazoned across the screen.

Amami was producing its setting lotion until 2010 but in its later years it was mainly used by women with a particular interest in vintage hair styling. During the interwar period, however, it was one of the most well-known hair products in Britain. Whilst its advertising film was formally innovative, its messaging was predictably narrow and patriarchal. Crowning Glory is a good example of a popular text that demonstrates pervasive cultural ideas in interwar Britain.

Watch Crowning Glory on BFI Player (UK only).


[1] JH Hutchison, The Complete Kinemanager, (London: Kinematograph Publications, 1937), p. 49