Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate / “1. Feature Film and the Historian” / British Cinema and Society / 1983

Jeffrey Richards. Photo credit David Sillitoe.

FEATURE FILMS and the HISTORIAN. In the 1960s, historians began to use film: newsreel and documentary. But, those did not represent “reality,” as was often assumed. Productions were highly selective and controlled. Raymond Durgnat: “Far from being progressive, these films are, in spirit, just what they were intended to be: literally speaking, commercials for the EMB or the GPO or any other part of the Establishment, and therefore the status quo of– of all periods– the Thirties.” The real value of the documentary movement was as a training ground for directors who made feature films during the war, bringing patina of realism to fictional films. Feature films seen and enjoyed by bulk of cinema-goers, and received the least attentions from historians [as of 1983]. 1960s auteur theory argued for single artistic vision in film-making, assigned this to director, as part of desire to confer artistic respectability to film. Commercial films are more often artefact or product than art, and because of this more useful to the social historian. Films of Gracie Fields more valuable to social historian than W.H. Auden poems, or Virginia Woolf novels. 1970s, structuralism and semiology up, influenced film critics, mix of avant-garde English Lit, French influence, Marxist ideology, linguistics and psychoanalysis for conceptual approach. Reaction against this, and intention of this book, is to find inspiration and methodology in history. This development comes not from France but from the United States of America, finding its inspiration and methodology in history. It deals not in pure speculation but in solid research, the assembling, evaluation and interpretation of facts, the relating of films to the world, the search for an understanding through the medium of popular films of the changing social and sexual roles of men and women, the concepts of work and leisure, class and race, peace and war, the real determinants of change and continuity in the real world.” Calls approach “contextual cinematic history.” Emphasizes context of film production. “Already resulted in two authoritative and stimulating general social histories of the American cinema”: Robert Sklar’s Movie-Made America, Garth Jowett’s Film: The Democratic Art. Lary May, Screening Out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry. May’s method a key innovation: analyze content and structure of groups of films, box-office trends, stars and their appeal, contemporary reviews and reactions, staging, lighting and action styles, fan magazines, censorship, picture palaces, and locate these in political, social, cultural context. This is the correct approach. Also recommends: American History/American Films: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, O’Conner and Jackson. Essays attempt to explain how films document social history, and capture American state of mind, and illustrate film industry development. At present [1983], very little contextual history of British cinema. Exception: Charles Barr’s Ealing Studios. What of other studios? Rank, Gainsborough, Associated British, Hammer? What of British stars? Here, three main concerns. 1) Analyze what film is saying, via structure, meaning, via script, visuals, acting, direction, photography, music. 2) context re film industry and political and social situation that produced it. 3) reception and audience reaction. Also look at stars. Raymond Durgnat: “The star is a reflection in which the public studies and adjusts its own image of itself. The social history of a nation can be written in terms of its films stars.” On stars, see Durgnat, Films and Feelings p.138, Richard Dyer, Stars 1979, Edgar Morin The Stars 1960, Alexander Walker Stardom 1974. [By 1960s, film was ceasing to be a mass entertainment medium and becoming a sectional and minority one.]

On film censorship and its role, see in particular Neville March Hunnings Film Censors and the Law 1967, Nicholas Pronay “The First Reality: Film Censorship in Liberal England” in Short Feature Films as History, p.113-37, Dorothy Knowles The Censor, the Drama and the Film 1934, John Trevelyan What the Censor Saw 1973, Guy Phelps Film Censorship 1975, Jeffrey Richards “The British Board of Film Censors and Content Control in the 1930s” in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 1, 1981 pp.95-116; 2, 1982 pp.39-48.


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