Saturday 17 December 2022

TRAITOROUS - Barrie Pattison excavates the life and career of early British master Maurice Elvey and his 1929 film HIGH TREASON

Barrie Pattison writes: This is material from my proposed book-length study of British Film director Maurice Elvey. 


Maurice Elvey

Consider poor Maurice Elvey. For a quarter of a century he was acknowledged the leading figure in British film making. David Wark Griffith treated him as his English equivalent. However, came the1950s and Elvey was their forgotten man. The London National Film Theatre never ran his films and he wasn’t referenced in BFI literature. The season that marked his death was pathetic and the brochure, produced on the office duplicator, dismissive. I called up their file on his work and it was seven pages, four of them duplicates. If anyone said he was their equivalent of Abel Gance or Maurice Tourneur, they would have been laughed at - I did and I was.


Diana Dors, Bonar Colleano
Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary

I had skin in that game. Elvey had been a lecturer at the London School of Film Technique and supervised my graduating film. We all liked him and appreciated the fact that someone with his experience took the time to work with us but without access to his best films, he was to us Diana Dors’ director on 1952’s Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary? The students would have been more motivated if a visiting instructor had a couple of James Bond films on his resumé.


I managed to locate a (DIN Standard) copy of his 1933 second go-round on The Wandering Jew and had him introduce it at a screening, which was rewarding - working with someone who had directed Conrad Veidt and launched the film career of Peggy Ashcroft. I wish I had that chance over again.

Conrad Veidt, The Wandering Jew

However, the movie was even then a relic, author E. Temple Thurston’s piece of Devotional Theatre put down on film. Elvey's silent was a better match with its period ... and that would have been the last word on Maurice Elvey except for a succession of lucky chances and some enterprising people taking the opportunity they presented.


First, the newly printed up Gaumont library was sold to Australian television - presumably to score the Dirk Bogarde movies. Included were half a dozen of Elvey’s first sound films revealing him to be a popular entertainer who could hold his own with contemporaries spending their retirements fronting retrospectives round the planet - Elvey’s Heat Wave, Princess Charming, Soldiers of the King or My Song for You were clever and amusing but it turned out that they were not his best work.


Title Card

That boat started rocking when a stack of cans Loyd George’s grandson found in the family attic turned out to be Elvey’s edited but never shown 1918 The Life Story of David Lloyd George, suppressed because the British Liberal Party thought such a laudatory account might have a negative impact on its subject’s re-election. The newly active Welsh Film Archive jumped at the chance.


Just finding it (never facing the prospect of defending it from critics, Elvey described it as his best work) was an event but it turned out to be quite possibly the best film of its day. I saw it, with its Neil Brand accompaniment, get standing ovations in two hemispheres. Curiously the late Maurice Elvey’s stock didn’t rise. Too many people had bet their reputations on writing him off.

Norman Page and Alma Reville in The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918)

David Robinson had to battle serious opposition to contextualise Lloyd George with a season of Elvey silents at Pordenone. They weren’t all masterpieces but they did go towards filling in this major gap and one, Elvey’s 1927 second filming of Hindle Wakes, proved to be even better than Lloyd Georgeand debatably the best British silent film. This one hadn’t been sitting in an attic. It was in place in the archive without anyone showing any interest. After Pordenone, its topicality made it a regular in archival showings and literature.



The reason I’m going over this old ground is that there’s been another discovery - not unfortunately another masterpiece but a film that has extraordinary curiosity value. Elvey’s High Treason  makes it a (one of four) contender for the title of first British talkie. 


It was released before Hitchcock’s Blackmail. People dismiss the idea that, for the first of the years their careers ran parallel, Maurice Elvey was considered the more prominent and substantial talent. A comparison of their two films of the Ivor Novello The Lodger is fascinating and frequently doesn’t favor Hitchcock.  


High Treason was thought to have been lost in its original form. A bogus silent version, which was the surviving sound film negative, printed up mute with a few captions, played at Pordenone.


However now the original has surfaced on YouTube. The quality of the new copy is excellent, offering substantial differences.  However, the version is Tiffany’s cut-down for its American release. English films regularly had their original negative amputated by a reel to show in the US. I have yet to hear of any attempt to restore Elvey’s The Lodger orThe Man in the Mirror, which suffered from this process.


Expectations on High Treason ran high, a prestige undertaking for Gaumont British.  It was a pioneer science fiction film locating between Metropolis and Things to Come, often cited in reference works. The stills of archaic visions of the future, which has now become the past, looked intriguing.

"...between Metropolis and Things to Come.."

We kick off with a border (where?) incident when there is already tension over card cheating among the guards from the European and Atlantic Federations, after they find six aces in their card players' deck. “None of your dirty Europe tricks on me.” A couple of Rum Runners in a tinny-looking future car try to crash the frontier and shots and a grenade are exchanged leaving several dead.


TV coverage gets equal time with footage of bathing beauties. This film competes with the U.S. Pre-Code films in offering scenes of girls in their slips.


The establishing shots of the London Headquarters of the Peace League, which looked so nice in the stills prove to be undercut by obvious surface tension in the waves in studio tank models. The table top buildings lack detail, though the night-time skyline is not unimpressive. The TV screens (see still below), which appear to be done with framed performers live using trompe l’oeil perspective, are striking. The effects are the first work of specialist Philippo Guidobaldi who will also work on the more imposing Things to Come. The film's design by Elvey's talented & neglected regular art director Andrew Mazzei is often imposing.


More damning however is the declamatory delivery and the simple minded attempt at humanising the issues. Working late, Air Corps Major Jameson Thomas (Dupont’s Piccadilly, It Happened One Night) feeds the line “Cold soup is worse than any war” to his date, the appealing Benita Hume, daughter of Peace Federation secretary, Elvey regular Humberston Wright. Hume gets to take a shower behind the frosted glass screen and turns up in her skimpy lamé dress and cap at the dance with the automaton band and fencing girls live show. Her career (include the excellent 1933 Clear All Wires) became less notable than her marriage to Ronald Colman. They later did the radio & TV series Halls of Ivy together.


However, war monger profiteers, handing round thousand pound drafts, have recruited villainous saboteurs, Asian Kiyoshi Takase prominent, to dump a bulky explosive device in the Channel Tunnel (no clunk), out the window of their dining car during the evening meal off the gummed on the table plates. A so so explosion compares with corresponding scenes in Bernhard Kellermann’s much filmed The Tunnel, of which Elvey would do a 1934 version.


Thomas declaims “No man who gives his life for his country gives his life in vain” but Benita goes all Lysistrata on his ass  - clearer in the silent version. We get “They wouldn’t dare fire on women.”  (That bit is very Metropolis.)  Dad Wright comes on Holy and prevents Federation President Basil Gill from sending the world to war, at a terrible, if anti-climactic, cost. “There shall be peace on earth and goodwill to all men.”

Dissent in the Common Market
Raymond Massey (standing) declaims

There are glimpses of Rene Ray, Wally Patch and Raymond Massey, struggling to register in his first film - more of that than we got in the silent.


Add in attempts at style, like the leads declaiming into the camera in tight close-up and the Soviet-style montages - Luger pistols firing in close up at the border, the tunnel collapse and, better, the bombing of the Peace Society with disturbing scenes of leather gear firemen digging crushed survivors out of the rubble. Most of this however just disrupts the narrative.

Benita Hume, Jameson Thomas take in the show
High Treason

Well, more conspicuous filmmakers screwed up their first sound films. That’s you, John Ford and William Wellman! Later Europeans had the chance to learn from their mistakes before facing the sound camera and generally avoided the calamities. Maurice Elvey undaunted launched into the new process and if he didn’t exactly triumph he left a spectacular try. Maybe conviction was lacking. By the time I encountered him, he had lost faith in the once fashionable Pacifist cause, citing his own volunteering for WW1. We disagreed on my making the protagonist in my film a draft dodger.


Still, any way you approach it, High Treason leaves the viewer even more curious about its director’s two hundred (!) missing films.

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