Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Hitch and Lye

This is a contribution to the (third annual) For the Love of Film Blogathon, co-hosted by the Self-Styled SirenFerdy on Films, and, for the first time this year, This Island Rod. Please read the posts, participate as a poster or commenter, and, most important of all, donate!

The cause this year is an especially fine one: the blogathon aims to raise the funds needed to put recently rediscovered reels from the 1924 film The White Shadow, a hitherto-lost component of Alfred Hitchock's early career, online for all to see Free of Charge.

The aftermath in Secret Agent
Though the discovery of several reels of The White Shadow in a New Zealand shed is understandably being celebrated as Hitchcock's most notable antipodean connection -- unless we count the backlot Australia of his film Under Capricorn -- there is at least one other New Zealand association buried deep in the master's filmography. Sadly, though in the spirit of this particular blogathon, the snippet of screen history on which I'll focus is lost to film viewers; in the event that someone can rectify the loss, perhaps with dusty materials from a London attic on this occasion, the film preservation community will have another coup to fête...

Len Lye, in movie villain mode
Back in 1936, as Hitchcock was putting the finishing touches to his film Secret Agent, he employed the services of a New Zealander filmmaker/artist by the name of Len Lye, who had been in London for a decade after making his way across the Pacific and eventually northwards, his perambulations the partial inspiration for his film Tusalava, which got the British censors in something of a lather because they just knew that Lye was up to something funny with his weirdly biological imagery even if they couldn't figure out quite what was going on.

Lye was very much an artistic polymath, in the midst of one of his most productive periods as a filmmaker at the time he crossed paths with Hitchcock: in the mid-1930s he made several wonderful and wildly colourful films for John Grierson's GPO Film Unit as well as advertising shorts for clients ranging from Shell to Imperial Airways, with the occasional foray into the commercial cinema. Hitchcock somehow came across Lye on the London film scene and asked Lye to try his hand at some special effects for the climactic train-crash sequence of Secret Agent. Roger Horrocks' wonderful biography of Lye doesn't go into great detail on the encounter between the two men, and most of the very many Hitchcock volumes don't mention Lye at all, though perhaps Secret Agent star John Gielgud, of whom more below, had a hand in arranging the encounter; equally, that GPO Film Unit experience surely helped open doors at the time.

In any case, however the two men ended up meeting, Lye delivered as requested, and apparently his efforts made quite an impression. As the train disaster unspooled, Lye created a colour effect in this otherwise black-and-white film that gave all the appearance of the celluloid itself going up in flames, to further underline the point that the sequence marked a radical, emotionally wrenching break for the characters -- the shattering impossibility of going back to the world before the crash. However, it had occurred to precisely no-one that this apparently very realistic visual trick might cause alarm for the unfortunate projectionist, who initially assumed that there was a fire in his booth.

The incident came to the attention of the higher ups at Gaumont British, who were concerned that audiences, well aware of the flammable properties of film at the time, would similarly panic when they saw Lye's trickery -- with potentially grave consequences (not an empty fear: as an example, I came across reports of a stampede at a New York cinema in 1913 caused when a film caught fire, with two women killed in the ensuing panic). Hitchcock was apparently quick to agree with the higher-ups request that the sequence should be cut, not least because he seems to have thought the idea was a bit pretentious to start with, although he makes use of a similar idea in Spellbound a decade later, with a couple of tinted red frames at a key moment. Hitch's  producing partner Ivor Montagu wanted to make a stand on artistic grounds -- or just because he wasn't willing to comply with the bean counters -- but once the master had made clear he wasn't too worked up about the cut, the sequence was inevitably if unfortunately discarded. Apart from that one test projection, the Lye-enhanced version of the train crash never seems to have been seen by an audience, not even the press corps, and so the Hitchock-Lye connection sadly remains in the realm of the curious anecdote.

Lye's signature from Free Radicals
Much of Lye's other film work has survived, and indeed the 1979 version of his film Free Radicals, reworked in several iterations after Lye relocated to the United States, was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry in 2008. However, there are still key gaps, perhaps most notably his 1935 short film Full Fathom Five, which featured a pre-Secret Agent John Gielgud as narrator. Gielgud read three passages from Shakespeare over images from Lye's first "direct" film, where he manipulated the film stock itself to achieve his effects, a departure from the more conventional animation techniques he had previously employed. Full Fathom Five film is virtually lost, and other of Lye's works exist only in fragmented or partial form, while still other portions of his filmography are in need of preservation -- future projects all!

I can't help but spare a thought for poor old Graham Cutts, too, as film-lovers across the globe shunt him stage-left off his own project in favour of the youthful, yet-to-be-rotund Mr. Hitchcock (it's nice to see Cutts get a little bit of his due from David Cairns in this very blogathon). As much as I bow to the reality that the preservation of The White Shadow is a priority in large measure because of its illustrious connections, I'd argue that it's ultimately worthy of preservation in and of itself, even if it is of more limited interest as "a film by Graham Cutts" -- as an illustration of what was being made, and watched, in 1924.

Cutts has some history with the experience of being written out of his own films: The Sign of Four, his 1932 Sherlock Holmes adventure, is noted chiefly for the credits of a variety of behind-the-scenes American contributors who went on to greater things, though the film is a solid adventure with the occasional dash of genuine flair, and Cutts makes nice use of sound to generate suspense (in other words, it's pretty typical early sound fare, a little creaky to be sure, and the available prints are in parlous condition).
The Sea View Hotel, Accra, long past its days of glory
Similarly, when Cutts' 1935 Oh Daddy! is remembered -- which is rarely -- it's largely as a film to which Michael Powell made some early contributions rather than for Cutts' own work. Oh Daddy! is intriguing on at least another level, though -- it showed up a couple of years later in a colonial movie theatre in Accra, advertised with some fanfare at the Sea View Cinema as an attraction in December 1937, presumably one of many locations the world over where the by-all-accounts rather modest film was eventually seen. That's the kind of out-of-the-way, end-of-the-line place that films like The White Shadow eventually found a home so perhaps there's an overheated room somewhere in the Ghanaian capital yet to yield a treasure for a future blogathon -- or even just a copy of Oh Daddy!

Click on Hitch to donate!


Grand Old Movies said...

Have to wonder if the producers who got to see the Lye train wreck footage for Secret Agent thought audiences would be naive enough to think it was real - or else the footage must have been astonishing. Does any of it exist?; if so, it might be interesting to compare with today's CGI techniques.

Tinky said...

I wish we could see the Lye effect today to learn whether it was indeed as effective as it sounds ... and I appreciate your standing up for Mr. Cutts!

Gareth said...

There's no indication that any of the footage made by Lye exists, but from what I've read the footage didn't so much relate directly to the train crash as to the idea of a radical break -- hence the idea of the film consuming itself. I can certainly imagine a snippet of footage that looks like nitrate film bubbling and burning, something that would not have been unknown to audiences/projectionists, but in the end we can't really know how effective it would have been!


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