Intertitle of the Week: Death of the Intertitle

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The silent movie foresees its own end — from A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR. I watched this again because I wanted to compare the silent Hitchcocks I’ve been screening with a state-of-the-art British silent movie by other hands, to assess Hitchcock’s artistry in comparison with something else.

Anthony Asquith’s film certainly beats all of Hitch’s silents into a (Hitch)cocked hat — but then, it’s possibly the supreme masterpiece of British silent cinema, and better than most films from most places at most times. To enumerate just a few of its virtues will take a while —

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It’s simpler in story terms than Hitchcock’s films, but the simplicity pays off. Asquith knows exactly who his main character is, and how to maintain sympathy for him through some fairly disastrous personal choices. The melodrama is beautifully integrated into the story and style of the film. The movie combines naturalistic settings (although the titular cottage appears as a model shot at one point) with expressionistic framing, striking a thrilling balance between artifice and stark conviction.

The German influence is clearly massive — this is Dartmoor as Caspar David Friedrich might have painted it. Perhaps, as Kevin Brownlow has argued, everything valuable in British silent film of the ’20s derived from Germany, but I don’t see this as a cause for shame — we stole from the best. Perhaps if we’d stolen from France, our apparently in-built obsession with realism could have been expressed more, but I’m glad we kept things Teutonic. Actually, when Asquith’s characters do go to the cinema, things get quite French, with an accelerating montage of orchestra (the first film screened is a silent) and audience that builds to a Gance-like frenzy of inter-cutting. (Elsewhere in British cinema, Hitchcock was being influenced by the Russian montage school, which he sought to combine with German expressionist effects.)

The cinema scene is a brilliant, gratuitous set-piece, designed so that Asquith can compare talking and silent films, somewhat to the detriment of the former, without directly showing what the audience is watching — the talkie is evoked purely by the idleness of the band, who start smoking and playing cards. While Asquith allows the talkie to score a few points — some of the punters are held rapt in the flickering half-light, it’s the silent film which produces laughter and elation. Meanwhile, the stalker hero gazes at his love and her beau, and a paroxysm of inter-cutting whips all the flying emotion up into a stroboscopic explosion.

Asquith’s cast is terrific, with Uno Henning, fresh from Pabst’s LOVE OF JEANNE NEY, at times reminiscent of Buster Keaton on his minimalist expressions of despair or awkwardness. Norah Baring, as the object of his affection, is a unique and quirky screen presence, far more appealing in her slightly gawky oddness than some glamourpuss would be. I’m looking forward to seeing Baring in Hitchcock’s MURDER!, made the following year, although I’m a little wary in case her voice disappoints me.

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Without getting into the sticky grounds of symbolism, we can say that Asquith packs a lot in to his images — tree branches spread out like black fractures in the sky, sometimes spreading from a dark human smudge, as if this were the source of the damage. And it would be tempting to put some kind of queer interpretation on the unrequited love plot (which sees the hero packed off to prison), given Asquith’s rumoured predilections — my friend Lawrie told me “Puffin” would moonlight in greasty spoon transport cafes to pick up truckers, and persistent rumours identify the director (and prime minister’s son) as the notorious “man in the mask”, attending the sex parties exposed by the Profumoaffair in the ’60s, wandering around shoving his meat ‘n’ two veg into a jar containing an angry wasp. Whatever, I guess — although when masochism reaches such levels, I do wonder, “Wouldn’t you be happier if you didn’t have to do that?”

(Irrelevant movie connection: Profumo, the Tory politician ruined by the scandal, was married to the fragrant Valerie Hobson, of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and GREAT EXPECTATIONS fame. When the story broke, she did what Tory wives do, and stood by her man.)

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But most of all, A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR makes one want to fall guilty to the lowest of critical misdemeanours and simply assert its brilliance. If by doing so I tempt others to watch it, perhaps my crime will have mitigating circumstances.

18 Responses to “Intertitle of the Week: Death of the Intertitle”

  1. That tree is right out of Murnau’s Faust

  2. Arthur S. Says:

    Valerie Hobson was also in KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS as the good girl that Dennis Price is to marry and who he is blackmailed to murder by Joan Greenwood at the end of the film, a film that’s more apropos vis-a-vis the Rt. Hon. Profumo in that there’s a court scene where Dennis Price has to defend himself against the outrageous charges of murder and maintaining he is innocent(which he is, it was six other guys he killed).

    I have been wanting to see A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR for sometime, and I’ll try and see it soon. The new BFI DVD has that still of the tree on it’s cover, made my mouth water. I have seen Asquith’s PYGMALION only among his films and I liked that a lot.

    The shot of the opening of OLIVER TWIST seems to be a hommage to Dartmoor on the basis of these stills. What other stuff of interest as Asquith done, or did he like Henry King burn out when sound came.

  3. A Cottage On Dartmoor first came to my attention via shahn’s Sixmartinis blog, she presented a few frame grabs that indeed had my mouth watering. The same can be said of her post of Lang’s Destiny from 1921. It really is an incredible film on multiple levels. Asquith’s choice of Baring as the female lead seemed odd to me the first time I watched it, she has a sort of mousy look to her, but I agree, I prefer her to some stock glamorpuss. I think I spotted Asquith as one of the extras in the truck stop in They Drive By Night. He was sipping tea, as I recall.

  4. Heh!

    I’ve just written something contrasting later Asquith with later Hitch for my post on Juno and the Paycock, so I won’t say more about that here. There definitely are some worthwhile later Asquiths but mainly in the sense of terrific performances (Michael Redgrave hits an all-time high in The Browning Version) in good plays. The cinematic heights of Cottage are not scaled again. Pygmalion has some very nice montages though. If you liked that, Major Barbara might also appeal, and the Redgrave ones are decent. But nothing compares to Cottage.

    Oliver Twist certainly seems to open on the same moor. I love Lean’s twisting thorns, which seem to evoke Oliver’s mother’s labour pains.

    Hobson is in a lot of great stuff. Her decorous beauty is perfect for the role in Kind Hearts. She’s more interesting still in The Spy in Black, where her slightly chilly perfection makes a great foil for Conrad V. But the idea of Jean Simmons growing into her in Great Expectations is rather upsetting. (But then, even Vivian Leigh as the mature Simmons in Anthony and Cleopatra is disappointing. Accept no substitutes!)

  5. The twisting thorns are made even more memorable by the discordant strain of a violin, a perfect complement to what we see. I’ve often found Hobson appealing in spite of her seeming haughtiness, I enjoyed her pairing with Veidt in both The Spy In Black and Contraband. But I have to agree that aside from their physical difference it’s their personalities that make Simmons to Hobson a stretch in Great Expectations. The young Estella is as shrill and emotional (“I hate you!” she screeches at Pip at one point) as the adult Estella is cool and reserved. Puzzling but plausible I suppose.

  6. Yeah, no reason why Estella couldn’t mature that way, no doubt many people do. But she becomes less interesting, which isn’t a help.

    Hobson was 17 when she did Bride of F in Hollywood, a considerable role for one so young. I have some of her later films lined up for viewing, including The Voice of Merrill (1952), but the most exciting one I have to see is The Rocking Horse Winner from the great year of 1948.

  7. Never knew she was Irish!

  8. I missed a chance not too long ago to see this on a big screen, with live accompaniment. Damn you, stills! Must you be so alluring?

  9. I hate to say it, but the stills here show NOTHING of how incredible the film looks. Fortunately, there is a DVD (plus bootlegs and downloads) so you still have a shot of seeing it.

  10. Arthur S. Says:

    For me it makes sense because Estella is never a person for Pip but an Object of Desire, of everything he’s not and wants to be and so it makes sense that she kind of disappoints. The original ending of GREAT EXPECTATIONS as him realizing that he never loved Estella and that it was an illusion but Dickens’ friends told him that it was too bleak and so he substituted the ending we now have with the possibility of romance hinted at but remaining unconsummated. I wonder if it’s possible to do an adaptation of GREAT EXPECTATIONS with the original ending. Being more faithful to Boz than Boz himself was. Although the ending now present is very good.

  11. Christopher Says:

    “Will you come with me to a TALKie to-night?”
    there it is ,the catch phrase of the year!…Perfect dating ice breaker!
    ..Hard to believe Valerie Hobson was only 17 in “Bride”..She seems so mature.Save for her little melodramatic bedroom outburst,even more mature than Colin Clive,whos always so fragile.Its almost like,given the chance,she could beat the crap out of Henry,Pretorious and the Frankenstein monster and put and end to all their nonsense..Shes truely a “stunner” in Bride of Frank..damn fine woman..and its always a treat when she appears in later films..

  12. I think one could get away with GE’s original ending. Cuaron should have tried it, since whatever you do, you must try to depart from the Lean wherever possible, since it gets everything about right in its way — no sense competing on the same ground. But then you could get the Coen’s Ladykillers, where they try to avoid direct comparison by making lots of changes, and discover that the original made all the right choices and every alteration is a disaster.

    Maybe the real message is, DON’T remake classics, remake bad films and make them better.

  13. Michele Morgan was seventeen when she starred in Port of Shadows opposite Jean Gabin. She’s much like Hobson in that both have received a certain respect and reverence by those looking back on their contributions to the cinema of their time. I have an appreciation for both, but there’s something about Morgan that I ultimately prefer, much as I like Hobson, I think because she possesses a more poetic quality in her films, there’s a yearning and sadness in her performances in PoS and The Fallen Idol that stay with you long after the viewing. Even her performance in Ripley’s The Chase elevates it, I’m not sure the film would be of much worth without her and Peter Lorre, two expatriates in an otherwise very American film. I like The Chase very much, but I like it that much more thanks to those two.

  14. Randy Cook Says:

    I understand that the opening scene in OLIVER TWIST was imagined and written by the very versatile Kay Walsh, AKA Mrs. Lean, who intended the thorns to have the exact effect you inferred. I don’t know anything about British community property statute, but they were “Lean’s thorns” by marriage, apparently.

  15. Tony Williams Says:

    Unfortunately, Nora Baring’s voice is not as good as her appearance as you will find when you view MURDER! Ultra-RADA, in fact.

  16. The bottom line is after you’ve been given Jean Simmons you simply don’t want anyone else.

  17. I sneaked a peak at Murder! and I don’t mind Norah’s voice. If she were any less posh, she’d be doing that posh-cockney thing which would be worse.

    Yes, Simmons is not so much a hard act to follow as simply impossible to follow. Or maybe you could follow her by being a bit bizarre… maybe Elsa Lanchester could follow her.

    Kudos to Kay Walsh! Might have known Lean wouldn’t be that empathetic all by himself.

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