Butter Armageddon

I was moved to write a complaint to Film4 the other day. yes, I’m becoming one of those people. My previous complaint was to the BBC, and was at least about something serious, a piece by their science editor that began by questioning the seriousness of the Coronavirus threat (this was before 50,000 Brits had died, so I feel history has borne me out here) and ended by suggesting we’d soon have to make some tough decisions balancing the health of the populace with the health of the economy — calculating, as Harry Lime would put it, how many of those little dots we could afford to spare.

Well, the BBC has been guilty of crimes against humanity, perhaps, but The Telegraph has our mass graves already dug.

So maybe it’s a relief to get on to something trivial. My complaint to Film4 mainly spoke about the way the film was screened in the wrong aspect ratio, so that everyone was very long and thin — OK, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson are long and thin normally, but that doesn’t explain why the moon was an oblong. Everybody knows movie moons are always full, unless they’re crescent.

This might well have been my cable provider’s fault, but have you ever tried explaining an aspect ratio problem to somebody in a call centre? If you’re very lucky they’ll understand you well enough to suggest adjusting the settings on your TV.

But the transmission in question had another problem, one that was certainly not Virgin Media’s fault. Somebody had stuck English subtitles on the first exchanges, in German, between Veidt and Hobson.

This might seem like a natural thing to do. There are several lines, and it starts to get a bit frustrating that we (the presumed non-German-speaking viewers) can’t understand the dialogue. But this is absolutely deliberate, part of the Powell-Pressburger plan. As the scene progresses, our incomprehension increases the tension, which is finally broken by a joke, and even Hobson looks relieved.

Crass as the subtitler’s unwelcome intervention was, it made me realise something about the scene. At the end of the exchange, Veidt suddenly gets a rapt look in his eye and advances upon Hobson in a Stroheimesque manner… then picks up the true object of his desire, a dish of butter, which he smells deeply, before declaring, “Butter!”

“You had me worried there for a moment,” smiles Hobson.

True, Powell hasn’t quite worked out a way of tricking the eyelines so we BELIEVE that Connie’s gaze is fixed on Val, but you can’t have everything.

The gag is part of a quaint idea that the Germans would be suffering more from food shortages than the island-bound Brits in 1917, which I’m not sure is accurate. But maybe. It’s quite late in the war.

Anyway, what I realised was that P&P were pulling the same stunt performed more showily by John McTiernan and screenwriters Larry Ferguson, Donald E. Stewart and David Shaber in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER: making a transition from a foreign language, then one which the characters would in reality be speaking (Hobson in fact spoke German fluently), to English, for the benefit of the audience, the switch being performed by use of a single word which is the same in each language. “Butter” is “butter” in German and English, and “Armageddon” is “Armageddon” in Russian and English.

McTiernan’s version works with subtitles. The Archers’ version is clearly better without.

Also, Veidt’s German is better than Sean Connery’s Russian.

THE SPY IN BLACK stars Cesare the Somnambulist; Edith D’Ascoyne; Anakin Skywalker; Conductor 71; Julia Trimble-Pomfret; Uncle Pumblechook; Halima; Sokurah the Magician; Finn – the Mute; Dr. Petrie; Joe Gargery; and Professor Auguste Balls.

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER stars James Bond; Donald Trump; Alan Shephard; Damien Thorn; Darth Vader; De Nomolos; Duncan Idaho; Joseph Andrews; Dr. Frank-N-Furter – A Scientist; Ron Carver; Moominpapa; Ed Rooney; and Dr. Beverly Crusher.




10 Responses to “Butter Armageddon”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Hobson will always have a special place in my heart as the REAL Bride of Frankenstein and off-screen as Mrs. John Profumo

  2. I was startled to discover that her son lives upstairs from the great Angela Allen.

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    Ah, BOOOTAH! How that line and film resonated with me when I first saw it on the old ITV station TWW (Television Wales and the West) followed by CONTRABAND 7 days later. My first P&P films.

    Yes, David C. from the FB Talking Pictures.com. posts I’ve been informed aboyt the sad state of BBC TV today and the imminent demise of BBC 4. Perhaps, like the Postal service here placed under the (mis) administration of one of Trump’s cronies prior to privatization – and the mail has been bad of late – they simply just don’t care any more?

    David E, I assume you’ve seen Valerie in the Alec Guinness film, THE CARD? There Alec walks away with young Petulia Clark seen earlier as a Cockney waif in A MEDAL FOR THE GENERAL, one of those lost British films TWW used to show but now resurrected thanks to Talking Pictures that David and Fiona are very fortunate to see.

  4. Connie’s entrance in this movie is to plotz for. And all the klnkiness that people love in Contraband: here already.

  5. It’s classic P&P perversity that, challenged to make a propaganda film, even if set in WWI, they make the German spy a largely sympathetic hero with a tragic love story.

  6. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Oh I adore Pet Clark, Tony! Especially her early films. She’s one of the few child stars who made it to adulthood alive.

  7. Tony Williams Says:

    David and Fiona are very fortunate to have access to the UK TV station Talking Pictures that has a very good FB page. That station shows a lot of UK (and Hollywood classics) that have not been seen for years. I never thought I’d see the day when broadcast TV would become as bad as its American counterpart – but it happened.

    TPTV has shown many rare British classics several of whnewed on the old ITV Television Wales and the West channel (TWW) when British Director John Baxter used to program films. TPTV also attracts a younger generation of viewers.

    I assume you’ve seen “our Pet” in DANCE HALL (1950)?

  8. Mackendrick: “I was present on the set of Dance Hall when it was decided that Diana Dors’ nipples were too prominent and she had to have them stuffed with cotton wool, and her indignation at this was something to behold.”

  9. Carol O'Sullivan Says:

    Always brilliant to see an example of the Babel Fish problem on screen! Thank you for adding this one to my collection. (The other one I’ve seen recently was in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – more on the wacky side, as language-barrier-solutions go)

    None of them as magnificent, though, as the solution found by Stanley Kramer’s cinematographer in order to be able to shoot Judgement at Nuremberg in English. I think that one’s still my favourite.

  10. I should have mentioned a key difference, in that Pressburger adds a line from Hobson about “speaking in English from now on” so it’s retroactively made to seem less of a bold solution. P&P would get more courageously imaginative later…

    I like how, in Lester’s The Three Musketeers, after the Duke of Buckingham joins the gang for a fight, Porthos asks “Who was that?” and Athos replies, “I don’t know, but he seemed a touch foreign to me. Don’t you think?” Of course, Simon Ward’s Duke speaks the same RP as Frank Finlay and Oliver Reed. A joke about the lack of language variations that also reminds us who’s French and who’s English.

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