Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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NFT bfi Pilgrims' Progress: Powell and Pressburger Revisited
The Love Test +
The Love Test
Director: Michael Powell
Production Company: Fox-British Pictures
Producer: John Findlay *
Unit Producer: Leslie L. Landau
Screenplay/Dialogue: Selwyn Jepson
Based on a story by: Jack Celestin
Director of Photography: Arthur Crabtree
Judy Gunn (Mary)
Louis Hayward (John)
Dave Hutcheson (Thompson)
Googie Withers (Minnie)
Morris Harvey (company president)
Aubrey Dexter (company vice-president)
Jack Knight (managing director)
Gilbert Davis (H Smith, head chemist)
Eve Turner (Kathleen)
Bernard Miles (Allan)
Shayle Gardner (nighwatchman)
James Craig (boilerman)
Thorley Walters, Ian Wilson (chemists) *
United Kingdom 1935
When looking at films such as Lazybones and The Love Test today, one must try to do so with a clear understanding of the severe constraints under which they were made, and so appreciate the fact that these directors, in the late William K. Everson's words:
'... disregarded both the lack of money and the lack of interest in their finished films, and tried to make something out of nothing...It takes a thorough knowledge of all the horrors of the "quota quickies" to realise the magnitude of some of their achievements-and if the films were watchable at all, it was an achievement' (from William K. Everson's notes for the Museum of Modern Art Powell & Pressburger retrospective held in New York, November 20 1980 to January 5 1981).
However, this does not mean that the obvious deficiencies of the films, not least because of their status as 'dreaded quota quickies' should be excused. It means, rather, that one must look in different places to appreciate what they do have to offer.
Powell, who 'had always adored the theatre' in all made four films based on stage plays. Of these four, he is openly dismissive of two of them, while one, The Phantom Light, was one of his most popular films of the period. Lazybones, a comedy of impoverished aristocracy, by Ernest Denny was usually described as adequate on its release. The Monthly Film Bulletin (January 1935) said that 'such an incredible story needs more pace and a lighter touch all round,' while Kine Weekly (January 24 1935) wittily commented that '... the producer makes the common mistake of thinking that an Englishman's home is a castle.' Picturegoer didn't even credit Powell as the director, but credited its producer, Julius Hagen, instead. Hagen, nick-named the Tsar of Twickenham (the studios he owned), was one of the most flamboyant characters of the 1930s and symbolised the boom and bust economics that dominated the British film climate then. Lazybones, released in June 1935 was one of the last 'quota' films Hagen delivered before deciding to devote himself entirely to more prestigious productions. The announcement that the receivers had been called in was made on 8 January 1937.
More recent assessments of Lazybones have not been much kinder than those offered on its original release. Jeffrey Richards has referred to it as 'the standard "quota" product of the 'thirties,' and damningly calls it 'just the sort of film that got the British cinema a bad name.' Even Raymond Durgnat has called it the 'runt of the litter', pointing to the fact that it '... abounds in continuity bloopers,' such as one scene when, at the beginning of a shot, we see the actors briefly pause before continuing with the dialogue, clearly having paused slightly after Powell had yelled 'action.'
Director: Michael Powell
Twickenham Film Studios Productions
Presented by: Julius Hagen
Assistant Director: Fred V. Merrick
Adaptation: Gerard Fairlie
Based on the play by: Ernest Palmer
Editor: Ralph Kemplen
Art Director: James A. Carter
Music Director: W.L. Trytel
Recording: Leo Wilkins
Ian Hunter (Sir Reginald Ford)
Claire Luce (Kitty McCarthy)
Bernard Nedell (Michael McCarthy)
Denys Blakelock (Hugh Ford)
Mary Gaskell (Marjory Ford)
Michael Shepley (Hildebrand Pope)
Pamela Carme (Lottie Pope)
Bobbie Comber (Kemp)
Fred Withers (Richards)
Sara Allgood (Bridget)
Frank Morgan (Tom)
Fewlass Llewellyn (Lord Brockley)
Harold Warrender (Lord Melton)
Paul Blake (Viscount Woodland)
Miles Malleson (the pessimist)
United Kingdom 1935
Total running time approx. 129 mins
But there is some gold to be mined in this amiable comedy, Durgnat enthused at how Powell:
'... tries nevertheless for the latest "syntax" (fewer establishing shots), or chances a daring line-cross. In one shot a player set to exit left wheels right and crosses so close and out-of-focus her form dissolves into dandelion puff spreading in the breeze. Eye-boggling deficiencies sit cheek-by-jowl with opportunistic virtuosities.' (Film Comment, May/June 1990)
William K. Everson also found some positive traits:
'shooting through a string curtain in one sequence almost gives a saloon bar [a pub] the exoticism of a Sternberg set; and a prosaic conversation is somehow given pep and pace by being staged around, and framed through, the action of a barmaid in constantly pulling the lever that fills the glasses with beer.'
There are a few similar elements throughout the film, such as a long and ambitious tracking shot that crosses a courtyard and then across two separate rooms before stopping; while in a cameo, Miles Malleson (who later co-wrote and co-starred in the 1940 Thief of Bagdad, partly directed by Powell) almost steals the show in a scene where he is roped in as a witness to a wedding, all the time trying to talk the couple out of it; and for today's audiences there is the amusing line, 'It's about time there was a channel tunnel!'
This is all the more impressive when one knows that Powell had to make the film in thirteen nights. This was standard practice at Hagen's studio, which was open 24 hours a day, and was necessary due to the fact that the film's stars, Ian Hunter and Claire Luce, were appearing in West End plays and so filmed during the night before resting for the matinee and evening performances.
Hunter (who also appeared in Powell's The Night of the Party, Something Always Happens and The Phantom Light as well as the later Archers production, The Battle of the River Plate) would soon be off to Hollywood as would Louis Hayward, the star of The Love Test, a film long thought lost and restored at the 34th London Film Festival in 1990. Its reaction then was somewhat better than the one it received at the time of its initial release. The Monthly Film Bulletin (January 1935) called the plot development 'conventional and obvious,' but concluded, 'It is quite good entertainment for an average filmgoer. Adequate as a piece of screen work.'
Watching it today, one tends to concentrate not on the story, one of Powell's most hackneyed even in 1935 (at a research lab, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl), but instead, on the performances and to an even greater extent, on the performers themselves. It is one of Bernard Miles' first films (Powell said that this was his first performance on screen), and certainly the first of the six films Googie Withers made with Powell. In it she plays, as Variety in 1990 put it '... a gum-chewing secretary-vamp who crank-starts Hayward's engine'; Dave Hutcheson appears as well and turns up again in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Small Back Room and The Elusive Pimpernel. But there are also distinct traces of Powell's burgeoning style, the whole gleamingly lit by cinematographer Arthur Crabtree (later to become a director himself).
Powell begins the film elegantly with a very long tracking shot (it runs just over one minute) all the way around the research lab that will be the focus of the film, eventually stopping at star Louis Hayward's work bench; he also manages to find a number of interesting ways to render the love scenes more intimate, by 'framing' the lovers (either in a taxi, the corner of a restaurant or through a gap in the laboratory's equipment), or by using an unusual, though typically simple effect at the end, when the hero shouts 'I'm in the basement'. The voice is suddenly heard in the upstairs office through the grille of the air-conditioning shaft and is followed by a number of different close shots of the grille very quickly edited together, to give a loud and echoing effect to the sequence.
This is pointed out because they reveal, albeit in reduced form, the enthusiasm, vigour, humour, vitality and style that mark the majority of the surviving Powell features of the period, and show how hard it must have been to let that come through as often and as successfully as it does.
In making these films, Powell also relied on the very circumstances of the cinema in which he worked for story material. In Red Ensign, Leslie Banks plays a shipbuilder determined to stop the beleaguered British shipping industry being run by ships flying under foreign flags. To do this he plans to build twenty ships of a new design that will be more economical, relying on a new quota bill to protect them. Geoff Brown has commented on the parallel this has with the problems of the British film industry in the 'thirties'. 'Here was another business threatened by foreign competition ... and by entrepreneurs ... decking out their films with international appeal and personnel,' (Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1981). As described in the film the quota would work in exactly the same fashion as the 1927 Cinematograph Act. Perhaps more importantly, to define it, Banks appeals to patriotism ('Patriotism is good business, can't you see that?'), using much the same rhetoric that the British Government had to use to sell the 1927 Act when it was supposed to be pursuing a non-interventionist policy. The Love Test revolves around attempts to develop a type of celluloid which is less flammable, a problem that faced all filmmakers and distributors at the time and which is why so many films of the period are no longer available. In the film the hero (played by Louis Hayward) finds a solution. Sadly however the film industry wasn't able to do so until 1951.
Sergio Angelini, National Film &Televisions Archive