There has been one glaring deficiency in the movies we’ve chosen to discuss thus far: color. For the month of January, we’re expanding our palette by watching five color films from the 1920s to the 1950s. This week, Adam and Rodney watched Elstree Calling from 1930.
Adam: In the exhaustive François Truffaut interview, Alfred Hitchcock said one mere thing about Elstree Calling: “Of no interest whatever.” It’s always worth verifying the master’s claims, so it was a nice exercise to actually watch this minor footnote in his filmography. Was his dismissal warranted or is it time for a reappraisal of this movie, often called the first British musical?
Rodney: If I were Hitch, I’d have probably responded the same way, although I don’t completely agree with his appraisal. If I had the career that he had, and someone, Truffaut or not, wanted to discuss Elstree Calling, I’d probably toss them out on their ear.
A: What exactly is Elstree Calling? It’s a British International Pictures’ revue with three threads to weave the skits and musical acts together. First, the announcer Tommy Handley acts as the master of ceremonies setting up the performances in the studio. The image and sound he’s broadcasting is picked up haltingly at the home of an amateur electronics tinkerer (Gordon Harker) on his rickety, yet futuristic, television. The third thread is a Shakespearean actor (Donald Calthrop) who’s every attempt to interject high culture into the proceedings is thwarted by some form of mocking derision. It’s certainly not a complicated movie. If you like both The King of Jazz and The Benny Hill Show, I expect you’ll feel right at home with Elstree Calling.
R: I echo both of those recommendations based on this, and it was difficult for me not to feel like I was watching a bunch of Vitaphone shorts strung together. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is worth knowing what you’re getting into when you embark on watching this sort of a film. The television angle here is very fascinating to me. Radio was nowhere close to reaching the heights of what it could achieve, and people were already looking forward to television at this early time. Personally, I was not aware of television being much of a thought in the minds of the general populace until the 1939 World’s Fair, but this film debunks that for me.
A: That’s a good point. I found a 1930 review in The Guardian which is very casual about the technology. They even use the word “television,” without elaborating on the meaning. So, I guess the general readership had some idea of things to come.
Some of the acts are impressive. Teddy Brown the xylophonist/whistler/drummer is great. Despite his, shall we say, ample physique, he is a lively presence and his band’s tunes are toe-tapping. His arch rendition of a “Hebrew Parade” march is a bit, shall we say, provocatively amusing. (Born Abraham Himmelbrand in New York, the percussionist was Jewish, in case anyone was wondering.)
R: I liked this bit a lot too, assuredly one of the highlights of the film, and you get it right off near the very beginning, and, while we aren’t big fans of spoilers around here, if you stick around his segments in the film get better and better. It’s this sort of thing that makes you realize the power that this presentation had at the time of its general release. With sound being so new, and the concept of a musical being produced in England was so new, it was probably a real treat to be able to see so many of these acts.
A: Another welcome surprise is again an American act, The Three Eddies. They are a black trio (paradoxically in Jolson-style makeup) who had established themselves as stage stars in England a couple years prior to this film. Their first number is a boisterous tap dance routine that descends into some wild rubber-legging. Their second number is a very cool rendition of the Edgar Leslie/Walter Donaldson tune “’Tain’t No Sin (To Dance Around in Your Bones)” complete with skeleton costumes. These two numbers are worth the price of admission alone.
R: They were great, and I’d recommend those segments to anyone interested in a highlight reel of Elstree Calling. The Teddy Brown bits and the Three Eddie segments were unquestionably my favorite parts of the entire film. It’s unfortunate that so little additional filmed work exists with either of them, but that’s all the more reason why we should be grateful that this film has managed to exist.
A: Hitchcock’s involvement in the film was minimal (his opening credit is most unusual, “Sketches and other interpolated items by…”) however there are a couple moments in the film that do bear the director’s trademark macabre humor. One involves a jealous lover who slays the wrong couple. The other is a bizarrely prolonged segment in which a singing quartet kill themselves one-by-one when they sing off-key. You must see it for yourself…
R: Those are among the more jarring moments in this film, which is saying something because there is a lot of stuff here that’s just completely off the wall, from the concept of television in 1930 down to a completely bizarre (and bizarrely patriotic) magic act.
A: The photography is by Claude Friese-Greene, son of motion picture pioneer William Friese-Greene (his biopic The Magic Box was one of the highlights of Cinevent in 2017). While both father and son experimented with color film processes, the color segments of Elstree Calling are the old-fashioned Pathécolor stencil process. It’s charming but an extremely limited palette. For reasons unclear to me, the only colors are yellow and brownish yellow. What did the British use as the dye? HP Sauce and Colman’s mustard?
R: The copy that I reviewed for this post seemed to occasionally have some hues of blue as well, but they were fleeting. Still, I really liked the color segments, to the point where every time one came along in the film, I was kind of delighted. The novelty of color still holds in my house.
A: I did perk up each time it switched to color. As if you need one further selling point: Anna May Wong appears in a burlesque of Taming of the Shrew where she throws a pie into Shakespeare’s face. Again—you really have to see it; it feels ridiculous putting this into words. This is a difficult movie to rate. On one hand, it’s as slow as frozen molasses and bluntly anti-art. On the other hand, this is the kind of curio that I love. It’s a portrait of English music hall being encroached by mass media in the forms of radio, television, and cinema. The only thing I’m sure of is that Hitchcock was wrong, it is definitely of interest! But aiming for objectivity, I’m giving it 2 stars.
R: I did not love this movie, but I’m so, so glad that it exists. It’s definitely worth seeing, and I remember it screening at a convention a few years ago that I attended to a very enthusiastic crowd (I couldn’t get a seat for it myself). They may have possibly been brought in by the concept of a musical directed (even if partially) by Hitchcock, but I can’t imagine them not being taken in by some of the more agreeable performances here (especially Teddy Brown!). I’m also going to go with two stars, but your mileage may vary considerably here. One thing that I will say is that if you feel the need to seek this out, be sure to find a restored release. This would be VERY tough sledding in a subpar presentation.