Posted by Kevin Brownlow January 2022
Eminent film maker and historian Kevin Brownlow has worked in film from the mid 1950s. His memories, from inside the world of film making, evoke the power of the cinematic image and the importance of the Everyman as ‘a course in cinema history’.
The Everyman is probably the world’s oldest repertory cinema. It opened as such on 26 December, l933 [World Film News May 1936 pl6] It was – and is – charming, so unlike the picture palace favoured by the industry that it is laughable. Even after all the recent alterations, you can still feel the atmosphere of the drill hall it was intended to be. It became a theatre in the 1920s; Noel Coward premiered The Vortex, his shocking play about drug addiction among the upper classes. (When it was turned into a film, the censor insisted on a title change; from “Mummy, will you give up gigolos if I give up drugs?” to “Mummy, will you give up dancing if I give up headache powders?” [Ivor Montagu to Kevin Brownlow1984]
I associate the Everyman with a poster for a science fiction film for which the slogan was “Stunning!…Staggering!!…..Breathtaking!!!.”
The Everyman didn’t even use distributors’ posters. Theirs had no slogans –did they even mention stars and directors? The title was printed sedately on a yellow background. As an art house, they depended on their reputation, which was impeccable.
Nor did the Everyman show the usual strident trailers for forthcoming films. Instead, they projected announcements as genteel as lantern slides with the date, the title, the stars and directors and very occasionally an extract from a review – ‘blurbs’ as they are called today. The lettering was similar to that used on the famous yellow posters.
I had been at school with Martin Fairfax-Jones, the son of the owner of the Everyman, so an introduction was easy. Fairfax-Jones père had one of the most delightful houses in London; an early Victorian house buried in the Vale of Health, surrounded by a lush garden. I was invited there to meet the film maker and film historian Paul Rotha. I was not inclined to approve of him, since his epic volume The Film Till Now was pitched against Hollywood. And he proved a curmudgeonly fellow, who was in court a few months later for stabbing his girlfriend.
I was a film editor at this period in the 1950s in the cutting rooms of a documentary company called World Wide Pictures, in Soho. I earned £6.10s a week and on this income I both collected silent films and began a feature fllm (Don’t laugh). My assistant in the cutting rooms was Peter Watkins, an amateur film-maker himself and future director of The War Game. In the hope of converting him to silents, I invited him home to see my latest acquisition, an epic historical drama called The Spanish Dancer (directed by Herbert Brenon, 1923) with Pola Negri. In a break between reels he said “Herbert Brenon’s cinematic interpretation was certainly negligible.” He could hardly have said anything to annoy me more. It turned out that he had looked the film up and was quoting from Rotha.
It was as a reaction to Rotha that I wrote The Parade’s Gone By…. (1968), devoted to the American silent film.
In Fairfax-Jones’s garden, one night, Peter Watkins and I filmed a scene for a film I was making with Andrew Mollo, It Happened Here, a ‘what if?’ picture about the German occupation of England. We needed privacy to film the effect of a German officer being shot in the face; Watkins, being a wizard with makeup, came up with a result that was more gruesome than I anticipated.
I am surprised when I remember this episode, because Andrew Mollo and I were both squeamish, and couldn’t bear ultra-violent films. But we needed to show warfare more realistically than the usual treatment. (I realised the satisfaction makers of this sort of film received when I heard a communal gasp from the audience.)
Talking of which, it was the Everyman that gave me my most violent film shock. I had been taken to a children’s matinee at the Cameo Poly in Regent Street, in the spring of 1945 to what my mother fondly imagined to be a charming fairy-tale, a Soviet film called The Little Hump-backed Donkey, directed by Alexander Arthurovich Row.
Not only was the film extremely frightening – I had run out of a cinema showing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs a year or two before – but the newsreel was even worse. Newsreels during the war were not subject to censorship, and this one dealt with the liberation of Belsen. The mothers were appalled that such scenes were being shown without warning and I have the feeling that they stormed the box office. The commotion was terrifying – we kids had no way of knowing what it was we were seeing. And the Soviet fairytale was even worse. (The director, Row, was awarded Stalin prizes for his work in this field, yet he wasn’t Russian, but the son of a businessman from Dublin who had settled in Russia in the Tsarist era.) One image I remember in his elaborate legend was of the hero and heroine being forced to dive into a gigantic mug of boiling milk. That finished me.
The Everyman provided an even stronger shock in their presentation of D W Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). This would probably have been in 1952. A mischievous friend of my family heard I was going to see it and couldn’t resist telling me that an extra in a battle scene had been killed by accident – and the scene had been left in in the film. I was very nervous when I took my seat and by the time the film reached the battle scenes, I was ready to swoon with suspense.
And, with the swiftness of light, a warrior had his head removed in medium close shot. Of course, any sensible person could see that it was papier-mache, but I had never been exposed to cinema trickery. I was convinced I’d seen a hideous accident right before my eyes. I couldn’t sleep for a long time afterwards and I am still affected by it; I cannot go near a horror film, or any picture featuring ultra-violence. And I am still terrified that I will see that same scene achieved with the skill of modern computers.
The Everyman’s programming was usually far more civilised. I can’t recall whether I was given a job, or that I was allowed to drop in after school from time to time, but the projectionist was very kind and showed me the ropes. The projection box was just about big enough for the two of us, and I was just tall enough to peer through the projection port.
The projectionist’s name was Mr Robinson; he was in his forties and had been given a medical discharge from the Fleet Air Arm – this was after the war. He had had to film each aircraft coming in to land and he was traumatised by the number that overshot the deck and crashed into the sea, drowning the pilot.
By attending the Everyman regularly one could be given a valuable course in cinema history. Fairfax-Jones seemed to have had his own personal prints of films which cropped up again and again. I tried not to miss Mark Donskoi’s The Maxim Gorky Trilogy – parts one and two had me in floods of tears every time: part 3 was a trifle less emotional. At the Moscow Film Festival in 1975 I came face to face with the great director and I tried to convey my admiration. We were on a vast sound stage, and I had no interpreter, however, he must have sensed my enthusiasm– I tried to tell him that his trilogy was run regularly in this one remarkable cinema in London every year.
One Christmas, my mother took me to see Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925). I was told it would be a silent film; instead it was narrated by Chaplin himself, with music. I realised later that in 1942, the year he reissued the comedy, the only way of getting a silent film on the screen was to give it a narration with music and effects. The Gold Rush had the impact it always has – I found the sadness stronger than the funny scenes – and they were very, very funny. Years later, I ran The Kid (1920) to my small daughter, and when Jackie Coogan is torn from his father and taken to the orphanage, she burst into tears.
“Didn’t you find the amusing bits funny?” I asked her afterwards.
“What amusing bits?” she said.
The Italian Straw Hat was another regular, and being silent it was accompanied by gramophone records. René Clair’s comedy of 1927 is still shown at Festivals and to me, it is still hysterically funny, and brilliantly made. By attending the occasional BFI function, I was able to meet René Clair, who spoke excellent English, having made films in England and the United States. At one of these, having just discovered on 9.5mm a rare René Clair drama (Proie Du Vent (1926), I couldn’t wait to break the news to its director. “I wish you’d lose it again,” said Clair.
The Birth Of A Nation (1915) was shown in its sound version, which meant that we had to see a very bad quality print speeded up and accompanied by a primitive score recorded in 1931. I remember I was thirteen, and went in 1951 with a school friend called Tom Kempinski, the future playwright. Having been told repeatedly that this was the greatest film ever made, we were both disgusted by the print quality, the speeded up action which turned scene after scene into farce, and the music. We agreed what a rotten film it was. We assumed the attacks on the blacks by the Ku Klux Klan were simply a version of cowboys and Indians.
In the 1960s, I made my first trip to Hollywood, and met veterans of the silent days who had worked on that film. They all regarded it as the high point of their lives, and strangely enough, none voiced political objections. Except one black actor, William Walker, who described what it was like to live in a town which received a visit from columns of the Ku Klux Klan, supporting Griffith’s picture.
In the I990s, I was involved in the Photoplay restoration using a tinted nitrate print which made the images much more beautiful, but of course the plot remained as racist as it always has been. It caused protests on its release – riots even – from blacks and liberals. It was tragic that the most important film of its time should have been so vicious.
Although we have presented the film at the National Film Theatre, the Everyman hasn’t shown it for many years. Not
that they were strangers to controversy. They even showed It Happened Here!