From Sound to WWII: 1931-1940

All Quiet on the Western Front poster

"At the end of the 1920s the cinema underwent a revolution. The centre of this revolution was the introduction of synchronized sound dialogue, but it affected other areas as well, leaving very few untouched. It was a revolution that began in America and spread inexorably to the rest of the world, though certain aspects of it had a specific European inflection and some remote corners of the world did not feel the effects of any of it for some time.

Sound affected film form and the structure of the industry in equal measure. The old silent comedy was replaced by the wisecracking of Mae West and the Marx Brothers. Playwrights and script-writers assumed a new importance. An entirely new genre, the musical film, came into being. The integration of music on to the sound-track brought massive redundancies among theatre musicians but it also meant that exhibition conditions became standardized since the film was now the same wherever it was shown. Visual styles became cramped by the inflexible new technology. Hollywood suffered a temporary set-back in overseas markets because audiences demanded dialogue in their own language. Since in the early years of sound all dialogue had to be recorded live, the practice grew up of making films in multilingual versions, with different actors, until the institution of dubbing in the mid-1930s made it superfluous.

The main effect of the coming of sound was a consolidation of the studio system, both at the level of production and at that of the overall organization of the industry. Films became an increasingly industrial product, while the boundaries of the industry extended to overlap with the burgeoning music recording business.

While the coming of sound can be seen as a phenomenon internal to the cinema and music industries, it coincided with important events in the world outside. The Soviet montage cinema fell victim to Stalinist accusations of formalism as much as to technological developments. The rise of Fascism in Europe affected not only the Fascist countries themselves but the political culture of resistance in western Europe. Experimental film-makers turned increasingly to documentary and to themes of social and international struggle. In the late 1930s the Japanese attack on China was followed by Germany's invasion of successively Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Low Countries, and France, until by the end of 1941 the whole world was engulfed in the Second World War." [3]

The Popular Art of French Cinema

Sous les toits de Paris (René Clair , 1930)

The advent of sound in 1929 inaugurated what is usually called the classic French cinema. "The coming of sound took the French film industry by surprise. Though the French cinema was artistically rich in the 1920s, Hollywood was dominant and production had dropped to fifty-five films in 1926. Additionally, though French scientists had invented sound systems as early as 1900, none had been patented, so that American and German systems had to be imported.

The first French sound films (L'eau du Nil - 1928, Le collier de la reine - 1929) were little more than silent films with extra sound passages. It took René Clair's Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930), shot for the German firm Tobis at the Epinay studios, to put French sound film on the map. Initially a flop in France, this populist tale about a street singer (Albert Préjean) became a huge world-wide success. Not only did it use sound and music imaginatively, but it popularized a nostalgic vision of old Paris and its 'little people', which subsequently characterized many French films." [3]

"It is the 'classic' rather than the 'modern' label that seems on the whole more appropriate to the cinema of the 1930s - partly because so many of the French films now thought of as 'classics' date from this period, partly because it was characterised by the dominance of the classic industrial model of production. This was nowhere near as closely integrated in France as in the United States. Any national cinema in this period, however, was to some extent forced to define itself in relation to Hollywood, and the examples of Gaumont and Pathé - still major names in France - illustrate how important a factor the industrialisation of the medium was. Both companies, however, were to lose out to the USA in the 'trade wars', Pathé selling off its factory to Eastman-Kodak and Gaumont pyrrhically merging with MGM. Without the state and governmental support it was to enjoy in later years, this was a difficult period for French cinema.

À nous la liberté (1931)

Sound had a more conservative effect than we might imagine, for the opportunity to transfer literary and theatrical classics to the screen was liberally used, leading to a large number of uninspired journeyman adaptations. Moreover, despite a 1932 governmental decree that dubbing of foreign films into French had to be done in France with French personnel, widespread fears were expressed that American cultural colonialism of the world could proceed unimpeded and French screens would be flooded with foreign imports. The justification for such fears is nowadays, of course, all too plain to see; but the French film industry, and the French state, have always shown great tenacity in defending what is often known as France's 'cultural exception', and even without large-scale governmental assistance in the 1930s the industry's artisanal structure and largely successful resistance to the Depression were to ensure the production of many outstanding films." [5]

"The coming of sound put an end to the avant-garde, but silent film directors, like René Clair, Jean Renoir, Jacques Feyder, Marie Epstein and Jean Benoit-Levy, Julien Duvivier, Jean Gremillon, Abel Gance, and Marcel L'Herbier, smoothly made the transition and became prominent directors in the 1930s and beyond; they were joined by newcomers like Carné (Feyder's assistant) and the Spanish emigré Jean Vigo, who tragically died in 1934." [3]

"It is possible to see how a filmmaker such as René Clair may have been more justified than might now appear in lamenting the loss of the silent cinema's originality and universality. Clair, nevertheless, adapted rapidly enough to become the French cinema's first, and (apart from Jacques Demy) to this day only, leading director of musical comedies. Sous les toits de Paris (1930) is, as its title suggests, an evocation of the picturesque 'people's Paris' that was to figure importantly in films of the period, culminating in Renoir's Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936). À nous la liberté (1931) satirises the very mass-production technologies of entertainment that made it possible, with its scenes in a prison and a phonograph factory structurally almost indistinguishable from each other. Le million (1931) choreographs the frantic search for a missing lottery ticket; even from so apparently Arcadian a world as Clair's, the economy of pleasure is rarely absent. Clair's work may now appear slightly fey and insubstantial, but the visual verve of À nous la liberté in particular, and its satirisation of the nascent modern entertainment industry of which the film is itself an example, do not deserve the neglect into which they have latterly fallen.

Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au collège

Jean Vigo made only two films of any length before his death at the age of 29 in 1934. Zéro de conduite (1933) had to be left partially incomplete because his time in the studio ran out, and L'Atalante (1934) was not a script of his choosing. Yet the first film's evocation of a revolt in a boys' boarding school, and the second's tale of life on a canal barge, have nothing of the journeyman about them; cinema as dream - the Surrealists' ideal - here reaches an apotheosis. Zéro de conduite was banned by the government virtually on release, perhaps surprisingly considering the innocence of its central characters' uprising (they use no weapons more deadly than tiles torn from the school roof). Yet we should remember that the 1930s was a decade of intense social instability in France, threatened with recession in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash and for much of the decade at risk from German expansionism. The brief interlude of the left-wing Popular Front government, which introduced paid holidays and the 40-hour working week before its downfall, came to stand out in popular memory as a moment of solidarity and togetherness amid a decade of turmoil. L'Atalante owes much of its impact to the extraordinary performance of Michel Simon as the barge-hand Père Jules. L'Atalante is among the most visually striking films of its period, thanks to the superb camerawork of Boris Kaufman in the night-time and dream sequences in particular. It was a comparative failure at the box office, though its classic status is now unquestioned." [5]

"The novelty of sound prompted the two most popular genres of the early 1930s: musicals and filmed theatre. Apart from Clair's Le million, À nous la liberté and Quatorze juillet (14 July, 1932), in which he bent genre conventions to suit his own auteurist preoccupations, musicals tended to be 'straight' filmed operettas.

L'Atalante (1934)

But, internationally, the 1930s are especially associated with the more gritty Poetic Realism. Based on realist literature or original scripts and usually set in working-class milieux, Poetic Realist films featured pessimistic narratives and night-time settings, and a dark, contrasted, visual style prefiguring American film noir. The doomed universe of Poetic Realist films was said to reflect the gloomy morale of the immediate pre-war years. There is some truth in this, though Carné, like many politically conscious directors of the time, had earlier espoused the more hopeful ideology of the Popular Front, the left-centre alliance in power from 1936 to 1938, which spurred a remarkable rallying of intellectuals and artists, including film-makers." [3]

The decade that was ending had been a productive one for the cinema. The Conseil superieur du cinema, set up in 1931, had shown the beginnings of state and governmental interest in this (comparatively) new art form, and the founding of the Cinematheque frangçise in 1936 went on to reinforce this, providing the institutional context within which generations of young critics and film-makers would get to know not only French, but European and American cinema. Popular magazines like Pour vous and Cinémonde were read weekly by millions, while the writing of learned film histories had begun, from left-wing (Georges Sadoul) and right-wing (Maurice Bardeche and Robert Brasillach) historians alike. Between 94 and 158 films were produced each year during the decade (not counting 1939 which, for obvious reasons, was 'incomplete'), and something of the order of 225.000.000 admissions were annually recorded. There were exciting plans for the future put forward during the Popular Front - for the reorganization of the whole industry, and for an international film festival at Cannes. The war put a sharp stop to all this.

Film in Fascist Italy

Joseph Goebbels (next to camera) and Vittorio Mussolini (far right) on the set of the shoot of Preussische Liebesgeschichte (Prussian Love Story)

"The years before WWI saw the expansion and consolidation of Italian cinema, not only in Italy, but also in the European and North American markets. The outbreak of WWI in 1914 interrupted this vital period of Italian filmmaking and initiated a critical period of stasis so that in the 1920s Italy lost much of its prewar international market share. Many Italian studios went bankrupt, unable to compete with Hollywood products in the Italian market after WWI. In an attempt at self-defense, Italian studios organized into the Unione Cinematografica Italiana, a conglomerate that subsisted until 1927." [1]

Sound came late to an Italian cinema already deep in the throes of a crisis precipitated by the influx of German and American silents. Only fifteen features were made in Italy in 1925, prompting Stefano Pittaluga (1887—1931) to merge Italy's three major studios — Italia, Cines and Palatina — into the Societa Anonima Stefano Pittaluga (SASP), with the aim of establishing a national cinema based on the Hollywood model. In 1927, Mussolini granted SASP exclusive distribution rights to the films made by L'Unione Cinematografica Educativa (LUCE), the state newsreel and documentary service that he himself had founded in 1924 to exploit the power of what he considered to be 'the strongest weapon' of the century. However, with Pittaluga's death in 1931 the Italian cinema once more found itself in danger of submersion beneath the swelling tide of imports." [2]

The first Italian sound film released was a musical comedy La canzone dell’amore (Song of Love, 1930) by Mario Righetti from a treatment (Il silenzio) by playwright Luigi Pirandello. It was also the year of the lowest production (14 features) since the early days of the cinema. Sound allowed the Italian film industry, like many industries in Europe suffering from competition with Hollywood, to offer a product in a national tongue. At the founding ceremony, Mussolini laid the first stone of the new headquarters of the L'Unione Cinematografica Educativa (LUCE), with giant poster of Mussolini and written propaganda 'Cinematography is the strongest weapon' The themes and style of the contemporary Italian national cinema truly begin in this period and the regime’s attitudes toward the cinema changed accordingly. By the mid-1930s, Mussolini was identified with a placard proclaiming that the cinema was l’arma piu forte (the strongest weapon), although it has not been established that Mussolini ever actually made the statement. Mussolini’s son Vittorio took an active interest in producing and screenwriting as well as editing the journal Cinema. The government founded the Venice Film Festival in conjunction with the XVIII Biennale (Biannual) Art exposition, with the film competition becoming an annual event in 1932. The regime also added the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (CSC) film school in Rome in order to further develop the national film industry. The first president of CSC was the noted film theorist Luigi Chiarini, who would later direct features such as Via delle cinque lune (Five Moons Street, 1942). Joining him in lecturing were Umberto Barbaro (1902–1959), Alessandro Blasetti (1900–1987), and Francesco Pasinetti (1911–1949). The CSC numbered future directors among its students, including Giuseppe De Santis (1917–1997), Luigi Zampa (1905–1991), Pietro Germi (1914–1974), Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977), and Michelangelo Antonioni (1912–2007). In 1937, the CSC began publishing a film journal Bianco e Nero (White and Black). In the same year, Cinecitta (Cinemacity), one of the world’s largest film studios, was inaugurated by Mussolini in Rome for the development of a national film industry to bring the culture of Rome to the world. Several important future directors and scriptwriters worked at Cinecitta or on Vittorio Mussolini’s journal Cinema in those years including Cesare Zavattini (1902–1989), Vittorio De Sica (1901-1974, Alberto Lattuada (1914–2005), Rossellini, Antonioni, Giuseppe De Santis, and Luchino Visconti (1906–1976). The Italian professional cinema of the late 1930s became a raining ground for postwar Italian film directors." [1]

In 1935, Mussolini established the world's second film school, Centro Sperimentale.

The comparative autonomy of the industry did not make the Italian cinema free of propaganda. LUCE's documentaries and newsreels extolled Mussolini's regime, and some explicitly Fascist features were made. The tenth anniversary of the party's founding led to two commemorative films, Camicia nera (Black Shirt, 1933) and Vecchia Guardia (The Old Guard, 1934), somewhat similar in thrust to Germany's Hans Westmar. Italy's invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 inspired several propagandistic works, such as Lo Squadrone bianco (The White Squadron , 1936), as did Mussolini's support of Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Fascist policies were more indirectly glorified in patriotic historical spectacles like 1860 (1934) and Scipione L'Africano (1937).

Although most Fascist intellectuals hated communism, many shared Goebbels's admiration for Soviet films. They hoped that Italian films could move toward a nationalistic, propagandistic cinema. These 'fascists of the left' particularly welcomed epic spectacle. The masses, they hoped, would burst with pride at the sight of tumultuous battles in Spain, of Rome's elephants charging into heathen hordes, and of camels crossing Ethiopia. The regime, however, often disapproved of the spectacles' portrayal of the party. In addition, many of the films were financial disappointments. Not until World War II did a strongly propagandistic streak emerge in Italian cinema. Before then, a cinema of distraction was the norm.

Two popular genres flourished. Italian studios turned out romantic melodramas, typically set among the rich. When presented in a glossy modern decor, these were known as white-telephone films. A prototype was Gennaro Righelli's La canzone dell’amore (Song of Love, 1930), with later examples being Mario Camerini's T'amero sempre (I Will Love You Always , 1933) and Goffredo Alessandrini's Noi vivi (We the Living, 1942). An outstanding entry is Max Ophuls's La Signora di tutti (Everybody's Lady, 1934), a mordant critique of the star-making machinery of the publicity industry.

The other major genre of the era was comedy. As in other countries, sound film quickly brought forth romantic comedies built around infectious tunes. Sound also encouraged dialect humor, and many successful comedians - Ettore Petrolini, Vittorio De Sica, Totò came to cinema from music halls and regional theater. De Sica moved into mainstream romantic comedy in such Cines products as Gli uomini, che mascalzoni... (What Scoundrels Men Are, 1932). II Signor Max (Mr. Max, 1937), in which De Sica portrays a poor man pretending to be rich, proved him to be a top boxoffice attraction. Later, Aldo Fabrizi's Roman dialect comedy yielded him a comparable success. The postwar Neorealist movement owed a large debt to popular comedy: De Sica became a major Neorealist director, and Fabrizi's teaming with Anna Magnani in Campo de' fiori (Field of Flowers, 1943) looked ahead to Rossellini's Roma, città aperta (Rome-Open City, 1946)." [4]

Quota Quickies and the British Studios

See and Hear It. Our Mother Tongue as it Should BeSpoken!

"Long subjected to Hollywood saturation by the universal appeal of the silents, non-English-speaking cinemas were given the opportunity to erect language barriers by the coming of spoken dialogue. Yet the national film industry that was initially most rejuvenated by the advent of sound was Britain's. By the mid-i930s, despite remaining the biggest foreign market for American pictures, Britain ranked among the world's three largest film producers, although it enjoyed few international successes and much of its quota-driven, shoestring output was tailored for domestic consumption." [2]

"What enabled the British film industry to expand at this relatively late date? Midway through the 1920s, fewer than 5 percent of the features released in Great Britain originated domestically. Responding to this situation, in 1927 the government passed the Quota Act. It required that distributors make at least a certain percentage of British films available and that theaters devote a minimum portion of screen time to such films. The percentages were to rise over ten years, to 20 percent by 1937." [4]

"The American studios would now have to pay for their dominance by financing the production of a quota of British films while also taking some back for exhibition in the United States. In the event Warner Bros. and Paramount were the only two companies to set up serious production subsidiaries in Britain to fulfil their quota requirements. The rest made 'Quota quickies' - films shot to satisfy the terms of the Act but often financed at a rate per foot and barely intended to be screened. These gained British pictures an even worse name with audiences, though their production provided a useful training ground for future directors, such as Michael Powell. Many quota quickies sat unseen on distributors' shelves, or made up the second half of double features; spectators often walked out after seeing the American film. One estimate in 1937 suggested that half again as many features were released in the United Kingdom as in America, even though the British market was not even a third the size of the American market.

Alfred Hitchcock on the set of Blackmail with actress Anny Ondra

The years immediately following the Act witnessed the confused frenzy of the industry's conversion to sound, the impact of which the 1927 Act had not considered. Sound caught some productions in mid-stream. Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929) was reshot in sections to incorporate synchronized sound. Promotional material urged 'See and Hear It. Our Mother Tongue as it Should BeSpoken!' Multilingual versions of various productions were pushed through. E. A. Dupont's Atlantic (1929) about the sinking of the Titanic was made at Elstree in three languages, with three casts, for distribution in Germany and France as well as at home. Similarly Michael Balcon scheduled Anglo-German film productions with Erich Pommer at Ufa. British film producers Victor Saville, Herbert Wilcox, and the young Basil Dean visited Hollywood to get the gist of the newly expanded medium. Michael Balcon and Alexander Korda devised Anglo-American co-productions to take advantage of American improvements in camera blimping and microphoning." [3]

"The British studio system came to resemble a less stable version of Hollywood's. There were a few large, vertically integrated companies, several midsize firms that did not own theaters, and many small independent producers. Some firms, particularly the smaller ones, concentrated on quota quickies. Other British firms opted to produce films with moderate budgets, aimed at generating a modest profit solely in Britain. A few tried making expensive films, hoping to break into the American market. Although all these companies competed with each other to some extent, they formed a loose oligopoly. Bigger firms commonly rented studio space to each other and to small independents. The quota requirements made room for all.

An aerial view of British International Pictures' studio complex, built in 1926 and expanded after the coming of sound.

The two main firms, Gaumont-British and British International Pictures (BIP) had been formed during the silent era but now expanded significantly. BIP's new studio was the biggest of several in the London suburb of Elstree, which came to be called "the British Hollywood." (As with studios in Los Angeles, British studios were scattered about the outskirts of London.) Both firms practiced a division of labor similar to that used in the Hollywood system, though BIP was particularly noted for rigidly adhering to production roles and discouraging employees' creativity. Both had extensive backlots where large sets could be built. Gaumont-British and BIP were roughly comparable to the Hollywood Majors in that both were vertically integrated, distributing films and owning theater chains.

There was also a group of smaller firms, somewhat similar to Hollywood's Minors: British and Dominion (headed by Herbert Wilcox), London Film Productions (Alexander Korda), and Associated Talking Pictures (Basil Dean). All produced, some distributed, but none owned theaters. Wilcox's policy was to make modest films in his studio at Elstree, targeting the British market. Dean called Associated Talking Pictures' Ealing facility "the studio with the team spirit," encouraging filmmakers to make high-quality pictures, often from stage plays." [4]

"The arrival of talkies dramatically changed the audience's experience of cinema. The expense of conversion caused many independently owned cinemas to go out of business, but the emergence of the combines ABC and Gaumont-British, plus the general popularity of cinema, led to a cinema-building boom, while ticket prices remained low. The 1930s were a period of general increase in the standard of living, despite the slow-down in industrial production. Unemployment seems to have had little effect upon cinema adInissions, even among those who were most affected by it. Audiences were by all accounts poorer, working-class Britons, with urban young people and women (particularly in the afternoon) being the most frequent attenders, and the female population's opinion was carefully monitored by exhibitors as a guide to profits. Contemporary surveys indicate that cinema's appeal lay in its provision of a form of escape, a site for courtship, and a mode of social currency, being able to talk about what you had seen. The main competing entertainment for this audience was variety, in which several of the more popular British film stars of the 1930s initially made their names: Gracie Fields, George Formby, Will Hay, Frank Randle, Sid Field, Tommy Trinder, and the Crazy Gang. The links between the worlds of film and variety were close and some of the exhibition circuits owned halls which still staged variety, while others promoted mixed, 'kine-variety' presentations.

Queueing outside the Astoria-Brixton cinema to see ´The Singing Fool’, London, 19th August 1929.

As the decade progressed there was an expansion of cinema-building and cinema-going into middle-class suburbs. 'Super' cinemas constructed in the West End, the suburbs of London, and other major cities of Britain often had cafes, dance halls, and sometimes Palm Court orchestras attached to them, making cinema-going a still more diversionary experience. Attractions often included a Mighty Wurlitzer organ with accompanying lighting sequences and sound effects, or complex lobby entertainment and promotion. The general increase in cinema numbers meant there was more likelihood of a picture house in every neighbourhood, like a local pub or church, serving a wider sector of the population. Working-class audiences generally preferred American-made films over British ones, which they found too poshtalking and slower in pace.

However, there were zones of widespread appeal in British film-making of the 1930s, linked to the possibilities offered by synchronized sound. In the United States sound technology was invigorating old genres and creating new ones: the musical, the gangster film, the screwball comedy. In Britain, sound transformed feature film production in three areas: the suspense cinema of Alfred Hitchcock; musical comedy, especially the popular films of Jessie Matthews, Gracie Fields, Will Hay, and George Formby; and the epic film of empire or historical pageant, accomplished most spectacularly by Alexander Korda's London Films." [3]

"Korda was the most prominent and influential of British producers in the early 1930s. A Hungarian émigré who had already produced and directed in Hungary, Austria, Germany, Hollywood, and France, he formed London Film in 1932 to make quota quickies for Paramount. Soon, however, he switched to a big-budget approach, hoping to crack the American market. He leased a studio and in 1933 contracted to make two films for United Artists. The first, The Private Life of Henry VIII. (1933) provided a breakthrough for Korda and the British film industry. The film was enormously successful at home, and its profits in the United States topped those of any previous British release. Charles Laughton won a best-actor Academy Award and became an international star. UA signed to distribute sixteen more Korda films.

Gracie Fields in a characteristic pose in Basil Dean's 'Sing as We Go!' (1934)

The new possibility of synchronized singing drew the tradition of music hall variety into a more complex relation with cinema, sometimes in self-reflexive form as in Old Bones of the River (1938), Will Hay's parody of Sanders of the River. The most successful films of this genre were those starring Gracie Fields, then at the height of her popularity.

The production boom made higher-quality filmmaking possible. In 1931, Gaumont-British gained control of a smaller firm, Gainsborough. With it came the talented producer Michael Balcon, who supervised filmmaking for both companies. Despite pressure from the owners to make films with "international" appeal, Balcon favored fostering distinctive stars and directors who could make specifically British films. These often did better than some of the more expensive, but lifeless, costume films. Balcon also signed Alfred Hitchcock to a contract with Gaumont-British. Since his success with the early talkie Blackmail (1929), Hitchcock had moved from company to company, trying several genres, including comedies and even a musical. At Gaumont-British (and its subsidiary Gainsborough), he returned to his element, making six thrillers, from the The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) to The Lady Vanishes (1938). Hitchcock would become identified with this genre throughout his long career." [4]

"The question of cinema's social impact and its role in class relations had become more urgent in the 1930s as the mass unemployed voice became louder, and as sound cinema itself brought the question of class to the fore, given the intensity with which class was coded through spoken accent. A network of film societies and film journals burgeoned, intensively screening and discussing recent Soviet cinema. There was a socialist film movement, organized around independent cinemas and working men's clubs, which made documentaries and distributed Soviet films. In 1933 the British Film Institute was set up with a specifically educational mandate, again distributing documentary work. There was also a flourishing documentary film-making movement, funded by a variety of organizations from the Empire Marketing Board to the gas supply industry, and inspired above all by John Grierson's General Post Office Film Unit. All this activity helped develop a seriousness for film as a social force, a concern which was to spread further into feature filmmaking and which was to be hastened by the overhaul of the expiring 1927 Quota Act, and by the building ideological pressures of wartime.

Carol Reed's 'The Stars Look Down' (1939)

In the reconstituted Cinematographic Films Act of 1938, films with a labour cost of under £7,500 would no longer qualify for quota, a statute designed to improve quality. The old clause that 75 per cent of the wages paid on any film must go to British citizens was relaxed, and the rule that the scenario had to be written by a Briton was omitted. Both changes allowed greater use of American stars and technicians and encouraged American majors to invest in film-making in Britain more extensively, a trend that was to pave the way for Korda's MGM-London Films deal whose first release was Perfect Strangers (1945). The increased presence of American film-making helped boost the currency of the social problem film, a narrative genre well established in the USA which provided an outlet for the desire for a socially conscious cinema. MGM's first British production under the new agreements was King Vidor's The Citadel (1938), based on A. J. Cronin's novel, a story condemning the practice of private medicine in a Welsh mining community. Two more miners' films quickly followed: Carol Reed's direction of Cronin's The Stars Look Down (1940) and Michael Balcon's production of The Proud Valley (1939) at Ealing, starring Paul Robeson and directed by Pen Tennyson. At the same time Victor Saville shot a highly successful version of Winifred Holtby's South Riding (1938), about corruption on a district planning board which jeopardizes new housing projects and school facilities for working people." [3] By the end of the 1930s, Britain's film industry had passed through its crisis, and its situation looked promising. World War II was to give it a further boost.

The German Cinema Under the Nazis

Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda of the Reich. (Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

"The National Socialists came to power in January 1933. In the confrontational politics that defined the Weimar Republic, however, they had been exerting indirect influence on the cinema through disruptions of left-leaning films and patronage of ideologically conservative ones. One of the most notorious incidents involved the American film All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930) based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel Im Westen nichts Neues, a pacifist war story told from the perspective of German soldiers. Although the novel had been read by millions and its depictions verified as authentic representations of the war by German officers, the film met with right-wing resistance. Demonstrations by brown-shirted Nazi paramilitary units disrupted exhibition of All Quiet on the Western Front at its premier in Berlin in 1931. Historians question the spontaneity of the disruptions and attribute them to political agitation by Joseph Goebbels, who denounced the film as “unpatriotic” and “Jewish.” According to reports, Nazis had bought half of the tickets to the second showing of the movie. When the police tried to quell the disturbance caused by exploding stink bombs and the freeing of a pack of white mice in the auditorium, paramilitary thugs overwhelmed the police. Subsequently, rather than crack down on the Nazis, the government banned the film. Yet when a similar incident arose with exhibition of a right-wing film, Das Flötenkonzert von Sanssouci (The Flute Concert of Sanssouci, Gustav Ucicky, 1930), the police evicted the left-wing protestors and allowed the movie to continue." [6]

Hitler, Goebbels and others watch filming at Ufa, 1935.

"Like Stalin, Hitler was a movie fan; he cultivated friendships with actors and filmmakers and often screened films as after-dinner entertainment. Even more fascinated with the cinema was his powerful minister of propaganda, Dr. Josef Goebbels, who controlled the arts during the Nazi era. Goebbels watched films every day and socialized with filmmakers. In 1934, he gained control of censorship, and until the end of the war he personally examined every feature film, short, and newsreel that was released. Despite his hatred of communism, Goebbels admired Eisenstein's Potemkin for its powerful propaganda, and he hoped to create an equally vivid cinema expressing Nazi ideas." [4]

"He also publicly criticized German filmmakers for making inferior films. When he first became minister of propaganda with the Nazi takeover of Germany, Goebbels assured members of the film industry they need not be fearful of his policies. His audience may have indeed felt there was no cause to worry, as the films he mentioned in his talk as his favorites had been directed by Jewish filmmakers and moreover focused on themes of adultery, individualism, and rebellion. Within a month of his speech, however, Jews were being purged from the industry; within three months a general ban against employing Jews was in place. At the same time, films from the Weimar Republic and from abroad that had visibly Jewish influence were banned from exhibition. One year later, in January 1934, the government decreed that everyone working in film, from production to distribution to exhibition (mom and pop type movie houses were exempt), had to join the Reichsfilmkammer (Ministry of Film) to continue working in the industry. Jews could not be members of this organization, which finished the process of excluding them from film work.

Leni Riefenstahl and friend during production of Triumph des Willens (1935)

Film under Nazi leadership did not become a monolith immediately after Adolf Hitler came to power. Goebbels exerted control to ban Jewish participation, and he instituted a policy of precensorship, by requiring that projects be submitted to a film advisor in the Ministry of Film. In spite of such precensorship requirements, studios retained a degree of autonomy, deciding which films to produce within the prescribed rules. The minister of propaganda was fond of using a metaphor of an orchestra to describe his film policy, explaining that not all members of an orchestra play the same instrument but also that no one has the right to play whatever music he wants during a concert. Ufa, Tobis-Film, and Bavaria-Film, the three largest studios, continued as separate studios until 1937, even though they were subject to tight management by the minister of propaganda. Even after 1937 the separate companies retained some autonomy over their film production. Not until the early 1940s did Ufa subsume the other studios. Such freedom within the system notwithstanding, Goebbels exercised almost total control of what was produced and, once it was produced, what could be released to be shown on German screens. He suggested stories and actors. Conversely, he also vetoed ideas and stars. The actress Margot Hielscher reputedly received fewer parts after turning down Goebbels’s advances. According to Leni Riefenstahl she had to seek Hitler’s intervention after Goebbels had rejected her as director of Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935).

Manfred Kompel-Pilot and Heinz Klingenberg as two Nazi rowdies in Franz Seitz's S.A.-Mann Brand (1933)

If companies retained autonomy in their choice of films to produce, viewers had little to none in what they saw. Besides the censorship of German films from the Weimar Republic, foreign films were also banned, sometimes because they had Jews in the cast, sometimes because of the themes. The American film Nana, for example, was banned because its story tells of a soldier visiting a prostitute, which violated the military’s sensibilities and honor code. The number of movies coming from America declined steadily until 1939, after which there was a universal ban on importing films from Hollywood. From early in the takeover, Goebbels voiced an opinion on the state of German films. He criticized their quality and suggested they stop showing Nazis marching across the screen, referring to his dislike of two German films at the time, S.A.-Mann Brand (S.A. Man Brand, Franz Seitz, 1933) and Hans Westmar (Hans Westmar, Franz Wenzlar, 1933), which portray the brown shirts marching, fighting, and arresting scores of citizens. The only film depicting the brown shirts to win his approval was Hitlerjunge Quex (Hitler Youth Quex, Hans Steinhoff, 1933), which, like Goebbels’s favorite movie Battleship Potemkin, uses the language of film to appeal to the emotions of the audience. Hitlerjunge Quex places Nazi symbolism in the background, allowing the apotheosis that closes the film to develop from the story rather than be superimposed from without, as Goebbels had apparently found to be the problem with the films of Seitz and Wenzlar.

Werner Krauss (Rabbi Leow) and Ferdinand Marian (Süß Oppenheimer) plot mischief in Veit Harlan's viciously anti-Semitic spectacle Jud Süß (1940)

In his speeches, Goebbels again and again praised the potential for films to teach. Beginning in 1934, short cultural–political films became mandatory viewing by members of the Hitlerjugend, to which most youth belonged. In addition the German newsreel, which Ufa, Tobis-Film, and Fox continued to produce after the Nazis came to power, directed public attention to what the Nazis considered newsworthy. The documentary Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew, Fritz Hippler, 1940) had a double purpose. On the one hand it appealed to strains of anti-Semitism among viewers in order to build support for the Nazis’ program of persecution against the Jews. On the other hand the film represented Jewish culture as a danger that had to be eliminated. Yet whenever Goebbels spoke of cinema’s power to inform the public, he warned about making obviously tendentious and manipulative movies. His comment on avoiding overt symbols of Nazi militarism, mentioned above, was made in 1933. Four years later he admonished an audience of film professionals that “the moment that propaganda becomes visible, it loses its effect.” Four years after that, in 1941, when the war had been underway for two years, he encouraged his listeners to edify their viewers since art “prepares them [the people] for life” but he cautioned that “it is advisable to disguise the didactic objective.” Considering Goebbels’s remarks, it is hardly surprising that most of the 1,100 feature films made while the Nazis were in power were not explicit propaganda. Certainly, they reflected the conservative values of Nazi ideology, and they portrayed characters in accord with accepted stereotypes for positively and negatively valued characters. Removed from the historical context, however, many of the films could be enjoyed as entertainment, which is perhaps why they had a second life on German television after the war." [6]

"For modern audiences, the most famous filmmaker of the Nazi era is Leni Riefenstahl. "She had started as an actress in the silent era and had directed herself in one sound feature, The Blue Light (1932), starring as a mountain sprite. The most forceful and eloquent propaganda pieces of the period were undoubtedly Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will, 1935) and Olympia (1938).

Leni Riefenstahl gives direction to her camera crew during filming of Triumph des Willens (1935)

Personally selected by Hitler on the strength of her work in mountain films, Riefenstahl (1902-2003) was presented with thirty cameras, a crew of more than 120, unlimited financial resources and the guaranteed co-operation of the Nazi hierarchy in order to record the 1934 Party rally at Nuremberg. Special elevators, platforms, ramps and tracks were provided so that the cameras would miss nothing of the spectacle choreographed by Albert Speer. The result of eight months' editing, Triumph of the Will blended the architecture of the city, the rally arena and the Congress Hall with mass human geometric patterns to convey the power and universality of Nazism, while cleverly angled close-ups enhanced the messianic status of the Fuihrer.

Making innovative use of telephoto lenses and slow motion, and with eighteen months in post-production, Olympia was an account of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games that played down the cult of personality in favour of that of the physique, itself a key tenet of Nazism. Clearly, Riefenstahl's films stand in stark contrast to the crudely propagandist features made during the war. Nevertheless, her detractors insist that she was politically committed to her work, although she always maintained that she was simply a film-maker engaged in the production of art." [2]

Soviet Cinema Under Stalin

Soundproofing the first Soviet sound studio with 'torfoleum', a derivative of peat.

"Soviet filmmakers were caught in a similar form-versus-content dilemma throughout the 1930s as a result of Stalin's insistence on the cinema of Socialist Realism. Its imposition coincided with the arrival of sound, and opportunities for experimentation were thus greatly reduced, although most of the great directors of the silent era made accomplished transitions." [2]

"At the end of the 1920s Soviet film enjoyed a well-deserved world-wide reputation, but within a short time the fame and influence of the great directors was lost; the golden age was brief and the eclipse sudden and long lasting. The coming of the sound film made the famous Soviet montage outdated, and therefore was a factor in the decline. But far more important in destroying the reputation of the Soviet cinema were the political changes that took place in the early 1930s." [3]

Film poster for the film Lenin v 1918 godu (Lenin in 1918, 1939)

"The First Five-Year Plan centralized the Soviet film industry under one company, Soyuzkino, in 1930. The purpose was to make the industry more efficient and to free the USSR from having to import equipment and films. In order to dominate the home market, the film industry had to boost the number of films being made. By 1932, new factories were supplying the necessary raw stock, and the conversion to sound had been accomplished with little help from abroad. Low production and inefficiency, however, remained problems.

The period from 1930 to 1945 also saw a tightening of controls on the types of films being made. Boris Shumyatsky became head of Soyuzkino at its formation. He was directly responsible to the country's leader, Joseph Stalin, who took a great interest in the cinema. Shumyatsky favored entertaining and easily comprehensible films, and under his regime the avant-garde Montage movement died out. In 1935, he oversaw the introduction of the doctrine of Socialist Realism into the cinema.

From 1928, Joseph Stalin ruled the USSR as an absolute dictator, and harsh repression enforced government policy. The secret police ferreted out dissent in all walks of life. The government conducted "purges," whereby party members who were considered not to support Stalin wholeheartedly were expelled, imprisoned, exiled, or executed. This reign of terror peaked during 1936 to 1938, with "show trials" in which party leaders made scripted confessions of their participation in "counterrevolutionary" activities.

Socialist Realism was an aesthetic approach introduced at the 1934 Soviet Writers' Congress. A. A. Zhdanov, a cultural official, explained,

Comrade Stalin has called our writers engineers of human souls. What does this mean? What duties does the title confer upon you? In the first place, it means knowing life so as to be able to depict it truthfully in works of art, not to depict it in a dead, scholastic way, not simply as "objective reality," but to depict reality in its revolutionary development.

The central tenet of Socialist Realism was 'partiinost' (roughly, "party-mindedness"). That is, artists had to propagate the Communist party's policies and ideology. The models for this were the European realist novelists of the nineteenth century. Authors like Honore de Balzac and Stendhal had criticized bourgeois society. Of course, Soviet authors were not supposed to be critical of socialist society. Unlike critical realism, Socialist Realism was based on a second tenet: 'narodnost'. This term (roughly, "peoplecenteredness") means that artists should depict the life of ordinary people in a sympathetic way.

Page from 'USSR in Construction' propaganda journal, January 1938

Socialist Realist artworks were supposed to be free from formalism, stylistic experiments or complexities that would make them hard to understand. Thus Socialist Realism ruled out the Montage style of filmmaking. In order to serve the party and the people, art was supposed to educate and provide role models, particularly in portraying a "positive hero." The realism in Socialist Realism was based in part on Frederick Engels's equation of truth with the "reproduction of typical characters in typical circumstances." For Stalinists, typical designated traits associated with communist ideals, not with the way things actually are. This means that many Socialist Realist artworks give an optimistic, idealized image of Soviet society, far removed from actual life under Stalin. As party goals changed over the years, so did Socialist Realism, and proper artistic methods were endlessly debated.

Writers and artists in all media were required to serve the Communist party's goals in their work and to follow a set of vague official tenets. This policy would remain more or less strictly in force until the mid-1950s. Artists were forced to accept Socialist Realism as the only correct style. Sergei Eisenstein's early mentor, the foremost theatrical director of the 1910s and 1920s, Vsevolod Meyerhold, disappeared during the 1936-1938 purges. Major writers like Sergei Tretyakov and Isaac Babel were secretly executed. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich chafed under the Socialist Realist doctrine but had to obey it. Film soon took up the new doctrine.

Chapayev (1934), a film that represents the complete model of the new Socialist Realism doctrine

Socialist Realism became official policy in the cinema in January 1935, at the All-Union Creative Conference of Workers in Soviet Cinema. The film Chapayev, which had premiered only two months earlier, was referred to throughout the conference. By contrast, Eisenstein was singled out for attack, in an obvious effort to discredit the Montage movement. Other "formalist" directors were forced to admit past "mistakes"; Lev Kuleshov declared, "Like my other colleagues whose names are linked with a whole series of failed productions, I want, whatever the cost, to be, and I shall be, an outstanding revolutionary artist but I shall only be one when my flesh and blood, my whole organism and being are merged with the cause of the Revolution and the Party." Despite this self-abasement, Kuleshov also offered an eloquent defense of the beleaguered Eisenstein.

Filmmakers could not hope to keep a low profile. Stalin was extremely interested in the cinema, viewing many films in his private quarters. Shumyatsky, as Stalin's direct representative, ruled the industry. There was an elaborate censorship apparatus, whereby film scripts had to be reviewed repeatedly before being accepted. After shooting began, films could also be revised or shelved at any stage. This cumbersome bureaucratic system, and the fact that most scripts were rejected, slowed output; throughout the 1930s, the number of finished films remained far below the total planned. A film might take years to make, undergoing minute ideological scrutiny. The most spectacular case of such interference came with Eisenstein's first Soviet sound project, Bezhin lug (Bezhin Meadow), which Shumyatsky shelved in 1937." [4]

Still of actor Boris Chirkov from Yunost Maksima (The Youth of Maksim, 1934)

"Between 1933 and 1940 inclusive, Soviet studios made 308 films. Of these 54 were made for children, including some of the best films of the decade. such as Mark Donskoi's Gorky trilogy. These films were didactic and aimed to educate children in the Communist spirit by showing, for example, the difficult life of children in capitalist countries, their heroic struggle, and, most importantly and frequently, the importance of the collective. Historical spectacles became especially frequent in the second half of the decade, as the regime paid increasing attention to rekindling patriotism by old-fashioned appeals to national glory. These films were made about heroes such as Alexander Nevsky, Peter the Great, or Marshal Suvorov, and were often shamelessly anachronistic: Pugachev and Stenka Razin, for example, two Cossack rebels, were shown analysing class relations in Marxist terms and before their executions consoling their followers by predicting the coming of a great and glorious revolution.

Sixty-one films dealt with the Revolution and Civil War. These included such well-known films as Chapayev (1934), directed by Sergei and Georgi Vasiliev, the most popular and perhaps best film of the decade; Kozintsev and Trauberg's Maxim trilogy (1938-40); and Alexander Zarkhi and Iosif Kheifits's Deputat Baltiki (The Baltic Deputy, 1936). Each national republic that had a studio made at least one film on the establishment of Soviet power. The rest ofthe films were set in the contemporary world. Of these only twelve took place in a factory - a remarkably small number when one considers the significance of economic propaganda in the Soviet agenda. Film-makers seem to have found it difficult to make interesting films about workers and tended to avoid them. By contrast seventeen took place on a collective farm, many of them musical comedies - giving rise to the impression that life in the countryside was a never-ending round of dancing and singing. Film-makers, and presumably audiences, liked exotic locales and many films were made about the exploits of explorers, geologists, and pilots; between 1938 and 1940 alone, eight films had pilots as heroes." [3]

Photograph of Boris Shumiatsky when he was arrested (1938)

"Hoping to boost production and create a popular cinema, Shumyatsky decided to build a "Soviet Hollywood." He spent two months touring the American studios in 1935 and determined to replicate their technical sophistication and efficiency. His grand expansion project progressed during 1937, but it was never completed. Indeed, Shumyatsky never raised production to the level called for in the Five-Year Plans. While over a hundred films were scheduled in most years, actual release figures remained modest. After ninety-four films came out in 1930, releases steadily declined to a low of thirty-three in 1936 and averaged about forty-five for the next few years.

Ironically, the final result of Shumyatsky's policies was his own arrest in January 1938. One of the reasons cited for his removal from power was the waste of money and talent in the abandonment of Eisenstein's Bezhin Meadow. He became the film world's most prominent victim of the purges when he was executed later in 1938. From that point on, Stalin played an even more central role in making decisions about the ideological acceptability of films." [4]

"The fundamental cause ofthe decline in the number of films made and exhibited in the Soviet Union was censorship. The authorities set ever more stringent requirements that made film-making cumbersome and time-consuming (particularly if the Party line changed during the making of the film). Making a film in the Soviet Union took much longer than in the west, or than it had done in the 1920s.

From the late 1930s until his death in 1953, Stalin became the supreme censor, who personally saw and approved every film released. Like Goebbels in Nazi Germany, he micro-managed the cinema, suggesting changes in titles, supporting favoured directors and actors, and reviewing scripts. Through its insistence on making every film accessible even to the least literate, the obstacles put in the way of artistic experiment, and the denunciation of every trace of individual style as 'formalist', the regime destroyed the talent of great artists.

Still of the class enemy Kuganov, posing as a committed communist in The Party Card (1936)

Film-makers contributed to the climate of denunciation by justifying it. In this respect, no prominent director with the exception of Kuleshov, who stopped making films after 1933, has a very good record. Eisenstein made his film Bezhin lug (Bezhin Meadow, 1935-7) on the basis of a story by Pavel Morozov, its purpose being to justify the son's betrayal of his father. In Dovzhenko's Aerograd (1935) a man shoots his friend because he turned out to be a traitor. In Partiynyy bilet ('The Party Card',1936 directed by Ivan Pyryev), perhaps the single most distasteful film of the decade, the wife shoots her husband, who was the hidden enemy. Vstrechny ('Counterplan', 1932 - directed by Sergei Yutkevich) was about the necessity of fighting saboteurs, while Fridrikh Ermler's Velikiy grazhdanin ('The Great Citizen', 1938) related the Stalinist version of the murder of Kirov and the great purge trials. (During the making of The Great Citizen four people associated with it were arrested.) In a period of terror and confusion none of these directors seems to have actively tried to avoid involvement in making these films. Everyone was under threat if they failed to conform and many were at least partially convinced of the rightness of what they were doing." [3]

The Studio System in Japan

A scene from Heinosuke Gosho's comedy Madamu to nyobo ('My neighbour's wife and mine' aka Madam and Wife, 1931), one of the first Japanese films with synchronized sound.

"Sound was introduced into Japan in 1931, sparking a series of business wars that culminated in the foundation of three zaibatsu, or production companies, which, with the exception of the custom of directorial tutelage, were essentially replicas of the Hollywood majors. Coincidental was the emergence of a number of important sub-genres within the gendai-geki, including the haho-mono (the mother-film), the nansensu (nonsense comedy) and the sarariman ('salaryman' drama). However, the most striking development during this period was the willingness of film-makers to experiment, whether with combinations of Western dramaturgies and Japanese poetic conventions or with visual styles. Although adhering to continuity editing, the Japanese delighted in breaching the 180° axis. Similarly, they made greater use of location shooting, oncoming action, dislocated camera movement, wide-angle lenses and deep space." [2]

"Britain 's studios failed to achieve the stability of Hollywood's, but Japan's film industry succeeded. Its growth after the 1923 Tokyo earthquake and the advent of talking pictures strengthened a studio system much like America's. Two large, vertically integrated companies, Nikkatsu and Shochiku, dominated several smaller firms. Despite the Depression and the increased expense of sound-film production, feature output remained high (400 to 500 per year in the early 1930s), and new theaters were constantly being built. Most important, Japan was virtually the only country in which U.S. films did not overshadow the domestic product. Nikkatsu and Shochiku could profit from showing Hollywood films in their theaters while limiting American penetration of the market.

Still from Kenji Mizoguchi's Osaka Elegy (1936)

A third major player entered the game in 1934. Ichiro Kobayashi, a show-business entrepreneur who mounted extravagant stage revues, formed Toho (Tokyo Takarazuka Theater Company) by buying and merging two small companies specializing in talkies. Along with creating Toho as a production firm, Kobayashi erected movie theaters in Japan's major cities. While bringing Toho's production up to speed, Kobayashi used imported films to build up attendance at his theaters. He also hired many major directors, such as Teinosuke Kinugasa and the swordfight specialist Masahiro Makino. Toho became Shochiku's chief competitor. Nonetheless, the two vertically integrated companies cooperated to keep Hollywood at bay. Shochiku began to buy up smaller firms to keep pace with Toho, and the expenses of sound filming forced marginal production houses out of business. The industry consequently became more centralized in the course of the 1930s, with three majors and six to ten lesser firms.

The audience's appetite for films remained keen. The Depression was easing by the mid-1930s, and movies had become a central part of urban life. After the 1923 earthquake, the rebuilding of Tokyo had created a westernized popular culture, and the passion for western clothes, jazz, whiskey, and fads continued throughout the 1930s. Japanese moviegoers were as familiar with Harold Lloyd and Greta Garbo as they were with their own stars.

Still from Yasujiro Ozu's The Only Son (1936)

By common consent, the two most influential Japanese directors of the 1930s were Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. They contrasted in almost every way. Ozu worked only for Shochiku, wherea s Mizoguchi began with Nikkatsu and became a free-lance. Ozu started in comedies and shomin-geki, and he maintained an everyday humor in virtually all of his films. Mizoguchi, whose first films were melodramas, probed every situation for grim psychological and social implications. Ozu was a master of editing and static, closely framed shots, whereas Mizoguchi cultivated a style of long-shot framings, long takes, and camera movements. On the set, Ozu was quietly insistent, while Mizoguchi exploded into demonic tantrums. Ozu and Mizoguchi illustrate how the Japanese studio system permitted directors an enormous range of originality.

Avoiding the strict division of labor practiced in Hollywood, Shochiku and Nikkatsu had cultivated a cadre system in which the director and scriptwriter had considerable control over their projects. Supervision tended to be even less stringent at smaller firms. Toho favored a producer system, which, like that of Hollywood in the 1930s, placed a producer in charge of several directors at the same time. While Toho films did have a somewhat glossier, mass-manufactured look, directors could still work in idiosyncratic ways at most studios before 1938. After that, they had to face the demands of a nation engaged in total war." [4]