Monday, 21 June 2021

Notes on 50s Leftist art

Two elements of the 1950s Left

This is going to talk about a 1950 poem by EP Thompson and a 1953 film by Muriel Box.
The theme which is stirring me up is the question of whether art reacted to and celebrated the new welfare state. I think the answer is yes, and some art has been subject to selective memory just as poverty is written out of the past by selective memory. The 1951 general election saw a Conservative victory but also saw Labour getting 175,000 more votes than they did. This would suggest that the Welfare State was popular as well as expensive. That is heavily suggested by the fact that the Conservatives left it in being – going for a high tax policy which would have alienated their middle-class supporters. They have remained a high tax party. They remained in power for 13 years but did not demolish either the welfare state or nationalised industries (with a couple of exceptions – steel and road haulage). Policies which had recently been Left or even far Left had become consensual. I think this is is reflected by the art of the time – even if something consensual does not fuel intense conflict and debates. The context is essay collections (Declaration and Conviction), the first edited by Tom Maschler, in which Left intellectuals say how bored they are by the Left in the 1950s. The situation will stand a closer examination than those essayists give it. (Actually, some of the essayists are quite far Right.) Not everyone was equally bored by the Welfare State.
Thompson published a poem called ‘The Place Called Choice’. This was in a magazine, California Quarterly, emanating from the Marxist Left in America. The site is memorable while explaining why this poem was little-known in Britain until many years later. It is 14 pages long, over 400 lines I guess.

Old iron workings. Mica. Quartz. The monotonous peatbog,
Black roots, ling, harebell, the wet relics of a forest.
The gutted stannary. Scrub oak on the old encampment,
Brambles and St. John’s wort, among the chalkbits and pellets,
The droppings of rabbits, a sherd of pottery, a flint, a coin.


Or with more grace at Burford, integral with Cotswold stone,
Entering the ceremony of cottages, sweet william and crown imperial,
Buried among neighbours and labourers, the Leveller corporals.
Riding by night the Roundheads forded the river
(Fifty miles since dawn, Fairfax and Cromwell),
- this is very convincing descriptive poetry, clearly related to the documentary films which had been a feature of the previous 20 years (and which were still going in 1950). Another passage is:

Across the Piltdown gravel,
Over the Swanscombe skull, crunched among ammonites and shells,
Over the tiny Crustacea, the bric-a-brac of chalk,
First cousins to our father
Who lies crouched in the abandoned road of memory
Clutching in his stone fist a charm against the centuries:
Trawling the turfs of Fosberry with a net of shadows,
Vaulting the Countless Stones, the barrows, the temple to Mithras,
Bursting the hinges of Stonehenge and entering on Halifax,
Howling in the eyeteeth of the boar, through the saurian’s crutch,

I am eager to say how much I like the poem partly because my friend JE Keery turned it down for his Apocalyptics anthology. Thompson said the poem had “apocalyptic expectations”, which is why Jim was considering it. He was a bit bemused by the “saurian’s crutch” phrase. In the end, a long poem is not going to show well in an anthology. For me, this poem changes the balance of 1950s poetry. It is especially significant for 1950s Left poetry, but it is a vital part of the whole picture.

England, buried somewhere under bricks, oddments, worn tyres:
Under the shady transaction clinched in the flashy roadhouse:
Buried with Arnald and Lockyer, with Holberry, with Linell,
With the victims of anthrax: in the back courtyards of Bradford 
Where the applewood is black, bearing fruit by the oldest mills:
Stupefied in the smoke of Sheffield, sullen in Derbyshire, 

For the concept of roadhouse, let me quote Michael John Law (this is actually a summary of a paper I haven’t read):

In the inter-war Home Counties, the roadhouse, a sizeable country club style location of entertainment and dancing was an iconic destination of consumption and leisure aimed at the wealthier middle classes. These establishments were marketed in newsreels as exclusive and sophisticated but in reality were open to wider groups in a settings that offered anonymity by virtue of their suburban locations. Reflecting this, roadhouses were also used in literature and in cinema as a locus of transgression and danger.

The word “roadhouse” comes trailing a narrative of social aggression. This positions Thompson's poem – it provides sites which are not physical but embodiments of social myths. His poem is composed of pre-existing symbols and this allows it to make statements on the symbolic plain. All the sites in his poem are recognisable, and there are dozens of them. It follows that it has the freedom of abstract thought and yet its object is a shared social world, the one we live in. Thompson is always interested in the argument rather than originality. The poem takes us back to the real world at each point. Jim Keery pointed out that "Arnald" and the others were 17th C radicals, Levellers and so on.
(I doubt that roadhouses had the moral atmosphere which the commentator hopes they do. About 30 minutes’ walk from where I live is what I take to be a 1930s roadhouse, by the main road out of town and unrelated to what housing would have been around it when it was built. It was surely aimed at motorists. It is what we now call art deco – I find it beautiful rather than flashy. CAMRA says “The main entrance leads to an internal porch with a lovely timber and glass screen. Behind this is a lobby with woodwork that looks as though it would have been at home on an ocean liner or an up-market '30s cinema.” - the use of glass and chrome is what gets called “flashy”.) Thompson's poem is about commitment. That decision may be suspected of reducing the available interpretations to one, and throwing the evidence away, but his patient compilation of maybe 80 individual "shots" frees the imagination and makes it very likely we will start speculating and having chains of association of ideas. The impetus builds up and becomes irresistible.

Muriel Box directed 12 feature films during the 1950s and this is more than any other female director in Britain. She was a vocal feminist and spent much of her time, after her film career was over, advocating feminist ideas. I saw her 1953 film “Street Corner” on You-Tube. It is about policewomen. This is really a film about the welfare state as well as a feminist film. Despite certain artistic problems, it is a Left film which allows us to think about vital issues of Left art in Britain.
The initial problem with Box is that she has been forgotten. First, her films as a director have been abandoned by the “collective memory” of film fans. Secondly, she was a team player and without a distinctive visual style. Third, her films as director were part of commercial cinema, made for Rank Film, which means they were highly conventional and part of a period of cinema which virtually every film fan is eager to forget. (“her films were all shot quickly and relatively cheaply, with second-tier stars, aimed squarely at the mainstream of commercial domestic cinema.” - BFI) They would not have got made if they had stood out, at the script stage. Fourth, the great films she was associated with were her scripts directed by other people. “The Seventh Veil” and “Dear Murderer” are major films with stars and budgets which her films as director do not stretch to. “Seventh Veil” got the script Oscar and deserved to. So her filmography is a recovery project rather than a body of work accepted as classic, or which people can recall if you start talking about it.
‘Street Corner’ shows violence as undesirable and violent people as anti-social. I couldn’t help thinking, while watching this, about Sixties cinema presenting violent criminals as enviable and liberated. Really, it was as if the psychopath had taken control of the camera. My feeling is that I like films which enable me to think, and that the residue of such films may be a layer of moral sensibility which has sustained me and which has shaped the way I think about politics. Films which want the weak to be protected against the strong may not get discussed in high-powered essays, but they may have affected people's values. Box’s films are not remembered by film theorists, they did not produce posters which get stuck up on the bedroom walls of teenagers, but they are part of a whole realm of film narrative which has expressed values we live by. I am tempted to say that some films are unconnected to the life of society because they admire psychopaths, who are unable to connect, because they lack empathy. Films which connect you to society tend to draw social problems into the cinema, which interferes with fantasy, but they connect to you and you connect to them.
‘Street Corner’ is shot in documentary style and tells three stories, all of which concern the policewomen at an unnamed police station somewhere in London. The lead story has an 18 year old with a 15-month old baby, who is effectively thrown out of the house by a tyrannical mother-in-law, and takes up with a flashy young man whose economic basis, we find out, is as a jewel thief. He ends up getting nicked by two policewomen – somewhat surprisingly, but that is how the story works out. The young woman hangs out at a nightclub – we might think it would look like a flashy roadhouse, but it is in a cellar and glamour is in short supply. She gets to wear some nice clothes, but again the fantasy element (“I dress up in expensive clothes, stay up late, insult people, throw off restraints, and behave badly”) is constrained. A typical detail is bargaining with the fence – he offers the thief £80 for jewels worth £1000. Having read Ghost Squad I know that this is a good offer, fences were offering 5% of the real value for stolen jewels at that time. However, the point is that Box does not allow wishes to take over, the jewel thief is just as constrained by economic limits, by the stance of his employer, as a skilled labourer would be.
Peggy Cummins plays the 18 year old and had already made “Gun Crazy” in America. Date, 1950. Direction, Joseph H Lewis. This is probably a better film than ‘Street Corner’, but there are points on both sides. Cummins adds brilliant performances to both films.
So, we know that the character is 18 and has a 15-month old baby. These facts bespeak a sociological approach - her life situation is being described through events, rather than subjective wishes. She is frustrated, but not by by being a wife and mother- it is her mother-in-law who makes her unhappy. I said that Box does not have a visual style, but her artistic powers come out in other aspects of mise en scène, in the way she puts characters in a situation and gives them autonomy. The priority of the script is to give us information about the characters so that we know what their possibilities are and what decisions they are taking. Box takes great care about this, and it is obvious that this care corresponds to the ideas animating the Welfare State. Almost all the characters are female– this is a feminist and Left film and we can’t read it properly unless we build those ideas in. We are being asked to care and to think about the welfare of people. One feature is the idea of forgiveness – the story offers characters a way back in if they have stumbled, and this introduces the idea of being popular, of being approved by social opinion, as something indefinable which is of great importance to each individual. In fact, this idea is the collective. As follows, the film excludes the concept of pure evil – and the Peggy Cummins character goes to the bad but is clearly offered redemption, and shows repentance, at the end. The villains do not get the chance to express their hatred of society – this embracing of evil is significant in some films, but I just wonder if it is overrated. “Gun Crazy” is a good example, the Cummins character is brilliant with guns and has a complete fury against people who get in her way, but my feeling when I saw the film was that I wasn't enjoying this and the cruelty was not turning me on. I think Box’s patient interest in human character may get us further. Joseph H. Lewis had strong simple ideas for making cheap films (King Studios didn’t do expensive ones), but they aren’t necessarily great films. In ‘Terror in a Texas Town’, the sailor hero has a duel in which he has a harpoon and the bad guys have guns. This is a memorable idea, but it doesn’t make it a great film.

There is a brilliant essay on Box (by Josephine Botting and Sarah Castagnetti) on the BFI website: “After The Lost People, Muriel was set to make her solo directorial debut with a high-profile adaptation of Anthony Thorne’s bestselling novel So Long at the Fair – until star Jean Simmons insisted that she be replaced, foreshadowing similarly ‘unsisterly’ stances taken by Box’s subsequent stars Kay Kendall and Muriel Pavlow.“
I don't know the story here, but I suspect that the problem was Box wishing to show ordinary women working and fulfilling duties, as part of her vision of a society busy looking after people, and the actresses wishing to become Screen Goddesses (and go to Hollywood). I would make more of this, because it is part of a basic issue with Left cinema, and the imitation of reality is incompatible with the staging of fantasies, but after all I don’t have the basic stories. Box was not making “women's pictures” because she was not much interested in glamorising her actresses. (I have new information, from Box herself, interviewed on 16 January 1991, which partially disproves this: "she suddenly said to me - this was Kay Kendall - tears started to flow and she became very emotional, 'I've never been directed by a woman before!'" - so it wasn't about glamour, it was about not trusting women.) It may well be that feminism is incompatible with women’s pictures – which have largely disappeared since 1970. Jeanine Basinger codified the genre and ends her account in the 1960s. Box, in the interview, commented on how the studio always gave director jobs to men. So women were distrusted, and this was ”the intelligence of the system”. But, if you look at 100 male directors working in Britain in the 1950s, you really have to ask how many of them ever made a good film. And sifting through bad films lets you measure that ”intelligence of the system”. (The interviews project was set up by BECTU, the stage union, together with the BFI. I have to record that because people are so eager to record cinema union activity as damage rather than care and welfare. 700 interviews on this site.)
My feeling with Street Corner is that the film story does not allow the characters to sink into fantasy, and the way it is written does not allow the creator to give way to fantasy. Two of Muriel Box’s films which I haven’t seen seem to be about the nature of fantasy – (see enxt post).
The climax of Street Corner involves a police dog chasing down the villainous jewel thief. Reading up definitely shows it was a male dog… I feel this is a flaw, surely the film mission statement required a female police dog? Botting and Castagnetti give astounding details from preserved documents about the making of the film:
[producer] Sydney Box sought approval for Street Corner from the authorities well before filming began. As well as maintaining good relations, they needed police support to ensure accuracy and to keep the budget down by providing access to locations and equipment. 
Collaboration on Street Corner began in early December 1951, with the police commissioner laying out the conditions on which assistance would be given. One key stipulation was an involvement at the script stage, leading to protracted negotiations as the producer’s desire for lurid and melodramatic events came up against the police commissioner’s insistence on authenticity. Shooting didn’t start until the following September, partly due to “innumerable battles with Scotland Yard” over the production.
TNA’s file includes no less than four treatments and various script iterations peppered with comments from the Met’s public information officer, Percy Fearnley, and Chief Superintendent Elizabeth Bather, [...]
It is incredible that a film got made at all under these conditions. This is reminiscent of Soviet reportage, where the institutions or sectors being described could raise objections to how the story went. This is an under-discussed problem – by getting so close to reality, Box could deal with real social problems in a convincing way. But then reality actually takes over, the creative autonomy of the artist sinks beneath the waves, and the main problems in making the story have directly to do with the government and their PR offices. The quality of “Street Corner” clearly has to do with government interference as well as with its impressive authenticity and accuracy of observation. This is something which was still causing problems in the 1970s, I mean that the collectivist artist wanted to abandon the imagination and hand control of stories over to the collective. But when someone turned up who claimed to be the voice of the people - maybe not someone working for the Metropolitan Police, but someone - the story lost purpose and the project lost conviction.
The most interesting thing I saw while tracing Box over the swamps of the Internet was a still from a film set in an “approved school” for girls (i.e. they were sent there by a court after committing crimes) which shows a riot... an extraordinary thing, other directors were spending the money on colonial battles which Box spends on a huge scene showing rioting 13-year olds. The anarchic energy is almost unnerving – just get 100 13-year olds on camera and they will look like the end of civilisation, I suppose. The thing is, the rule of cinema is to get the female characters wearing as enviable clothes as they possibly can, and all these half-grown tearaways are wearing prison clothing which most teenagers wouldn't be seen dead in. This is Box staging a grand tableau – of a scene which nobody else would even want to film. (I think the film is "Good-time girl", 1948, which she wrote but didn't direct.)
There certainly were left-wing artists at work in the 1950s, it wasn't all self-centred pangs about losing commitment, and the art of the time can be analysed to shed light on the upsurge of Left art after 1968. That is, there is a collective which works on difficult questions and whose results individuals have used.

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