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Reference group
Council of the Film Society (act. 1925–1939) was a group of radical film enthusiasts and critics who set out to promote film as both an art form and a medium of communication. The film-maker and zoologist Ivor Montagu and the actor Hugh Miller (1889–1976) had the original idea, and they were soon joined by the cinema exhibitor Sidney Bernstein, the film critics Iris Barry (1895–1969) and Walter Mycroft (1890–1959), the sculptor Frank Dobson, and the film director Adrian Brunel (1892–1958). The latter soon resigned because his employers considered that his association with the society would damage the prestige of the films he made for them. The graphic designer Edward McKnight Kauffer replaced Miller when he went to work in America; the artist Edmund Dulac joined the council in 1927, and was followed two years later by the literary scholar and university lecturer Jacob Isaacs. The concert agent Miss J. M. Harvey was the society's secretary between 1925 and 1935.

The council's prospectus stated that the society:
had been founded in the belief that there are in this country large numbers of people who regard the cinema with the liveliest interest and who would welcome an opportunity seldom afforded to the general public of witnessing films of intrinsic merit whether old or new. (Montagu, ‘Old man's mumble’, 220)
Moreover, it was ‘of the utmost importance that films of the type proposed should be available to the Press, and to the film trade itself, including present and (what is more important) future British film producers, editors, cameramen, titling experts and actors’ (ibid.). Nearly thirty eminent artists, scientists, and writers immediately became founder members and helped to launch the venture by subscribing a £1 share guarantee. They were: the transport executive and politician Albert Stanley, first Baron Ashfield; the film director Anthony Asquith; the film critic of the Daily Express, George A. Atkinson; the artist Clare Atwood; Anthony Butts; the authors Lord David Cecil and Aubrey Clark; George Cooper; the theatre director Edith Craig; the author Heinrich Fraenkel (1897–1986); the art historian and critic Roger Fry; the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane and the zoologist Julian Huxley; Augustus John; Edward McKnight Kauffer; John Maynard Keynes; Angus McPhail (1903–1962); Hugh and Olga Miller; the film-maker George Pearson (1875–1973); the authors Harold Frederick Rubinstein (1891–1975), Christopher St John, and George Bernard Shaw; the social theorist John St Loe Strachey; Ivor Montagu's father, the banker Louis Samuel Montagu, second Baron Swaythling (1869–1927); Dame Ellen Terry; the actor Ben Webster; and H. G. Wells. A season comprised eight performances held on Sunday afternoons paid for by an annual membership fee of £1 5s.

From the outset the Film Society was mistrusted by the commercial film trade, and the trade-appointed British Board of Film Censors agreed only to license films for public exhibition. But by the narrowest of margins the members persuaded London county council to allow them to exhibit their films privately in a cinema that was closed to the public. The society's first performance, on 25 October 1925, at the recently renovated 1450 seat New Gallery Kinema in Regent Street, was a great success. The 900 members and guests who filled the cinema mainly came from the bohemian beau monde; many young men from Chelsea and Bloomsbury ‘sported beards, while the young women wore homespun cloaks’ (A. Brunel, Nice Work: the Story of Thirty Years of British Film Production, 1949, 113). The critical response, led by Barry and Mycroft—who wrote for The Spectator and the Evening Standard respectively—was generally positive, as was that of the Daily Herald's Pat Mannock and Jympson Harman of the Evening News. However, the Manchester Guardian's Caroline Lejeune repeatedly criticized the society as a coterie, while the Daily Express was required to issue a public apology for accusing the council of being a communist front organization. The society itself continued to expand. Many studio technicians, directors, and producers also joined, and the Sunday afternoon performances soon glittered like theatrical first nights, becoming conversational occasions where only the films were silent.

Montagu and Mycroft scoured France, Germany, central Europe, and Soviet Russia for prints of new feature films, which were then retitled and edited for British audiences in the cutting rooms of Brunel and Montagu Ltd. Early successes included The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Fritz Lang's Doctor Mabuse, G. W. Pabst's The Joyless Street, and Vsevolod Pudovkin's Mother and The End of St Petersburg. The council had a catholic selection policy and generally screened two or three short films before the main feature. These could be science films, trick films, puppet films, experimental films, silhouette films, or even old one-reel comedies. Unsurprisingly, at several performances the modernist attitudes of the radical avant-garde came into conflict with the bourgeois sensibilities of many of the society's members. During the performance on 17 January 1926, for example, some of the audience hissed violently during the screening of Dytiscus, a ten-minute French science film that showed in large close-up a giant water beetle consuming a tadpole. Later that afternoon some members booed during the screening of René Clair's Entr'acte, while others, led by the art critic Clive Bell, screamed and shook their fists. By the start of the 1930s some members had become so disaffected with the films on offer that the council regularly had to remind them that they and their guests ‘were not to express their emotions’ when films were being screened, as the society ‘continued for the purpose, only, of technical study’ (Amberg, 131).

The Soviet feature films were undoubtedly the most controversial. In February 1929 the council chose to screen Pudovkin's The End of St Petersburg, which had been commissioned to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Towards the end of the film some were so carried away by the appearance of the caption ‘All Power to the Soviet’ that they broke into the Red Marching Song, which they maintained while the rest of the audience stood for the national anthem. In reply to a question in the House of Commons about the untoward events at the screening the home secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, reported, after a three-day investigation, that he had been informed by the council that there had been ‘no demonstration of any kind, save that of respectful attention’ during the playing of the anthem.

Meanwhile membership of the society continued to grow, and in 1929 the council moved performances to the recently refurbished 2200 seat Tivoli Palace Cinema in the Strand. On the first afternoon at its new venue, on 10 November 1929, the atmosphere was alive with anticipation. Members eagerly awaited the screening of Sergey Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, to which the British Board of Film Censors had already refused a certificate fearful that it would cause revolutionary hysteria. Anticipation was heightened by the appearance of the Austrian composer Edmund Meisel to conduct the score that he had specially composed for the film's highly successful run in Berlin. At this performance—the society's thirty-third—the main feature was preceded by a screening of Drifters, John Grierson's influential documentary about North Sea herring fishing, which he astutely accompanied with a recording of Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave. Both films were a great success and thereafter the society became an important promoter of the emerging British documentary movement.

In addition to screenings the council organized spin-off activities, such as a public exhibition of set designs by the German-born designer and director Paul Leni, and a public discussion of Pudovkin's Mother, while Ivor Montagu translated and annotated Pudovkin's On Film Technique (1929). One of the council's most influential events was Eisenstein's instructional course on film theory, presented a week after the screening of Battleship Potemkin, in which the Russian director asserted that film was a science grounded on philosophic and higher mathematical knowledge. Eisenstein's claims about the use of visual rhythms in his montage so impressed two young graduates, Edgar Anstey (1907–1987) and Basil Wright, that they were able to persuade Grierson to employ them as editorial assistants. Eisenstein's associative approach to editing—in which individual shots were linked by rhythm and visual patterns, rather than to give the illusion of temporal continuity—subsequently became an important component of British documentary film-making. It permeated Wright's The Song of Ceylon (1934), which the society screened on 16 December 1934, and it arguably reached its zenith in two films made during the Second World War by the Crown Film Unit, Listen to Britain and A Diary for Timothy. Both were directed by Humphrey Jennings and edited by Stewart McAllister (1914–1962), who had been deeply impressed by Pudovkin's and Eisenstein's films, which he and his fellow film-maker Norman McLaren had seen in 1931–2 at the Film Society of Glasgow. Though Eisenstein's influence on the editing of British feature films was less profound, another society member, Thorold Dickinson, later included jump-cutting and a humorous montage sequence when he edited Sing As We Go! (1934).

In 1930 Eisenstein left Britain for America and Ivor Montagu's decision to accompany him to Hollywood prompted a number of new elections to the Film Society's council. Anthony Asquith, John Grierson, Nancy Samuel, and Ellen Wilkinson joined the council in 1931, followed by Thorold Dickinson a year later. Dickinson and Jacob Isaacs took on Montagu's responsibilities. The former supervised the preparation of the films, and remained in charge of programmes, while Isaacs wrote and edited the unsigned programme notes that were issued for each performance. These continued to be lively and often unpredictable events in ways that often escaped the council's control. In November 1931, for example, Dziga Vertov, the director of Enthusiasm / Symphony of the Don Basin, turned up the volume during the final sequence of his first sound film to such a high level that the Tivoli Cinema seemed to rock, and the distortion deafened the previously supportive audience.

By the early 1930s the Film Society's unique position came under threat in several ways. In London a small number of commercial cinemas began to show continental films. These proved popular as it was cheaper for audiences to go to a cinema, rather than to subscribe to a season of films, and performances were not restricted to Sunday afternoons. Similar societies were also established in Glasgow (1929), in Edinburgh (1930), and in Birmingham, Leicester, and Southampton (all 1931), though their officers continued to travel regularly to screenings at the Tivoli Palace to select the best films for their own institutions. From the early 1930s the council also faced the challenge of making English-language versions of sound films. Despite managing to screen a few sound shorts during its 1930–31 season the society did not show its first foreign-language feature film until February 1932, when it screened Mädchen in Uniform, a proto-lesbian tale directed and acted entirely by women. Elsie Cohen, who programmed the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street, had acquired the British rights to the film. Conscious that a Film Society première frequently generated good publicity, she befriended members of the council and allowed the society to host the first British screening. To accompany the film the audience was given a synopsis, printed on translucent paper, to hold up to the light from the screen. Dickinson also inserted roll-up titles between the main sequences in the film. When Cohen subsequently showed Mädchen in Uniform at the Academy Cinema she paid for a subtitled print containing 230 subtitles; it proved a considerable success and ran for six months. The council made a point, in preparing works like this for an English audience, of never tampering with the film. However, it jettisoned its principles in late 1937 when it was offered The Path of the Heroes, the official Italian film about the fascist conquest of Abyssinia. Montagu and Dickinson mischievously intercut this work with footage Montagu had compiled from Soviet newsreels taken on the Abyssinian side of the conflict. Their new compilation, entitled Record of War, was accompanied by deadpan readings from the opposing commentaries of both films. The audience was staggered, but the Italian embassy was not amused.

Growing opportunities for cinema-going beyond the Film Society also led to the reassertion of bourgeois tastes within the society. Some members were scandalized when the council screened the Czech film Ekstase (1933), with its sylvan nude scene, and a few months later H. G. Wells was so enraged by the cynical amorality of the French comedy Le rosier de Madame Husson, that he walked out of the performance. Disaffection appears to have been even more widespread for the short films that preceded the main feature. From 1933 the council closed the doors at the start of each performance, requiring members ‘to arrive in time for the beginning of the programme’ (Amberg, 216). Facing challenges from within and without, membership of the society began to decline. By the mid-1930s it had fallen below 1000 and in October 1935 the council decided to return to the smaller New Gallery Kinema. That year also saw the departure of the society's secretary, J. M. Harvey, who became one of the three directors of the new Arts Theatre, Cambridge, though she now joined the council, on which she served until her death in December 1937. The council members she joined included (since 1936) Elsie Cohen, the film editor Sidney Cole (1908–1998), Robert Herring (1903–1975), editor of Life and Letters, and Basil Wright. Under their stewardship the society began to screen more documentary films as political events in Germany and the Soviet Union reduced the supply of worthwhile feature films, and production expenses for English versions rose, often in excess of £200 per film. In its last two seasons—1936–7 and 1938–9—the council reduced the number of performances from eight to six.

By 1939 membership had fallen below 500. The society's fourteenth, and final, season was held between December 1938 and April 1939, and its last screening was of Eisenstein's recently completed Alexander Nevsky on 23 April. Later in the year only 222 of the society's 2500 former members replied to a council questionnaire. Half indicated that they might rejoin if performances were switched to the evening, but one third reported that they had moved out of London or considered membership too expensive. Although films such as Alexander Nevsky and Marcel Pagnol's La femme du boulanger (19 February 1939) had proved popular, the remaining respondents considered the programming to have been either poor or dominated by Russian works. In response the council decided to bring the society to an end.

During its fourteen seasons, the council showed 496 films. One fifth of these were features, and the remainder short films from many genres. They included pre-1920 primitives, comedies, scientific films—on the subjects of biology, physics, and mathematics—studies of the graphic arts, architecture, and music, puppet and trick films, abstract, absolute, and surrealist films, travel films and historical records, British documentaries, and advertising films. The film historian Rachel Low considered that the society's importance could scarcely be overestimated, but, looking back in 1975, Ivor Montagu insisted that rather than being responsible for the wider changes in film culture, the council was part of them, and that it merely functioned as a focus for those changes. Early masterpieces of filmic experiment were beginning in many European capitals, and books on film were starting to be written. Moreover, during the society's lifetime, a number of London cinemas started to specialize in showing continental films, and similar film societies were established outside the capital. Later, during the economic and artistic turmoil of the 1970s, one or two avant-garde and experimental film-makers and theorists, who were searching for an alternative and independent film culture, looked back for their inspiration to some of the short films that had been screened by the council.

Vincent Porter

Sources  

BFI, Film Society collection · G. Amberg, introduction, The Film Society programmes, 1925–1939 (1972) · ‘50 years of film societies’, Film, 2nd ser. (Oct–Nov 1975), 6–9 and 41–5 · Minutes of evidence taken before the departmental committee on cinematograph films together with appendices and index, [Great Britain Board of Trade] (1936), 139–45 · J. M. Harvey, ‘The presentation of foreign films’, Life and Letters (autumn 1936), 166–70 · R. Low, The history of the British film, 5: 1929–1939: documentary and educational films of the 1930s (1979) · R. Low, The history of the British film, 6: 1929–1939: films of comment and persuasion of the 1930s (1979) · I. Montagu, The youngest son: autobiographical sketches (1970) · I. Montagu, interview with Peter Wollen, Alan Lovell, and Sam Rohdie, 24 May 1972, Screen, 13/3 (autumn 1972), 71–113 · I. Montagu, ‘Old man's mumble: reflections on a semi-centenary’, Sight and Sound, 44/4 (autumn 1975), 220–24 and 247 · C. Moorehead, Sidney Bernstein: a biography (1984) · W. C. Mycroft, Walter C. Mycroft, the time of my life: the memoirs of a British film producer (2006) · R. Perkins and M. Stollery, British film editors: the heart of the movie (2004) · J. Richards, Thorold Dickinson: the man and his films (1986) · P. Rotha, Documentary diary: an informal history of the British documentary film, 1928–1939 (1973) · M. Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein: a biography, rev. edn (1978) · D. Vaughan, Portrait of an invisible man: the working life of Stewart McAllister, film editor (1983) · J. Samson, ‘The Film Society, 1925–1939’, All our yesterdays: 90 years of British cinema, ed. C. Barr (1986), 306–13 · J. Sexton, ‘The Film Society and the creation of an alternative film culture in Britain in the 1920s’, Young and innocent? the cinema in Britain, 1896–1930, ed. A. Higson (2002)

Archives  

BFI, Film Society collection