I was in London today, back at the BFI in Stephen Street, where a while back I saw Tell England and Kitty. Today I ordered up a programme of fragments and shorts – the eight minutes that exist of the 1920 film of Alf’s Button, the ten minutes of Acci-Dental Treatment that are all they have of T.S.Eliot’s favourite comedian, Ernie Lotinga, on film, and Eliot himself making a cameo appearance in a 1936 documentary about the publishing industry.
The fragment of Alf’s Button was from the end of the film. (If you don’t know the story, this earlier post explains the basic plot of the novel, though the film takes a few liberties, as films do.) Alf and Bill are in their manor house, surrounded by exotic slaves, and things are going wrong. The slaves are about to behead a village urchin who dared to be rude to their lord and master, for a start, but more importantly, the girl he fancies prefers the office, who is her own class. A subtitle hammers the point home. Alf tells Bill:
I wish I’d never taken your advice, an’ kep’ to my own class – I shouldn’t have got into this mess.
Bill is happy, though, with a devoted dusky slave girl. He says:
Lucy’s the sort for me. I’m thinkin’ of marryin’ Lucy, I am. She can’t answer back, an’ the more beer I drinks the more she likes it.
It’s a pity the film’s incomplete, or it could be a set text on a few feminist and post-colonial courses.
Alf goes back to the nice girl of his own class, and the film draws to a close with the title:
Then came the Armistice, and with marriage, history repeats itself.
Alf and his working class missus are settled down, but he goes out and she reaches for the button and – that’s when the BFI’s eight minutes ran out. Was that the actual end of the film, or did the genie appear again. Who knows?
Alf’s Button was a mega-hit in 1920. W.A.Darlington, who wrote the book and play, speaks proudly of immense queues outside the cinemas. And that fragment is maybe all that remains. Such is fame.
Ernie Lotinga, too, was a big name in the twenties and thirties, though now he’s almost forgotten. T.S.Eliot was a big fan, though, and references to Lotinga as an exemplary kind of music-hall artist crop up in Eliot’s critical writings over a long period. He made several films, starting in 1929. That date should give the clue that he was essentially a verbal comedian, and so was sought after for the movies when sound came in.
Acci-Dental Treatment was the only one of his films that the BFI could offer me – and only the first reel of it. I’d have preferred one like Josser joins the Army, where he was playing his standard character Jimmy Josser. This picture shows him as Josser P.C.
The film was no masterpiece, but ten minutes was enough to understand why Eliot rated him. He’s a high-energy performer. Eliot talks of his anarchic character and his bawdy, and this film gave at least a hint of what he could have done with more promising material. His voice has a slight northern accent, and he talks fast and decisively, with strong gestures, even in the first part of this film, when he’s frightened to go into the dentist. The dialogue is the sort of silly stuff that music-hall comics could work wonders with. When he thinks he won’t have to face the dentist, the terrified Lotinga says,
“Me knees have been doing the shimmy for nothing.”
Friend: “Be a man!”
Lotinga: “I should have been a jellyfish.”
Well, when he says it, it’s funny.
The first eight minutes show Lotinga terrified of the dentist, and there’s a slick routine where he’s rearranging the queue in the waiting room so that he doesn’t have to go in first. When he does go in, he’s still frightened, but then the dentist tells him to wait, while he attends to something in the other surgery.
At this, Lotinga is transformed. He puts on the dentist’s coat, and tells his friend:
You know the fellow that owns this place? Well, he’s gone out and he’s asked me to look after the shop.
With the marvellous non-naturalism of music-hall, he has swapped moods in a second. Fears are forgotten, and he’s full of bounce as a patient is brought in for him to practice on. This, I think, is what Eliot liked in Lotinga’s sort of performance – a defiance of dull naturalistic logic, and a determination to live every moment to the full.
Perhaps we’re lucky that what survives is this a very straightforward film of a theatrical sketch, because it gives a good idea of his larger-than-life stage persona. Film directors often want to get realistic, and shrink things down.
I wonder if this ten minutes really is all that remains of Lotinga on film (because as soon as the patient is brought in, the reel ends, and I can only imagine what happened next). There is maybe a hope that some collector somewhere has a few more reels. A few years ago people thought almost all the extraordinary 1940s films of the great Frank Randle had vanished. Now a fair number have turned up – and there are even extracts on YouTube.
The third film I put on the Steenbeck machine (it’s a lovely desk that lets you play celluloid film, stop, rewind and so on, a bit like an editing desk.) was Cover to Cover, a documentary from 1936, about the publishing industry. Very educational, packing a lot into twenty minutes. Absolutely fascinating shots of book production, from the making of paper (I’d never seen a bale of esparto grass before) to the making of specimen pages, and making galleys, and binding. The scene in the binding warehouse, with piles and piles of unmade books, was astonishing.
I wanted to see it because I knew it included short snatches of talking heads – mostly the heads of writers I’m interested in. Rebecca West was flying the feminist flag, looking snooty and saying:
It is quite true that great writers have more often been men than women. But then, you see, women have other work to do. They have to bring into the world not only all writers, but the entire reading public.
“Sapper” was twinkling and mischievous, saying:
Odd people – and they are fairly odd – have frequently asked me why I write my strange stuff. Well, the answer is fairly easy – haven’t you ever wanted to murder anybody? Have none of you ever loathed with a deadly loathing the man next door – or the woman? Have you never wanted to put his or her corpse under a steam roller and watch it writhe in agony? If you say no – Liar! Well, you can’t do it yourself. If you do, the result, they tell me, is most unpleasant.
Straight after Sapper comes T.S.Eliot, looking at once world-weary, pontifical and gnomic. He gave his thoughts on contemporary poetry:
It’s no more use trying to be traditional than it is trying to be original. Nobody invents very much, but there is one thing to be said for contemporary poetry that can’t be said in favour of any other, and that is that it is written by our contemporaries.
The first half of the film, about printing, seemed to be aimed at children. I wonder what they made of Eliot’s comment? I bet they preferred “Sapper”.
After Eliot came A.P.Herbert, who, as an M.P. compared literature and politics. When I was young I occasionally saw APH on TV, an old man, jolly and slightly subversive. In 1936 he still had a trace of the young officer who wrote The Secret Battle.
The book had a thread of narrative, about the acceptance, publication and distribution of a first book by an unknown author called David Brown. This part was played by Richard Blaker – not totally unknown in 1936, because it was six years after the publication of his Medal without Bar. But since then he’s been largely forgotten, and an unknown author is what he’s become again. I noticed that David Brown’s manuscript had some of the doodles that occasionally decorate Blaker’s.