Tuesday, 21 April 2015

"Consultants and doctors for sick films": snippet of film translation history

I have been reading and greatly enjoying Adrian Brunel's autobiography Nice Work, about his early career in silent films and then on into sound films. I'm particularly interested in the editing work he did on silent films, which relates to our forthcoming conference at the British Academy: Splendid Innovations: The Development, Reception and Preservation of Screen Translation.

(Thanks are due to Robert Smith of Adelphi Books, Southsea, for selling me the book some years ago and to Mark Fuller of Bristol Silents for recommending it and galvanising me to go and take the book off the shelf).

In the late 1920s Brunel went into business with Ivor Montagu, co-founder of the Film Society, table-tennis player, filmmaker, conservationist and translator, to edit silent films that weren't quite geared for a British audience. They offered their services, as Brunel put it, 'as consultants and doctors for sick films':
Numbers of foreign films were being imported which failed to appeal to British audiences because of certain remediable 'defects', and after we had very successfully operated on a few of them, Wardour Street began to realise the value of my little unit of editors.
   When the Film Society began importing films, editors were required, and so Ivor used my cutting rooms and my staff. After a time we formed a company, Brunel and Montagu, for editing films - the only one of its kind in the world - and were soon known in the trade as Brunel and Montage. As our business was almost entirely confined to the treatment of completed films with which there was something wrong, we discreetly omitted our names from the credit titles of the majority of those films which passed through our hands; but for this fact, ours would have become a household name in all cinemas, for not only was the volume of our business considerable, but we dealt with many of the most famous films of those days.
   The variety of our work was one of its many attractive qualities. [...] Next week's film might be American, Burmese or Japanese; it might be a spy drama, a village comedy or a medical instructional film. Again, anything might happen in connection with the work; one of us might have to go to Berlin, Rome, or Paris; or F.J. Perry, the tennis champion, might call in for a game of table tennis with Ivor, his coach; or we might have a sudden trade-show job, requiring three or four of us to go down to a film studio and work on the editing of a film for forty-eight hours before going to bed; or an importer of foreign films might call upon us to get passed by the Censor some rather risky and valueless picture, promising us a percentage of his huge (estimated) profits but having no cash to pay us for our work.  (Brunel, Nice Work, pp.117-8)
This business collapsed with the advent of the talkies, because, as Brunel says ruefully, 'it was impossible then to persuade film people that talkies needed any kind of constructive or creative editing or even that editors could do anything to adjust defects in synchronised films - editors were relegated to the position of film joiners, defeatists who accepted what they got and just assembled it' (p.122).

I was interested to see that one of the films he was involved with was G.W. Pabst's Kameradschaft (1931), one of my favourite films, and the first film in England, as far as I know, to be exhibited with superimposed titles:
I remember [the British Board of Film Censors] objecting to a scene in that magnificent film "Kamaradschaft" [sic], a distant shot of a number of naked miners bathing. It was a very pleasing scene from the point of view of composition, and from what one could see, through the steam, the men were fine specimens and were most skilfully manoeuvred so as not to alarm those unfortunate people who have peculiar ideas about the human body; it was interesting and, to me and my colleagues, completely unobjectionable. When I was told by the B.B.F.C that this scene must be cut out of the film I protested and pointed out that it had been shown in every civilised country in Europe. "On the Continent- yes, they would!" said one of the censors. I persisted. The B.B.F.C. officials then professed to be surprised and shocked at my attitude. "Surely you wouldn't wish little boys and girls to see revolting scenes of naked miners?" one of them who had not seen the film asked. They were adamant and so the scene had to come out. [...] However, this was only one scene; it was a pity to lose it, but it didn't ruin the film to cut it out. (Nice Work p.121)
It's interesting that Brunel mentions this, because it was a sound film, and yet apparently it didn't come under the heading of films which could not be improved through editing. The scene to which the eager beavers of the B.B.F.C. objected can be seen at 31:20 in the copy of Kameradschaft available on Youtube:

To go directly to the scene in question, click here.

The viewing copy I've seen at the British Film Institute, which is, as far as I am aware, a copy of the UK release print from 1932, shows that the film had added pictorial credits at the beginning, as well as the innovative subtitles. Were these the work of Brunel and Montagu as well? Can we ever know? And should we consider the absence of footage of naked miners part of the film's 'translation' to the UK? Come along on 21 and 22 May to find out....


The 'Splendid Innovations' conference, co-organised by me and the subtitler, translator and historian Jean-François Cornu will take place on 21 and 22 May, 2015 at the British Academy in London. It will be accompanied by a free public performance by the distinguished Japanese benshi, Kataoka Ichiro, with Japanese film scholar Professor Markus Nornes and with live music by Cyrus Gabrysch.

Bristol Silents is a group of extremely nice and knowledgeable enthusiasts who curate some of the best silent film events in Britain and are a big part of what makes Bristol a great place to be a film nerd.

Adelphi Books is my favourite shop in all the world. It doesn't have a website - it has to be experienced in person. Its owner Robert Smith has introduced me to many of my favourite films of the 1920s and 1930s. 



I wonder a bit about this distinction that Brunel draws between silent films which could freely be recut and sound films which didn't lend themselves to editing. Lucy Mazdon and Catherine Wheatley, in their excellent book French Film in Britain, Sex, Art and Cinephilia, quote a 1939 piece by Yvonne Thomas in Sight and Sound as saying that
The only bother with [Continental films] in those days [the silent period] was that from a English audience's point of view, they were far too long. They invariably had to be cut to meet our own requirements, but these cuts could usually be made without detracting from the story.
This certainly supports Brunel's account, but then Brunel also brings in the sound film Kameradschaft. And Joan Hills' obituary of the distinguished subtitler Julia Wolf, who subtitled every foreign film at the Curzon from its opening in 1934 to its closure due to bomb damage during the Second World War (Mazdon & Wheatley pp.27-8), suggests that she recut not only silent, but also sound films - sometimes, as Brunel did, as a way of 'managing' the censorship process. [totters off to do more reading]

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