Saturday, 11 July 2015

"Sub-titles inept, sub-titles abominable": a Russian film in the UK, 1935

I made a long-awaited trip back to Southsea this weekend and popped in to my favourite bookshop in the world, Adelphi Books on Albert Road, where I acquired (among other trifles) some 1930s issues of Sight and Sound. The autumn 1935 issue contains a review by Arthur Vesselo of Petersburg Nights (Roshal & Stroyeva, 1934) (referred to in the review as St. Petersburg, known in France as Les nuits de Saint-Pétersbourg). (I note that the film was nominated in the same year for the Mussolini Cup for Best Foreign Film at the Venice Film Festival, but otherwise seems to have had an undistinguished career.)

(image borrowed from Encyclocine)

Vesselo isn't happy with the film, or the translation:
The film as a whole has little real solidity: its movements are feeble, its climaxes crude. The propagandist element lacks both purpose and subtlety, and the nineteenth-century setting is infinitely less convincing than the customary Russian treatment of present-day conditions. What virtue remains is ruthlessly massacred by the sub-titles.
   This question of sub-titles needs long and deep consideration. They meet us at every turn: sub-titles misplaced, sub-titles mis-spelt, sub-titles inept, sub-titles abominable. They throw out the composition of shots, ruin their photographic quality, and break up their continuity - sometimes they seem to swamp the picture completely. (Sight and Sound 1935, vol. 4, no.15, p.124)
There were very competent subtitlers working in London in this period - Mai Harris, Julia Wolf - so one suspects that these abominable sub-titles may have been produced in the country of origin - well, we'll see, if a copy can be tracked down in the archive.

It's worth noting by the by that Vesselo doesn't seem a big fan of dubbing either: in the same section he reviews a Czech film, Volga in Flames, and complains that the dubbed English dialogue
was hardly a success. the lack of correspondence between words and mouth-movements can be ignored, but the vast unsuitability of Western tone and accent is another matter. Cossacks and Cockneys have little in common; and at moments of tension the formal intonation of the studio reduces the action to bathos. Choice of language also provides its problems. Wherever, in fact, the dialogue ceased for a space to be predominant, and the film was left to rely upon its original sounds, the story was lifted bodily to a higher sphere.
Interestingly,  Vesselo doesn't note that the film was in fact dubbed from French (thanks to Sam B. for pointing this out) as the film was a French-Czech co-production with Danielle Darrieux and Albert Préjean, also known as Volga en flammes:

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