A Cottage on Dartmoor is a major rediscovery. It’s a silent film from that year of apotheosis, 1929, when the language of silent cinema was at its expressive height, the means of production were at their most lavish, and it was all already obsolete commercially.
Moreover, it’s a British silent film, and as pointed out in the accompanying documentary, Silent Britain, these have been overlooked by historians. The greatness of Alfred Hitchcock’s silent movies have been acknowledged, especially The Lodger, but he’s generally painted as the one Englishman good enough to go to Hollywood while all the journeyman hacks languished behind in the genteel, unimaginative British cinema of the period.
A Cottage on Dartmoor is directed by Anthony Asquith. He’s a respected name in British films, so far as it goes, which means he’s been associated with the sort of well-mounted, actor centered films based on plays such as Pygmalion, The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, The Importance of Being Earnest etc. From these productions, brilliant and satisfying as they are, one wouldn’t suspect the visual dynamism on display in his cinema without dialogue.
Cottage opens with its hero (Uno Henning from Sweden, for this was a Swedish co-production) dropping into the frame from above, and this is the first of several startling examples of this trick. He’s escaping from Dartmoor prison. Then he runs through a series of gothic expressive landscapes, all rocks and silhouetted hills and gloomy trees as shot by Stanley Rodwell as if he’d been studying the Murnau production of Nosferatu and the Lang production of Die Nibelungen, which he undoubtedly did. He arrives at the title cottage, where a woman (Norah Baring) has just tucked her child into bed, and a flashback is startlingly introduced.
It seems our anti-hero was a barber in a shop that employed a wealth of people, counting the manicurists and receptionist and bellboy in those days of excessive service. The woman was a manicurist whom he adored from a-near, and the third member of their triangle was a prosperous farmer (Germany’s Hans Adalbert Schlettow, from Nibelungen in fact) who comes in all too regularly for the full flirtatious treatment on his fingers while our barber fumes and glares and strops that razor, strops it, strops it, strops it like a fetish as it glistens in a key light.
As with most silent films, the story is quite basic. The magic is in the elaboration, the camera’s vivid eye and the accumulation of details that string our eyes along. Every scene is a little tour-de-force, and Asquith allows himself a lengthy set piece that almost has nothing to do with the story. It’s the scene where our three characters wind up at the talkies.
If there isn’t yet a book about sequences where characters in movies go to the movies, there should be. In this major number in two movements, we never for a moment see what’s on the screen within the screen, yet somehow we see it all. In the first movement, the crowd is watching a silent comedy accompanied by lively musicians in the orchestra pit.
We get to know seemingly everyone in that balcony, their individual styles of viewing, and their relations to each other as the music plays frantically and the crowd is united in laughter that grows, along with the editing, increasingly fast and frenetic until the final expostulation and release. As one boy stares at a man in the crowd, focusing on his round glasses, and excitedly points him out to his companion and then at the screen, we realize they are watching a Harold Lloyd comedy. By the way, this bespectacled man is Asquith! More than one joke is going on.
This is confirmed when we finally glance at the program between movements, as it mentions a Lloyd short before the main feature. The talkie is something called “My Woman—adapted from the play by W. Shayspeare”. And by the way, “My Woman” had been the song on the sheet music previously sung by the manicurist.
At this point, the musicians put down their instruments to start eating and playing cards. We keep coming back to them at various points in the ensuing movement, and also to the deaf old lady with the hearing trumpet who relies on a friend to tell her what’s going on (thus annoying the neighbors) and also on people restraining themselves from applause at certain points as they would have done during the silent picture. Thus, on top of everything else the scene is doing, it’s observing the manners and conventions of this technological sea change.
The dramatic point of the scene is that our barber is glowering from one row behind at “his” manicurist and the farmer. And from the shots of his insular drama, combined with the heightened editing of the shots of the rest of the crowd staring with increasingly rapt horror at their screen, we intuit that the adapted “Shayspeare” play might well be Othello.
The sequence is a masterpiece. Really, nothing happens in it (we imagine a cigar-chomping producer crying “Cut this! The story’s dragging!”), yet it conveys entire social and interior worlds in dark communal intimacy.
Something finally happens in the plot, of course, thus the escape and the cottage and what happens after that, and then what happens after that. I can’t help thinking of the movie as a parable of the death of silent cinema, giving way to the new, the brash, the rich and conquering.
The documentary, hosted by Matthew Sweet, has an agenda of setting the record straight, of rescuing the history of British silent movies from critical neglect. Of course it emphasizes the high points, like Cottage, The Lodger and two other films currently available on DVD, Hindle Wakes and Piccadilly, and also a few we’d sure like to see, such as the 1929 version of The Informer.
Sweet tries to take some of the credit for Hitchcock’s expressiveness away from his apprenticeship at UFA Studios in Germany and toward his longtime English scenarist, and there’s something in that, but the UFA influence is simply inescapable in Hitchcock or Asquith or Piccadilly.
Sweet also does an excellent job of crediting the early British cinema with innovations like the close-up (from Grandma’s Reading Glasses 1900) and the sequential narrative. There’s a side by side comparison of a British burglary film that opened in New York a few months before Edison’s The Great Train Robbery, and this speaks volumes. We also see much of the famous Rescued by Rover(1905) and hear about such pioneers as Cecil Hepworth and R.W. Paul. But this part of the story will already be familiar to those of you dear readers who are acquainted with Kino’s essential The Movies Begin box and if not, why not?
Another part of film history that needs to be recovered from critical cliché is the transitional era from silent to sound, about which it’s commonly observed that films suddenly became static as actors had to stand under the microphone. This is a half-truth at best, and it’s partly based on the fact that most of the commonly available films of this transition era tend to be Hollywood’s self-celebrating earnest works in their static “classic” mode, which was the same in both the silent era and today. Actually there were a lot of highly visual, scrappy little pictures being made, as Turner Classic Movies has gradually made clear.
This proposition isn’t quite so clear with three independent releases of the 1929-30 era that Kino has released. These are mostly static with muddy soundtracks, and the best thing on display is the cavernous sets of William Cameron Menzies. Be Yourself is a Fanny Brice vehicle, which means a lot of nightclub numbers and highly Yiddish shtick, including much heavily accented byplay with her brother the lawyer. The Lottery Bride is an early vehicle for Jeanette MacDonald, an operetta with an absurd climax involving a dirigible at the North Pole and comic relief from Joe E. Brown and Zasu Pitts.
These are both enjoyable, more socio-historically than comedically or musically, but the main draw is the chance finally to see Roland West’s Alibi, which was nominated for Oscars for best Picture, Actor and Art Direction. Alas, this gangster story has nothing as jaw-dropping as a couple of moments in West’s The Bat Whispers, though a few scenes have bold visuals. Overall, however, the story and images (never mind acting which plays to the balcony seats) are disappointing for such a semi-legendary picture. These discs have no extras.