High Treason (1929) and Men Must Fight (1933)

High Treason (14)   Men Must Fight (5)
High Treason (1929) and Men Must Fight (1933)


In every moment of time there’s a war going on somewhere in the world.  We, in North America, have been lucky in our lifetime to not have had one befall either of our countries.  But things have changed since 911.  The Middle East is a mess and Europe has had a rash of terrorist attacks.  It’s something that probably fills most of us with uneasiness, but we just carry on with our lives.

So although the films this evening are 87 and 83 years old respectively, we can relate to the ideas of the authors and their concerns of another war.  These stories arose from the affects of the first world war, and the ideas of how a future war would play out are relayed in these films less than two decades following that Great War.

Having viewed a number of Paramount Newsreels from the 1930s, it was apparent that people knew that a second world war was on the horizon, although I’m sure, like people from any time period, were hoping it was something that would not come to pass.  Hitler was known in the world by the time these films were made as he had been the founder of the Nazi party from as early as 1920 and in 1933 he was appointed Chancellor of Germany.  The rest of the western world was quite wary of him by then and pre-Code film was commonly influenced by the politics emerging from the Great Depression.

The first film tonight, HIGH TREASON, was made before The Crash, so it’s main influence was the first world war and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis released in 1927It would have been England’s version of a futuristic new world, based on the one and only play by Noel Pemberton-Billing, English aviator, inventor, publisher and Member of Parliament.  Among other things that he felt anti towards, he was against communism.  Perhaps there is some element of this fact written into the story.

I have seen the talking version of this film in Rome, NY at Capitolfest in 2014 and was very enthusiastic with regards to what I saw.  One of the two actors that I was familiar with was Benita Hume.  She was British and a favourite of Ivor Novello when she came to Hollywood in 1933 to star with Lee Tracy in CLEAR ALL WIRES!  Recently, I’ve seen her in a couple of other films such as the interestingly titled THE WORST WOMAN IN PARIS? (1933) with Adolphe Menjou and Helen Chandler, THE GAY DECEPTION (1935) with Francis Lederer and Frances Dee and at my last film evening in ONLY YESTERDAY (1933) where she played the wife of John Boles’ character.  She went on to marry two of Hollywood’s leading men, Ronald Coleman in 1938 which lasted until his death in 1958 and George Sanders in 1959 until her death in 1967 of bone cancer at the age of 61.

The other actor was Toronto-born Raymond Massey.  HIGH TREASON was his very first film and he plays a Member of the Federated States Council.  It didn’t take him long to be cast in such films as the avant-garde THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) directed by James Whale, a villain in THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (1934) with Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon and in H.G. Wells’ 1933 futuristic novel THINGS TO COME brought to the screen by director as well as great art-director William Cameron Menzies in 1936.

The articles I have gathered for tonight’s film relate to both the silent and talkie versions.  There is one rather interesting piece referring only to the talkie film with regards to censorship and the reason I’m guessing this is, is because the silent version wasn’t exported to the States.  The article is against the film being banned in the States of New York and Pennsylvania.  The reasons listed are: ‘In New York the film has been refused license on the ground that it “tends to incite to crime” and “be inhuman”.  In Pennsylvania it is tabooed under the law that provides for the disapproval of films that are “salacious, obscene, indecent or immoral or tend, in the judgment of the board to debase or corrupt morals.”’  From my point of view, the ending of the film is what must have brought these over-the-top charges but it’s nothing the world hasn’t at times wished for or even done to mitigate future disasters.

From what I viewed of the silent film, it looks pretty identical to what I remember of the talkie.  The copy you’re about to see was truly silent, not accompanied by any score, so I am using the lovely music composed by a guest here tonight, Peter Mercurio.

Although not the best of prints, I hope, at the least, that you find this an interesting story and film.  Caren

January 30, 2016
Production Company: Gaumont British Picture Corporation.  Directed by Maurice Elvey.  Play by (Noel) Pemberton Billing and Scenario by (Arthur Wellesley) L’Estrange Fawcett.   Production Manager: L’Estrange Fawcett.  Cinematography by Percy Strong.  Art Direction by Andrew Mazzei.  Costume Design by Gordon Conway.  Assistant Directors: Fred V. Merrick and David Lean.  Special Effects by Philippo Guidobaldi.  Released:  March 25, 1929.  76 minutes (my copy).

Benita Hume…………………………………………………… Evelyn Seymour
Basil Gill…………………………………………….. President Stephen Deane
Humberston Wright……………………………………………….. Dr. Seymour
Jameson Thomas………………………………………………. Michael Deane
James Carew…………………………………………………….. Lord Rowleigh
Alf Goddard…………………………………………………… Tele-radiographer
Judd Green………………………………………………………. James Groves
Hayford Hobbs………………………………………………. Charles Falloway
Raymond Massey……………………. Member of Federated States Council
Wally Patch………………………………….. Peace League Commissionaire
Irene Rooke……………………………………………………………… Senator
Milton Rosmer…………………………………………………… Ernest Stratton
John Singer…………………………………………………………………… Boy
Kiyoshi Takase………………………………. Arms Manufacturers’ Henchman
Henry Vibart…………………………………………………….. Lord Sycamore

Of Metropolis, more wilful abuse has been written than praise, partly because the version shown in Britain was unhappily edited, many sequences being deliberately removed.  The British copy was ‘arranged’ by Channing Pollock, author of The Fool.  The film, when it made its London appearance, was not enthusiastically received.  H.G. Wells, amongst others, damned it as ‘quite the silliest film…’  As a matter of fact, Metropolis was very remarkable, based on a brilliant filmic conception.  Had it been shown in its entirety, it might have afforded a wonderful exposition of cinematography.  As with all of the German studio-films, the dominant keynote of the picture was its amazing architecture.  It is not until we compare Metropolis with a British picture on the same lines, Maurice Elvey’s High Treason, that it is possible to realise its value.  There is not one member of the production units or executive committees, not one critic or film journalist in this country, who can afford to sneer at Fritz Lang’s conception.  High Treason, with its arts-and-crafts design by Andrew Mazzei, revealed only too clearly how poorly Britain produces a film of this kind.

The Film Till Now by Paul Rotha (1967)

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A sound and talking film called High Treason, produced in London and imported to this country by one of the large American distributing companies, has been banned from the screen, without public hearing, in the states of Pennsylvania and New York by their respective censorship boards.

In New York the film has been refused license on the ground that it “tends to incite to crime” and “be inhuman”.  In Pennsylvania it is tabooed under the law that provides for the disapproval of films that are “salacious, obscene, indecent or immoral or tend, in the judgment of the board to debase or corrupt morals.”

And what is the theme of this film so proscribed from public view by the august legal dispensers of screen morals?  Strangely enough, the theme is upon the subject of war and peace.  Fancifully projected to the year 1940, the picture portrays a situation in which the world is confronted by war on a gigantically destructive scale.  The peace forces of the world find themselves in conflict with the militarists.  The war council of one federation (for the nations of Europe and of the Western hemisphere have formed coalitions), despite the pleas of the peace advocates on both sides of the Atlantic, has declared for war.  This decision is about to be announced over the world television broadcasting system, when the leader of the great peace organization shoots and kills the president of the federation declaring for war, and announces to the world that the decision has been for peace.  The war is thus prevented.  But the peace leader is tried for murder and convicted in conformity with the law.

Thus High Treason, while produced for entertainment, finds its dramatic moment in the triumph of peace and the spirit of international fellowship.  It is this film that the state censors in Pennsylvania withhold from the view of the public on the score that it is immoral and tends to corrupt morals, and that the censors in New York State withhold from the view of the public because it tends to incite to crime and be inhuman.  The ways of the censor passeth understanding.

The action of these two state censor boards on this film gives the communities of New York and Pennsylvania something to think about.  Quite aside from the demerits or merits of High Treason, and the latter are by no means meager, either as entertainment or as provoking of earnest thought (for the picture is vivid, well put together, and serious despite its fanciful rendition), the question arises as to whether motion pictures can present for discussion, or use as dramatic material, subjects that the American theory of free speech allows to the drama, the pulpit, the public forum and the press.

The National Board of Review is on the side of a free screen.  It has already given a private showing of High Treason, which resulted in a protest of a hundred prominent citizens against the action of the Pennsylvania and New York State censorship boards in prohibiting its exhibition.

The National Board is sponsoring a second private showing of the picture to a much larger, and even more representative audience.  It has invited a representative of the censorship boards involved in this prohibition to appear and defend the action of that particular legally constituted body for the protection of public morals.

Will he accept its invitation and appear to speak?  We shall see.

But whether he does nor not, the point is that the repressive action is being called to the attention of the public.  By such direct and challenging means on the part of those who believe that censorship is evil, in that it cripples almost hopelessly the power of the screen to deal with important subjects, to stir thought that is worth thinking and emotions that are worth feeling, we choose to think this work of those who sit in cubbyholes under authority of censorship laws, saying what may and may not be seen on the public screen, can be brought into the open in such a manner as to permit the American people to judge whether the institution of legal censorship is worth maintaining.

Since the above was written the second private showing has been held and at that time an audience of over five hundred prominent men and women meeting at Roerich Hall affirmed the following resolution:

WHEREAS, The Motion Picture Division of the Educational Department of New York State and the State Board of Censors of Pennsylvania have recently banned the exhibition of the film High Treason in their respective stats, and

WHEREAS, This action is opposed to that freedom of expression which is necessary in so important a medium as the audible motion picture, and

WHEREAS, Nothing that is presented in the film High Treason is in violation of fundamental decency or in contravention of the laws barring indecency in theatrical or other exhibitions, with which this film may be properly compared, and

WHEREAS, The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures while taking neither one side nor the other for any propaganda which any given motion picture may contain, believes in the freedom of choice of theme, and

WHEREAS, The National Board of Review has repeatedly declared itself in unequivocal terms as being opposed to the exercise of legal censorship because it is in fundamental conflict with the spirit upon which our government is founded, and because such censorship is a potential weapon of suppression of ideas, thought and speech, and

WHEREAS, Such suppression has actually occurred in the ban placed upon the film High Treason, Therefore

BE IT RESOLVED, That the National Board of Review protests formally and emphatically against the banning of the film High Treason, as an act of suppression which is not warranted by the public interests, but which, on the contrary, is opposed to democratic principle, and to the proper development of the motion picture as a medium of expression.

National Board of Review Magazine, Volume V, Number 4, April, 1930

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Interestingly, Things to Come was not the first British science fiction film to explore the themes of pacifism and the planned society.  Two now forgotten films directed by Maurice Elvey, High Treason (1929) and The Tunnel (1934), had explored them, though rather more naively than Wells and Korda.  High Treason shared with Things to Come the setting of a futuristic London in 1940, and the prediction of war starting with a surprise aerial attack.  Coincidentally High Treason also featured an uncredited but unmistakable Raymond Massey as a member of the Peace League.

The visual inspiration of High Treason was clearly the ultimate `city of the future` film, Fritz Lang`s Metropolis.  The intricate model shots of the skyscrapered cityscape with planes darting between buildings and transportation provided by monorails, submarines and helicopters immediately recall Lang`s masterpiece, as do scenes of workers shuffling, with heads bowed, into tunnels and the sequence of Evelyn Seymour (Benita Hume) inciting the workers to revolt.  Interestingly The Tunnel was an actual English remake of a German science fiction film with the same title, made two years earlier.

The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain by Jeffrey Richards (1984)

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The visual and thematic influence of Metropolis can be seen throughout Maurice Elvey`s High Treason (1929).  Based on a preachy pacifist play by independent M.P. Noël Pemberton-Billing, it prefigured Things to Come with its setting of a futurist London and the prediction of war breaking out in 1940 with a surprise aerial attack.  It coincidentally featured an uncredited but unmistakable Raymond Massey as a member of the Peace League.  The futuristic setting and the key role of women in organising opposition to war did not feature in the original play but were added for the film version, almost certainly under the influence of Metropolis (Aldgate 1997:261).

The visual inspiration of High Treason was quite clearly Metropolis.  The intricate model shots of the skyscrapered city, with planes darting between buildings and transportation provided by monorails, submarines and helicopters, immediately recall Lang`s masterpiece, as do scenes of workers shuffling, heads bowed, into tunnels, and the sequence in which Evelyn Seymour (Benita Hume), like the robot Maria in Metropolis, incites the workers to revolt.

High Treason postulates a future in which tension exists between the United Atlantic States and the United States of Europe.  This tension is being exacerbated by the machinations of the President of the International Armaments Corporation, a fat, monocled, cigar-chewing plutocrat, a key figure in interwar demonology.  In New York, the Atlantic Council calls for military preparedness and there is a vision of an unprovoked aerial attack on New York.

The Paris-London express is blown up in the Channel Tunnel by agents of the International Armaments Corporation; the United Atlantic States are blamed; and the President of Europe orders immediate mobilisation.  Dr Seymour, head of the World Peace League, which has twenty million members, and his daughter Evelyn work desperately to avert war.  Evelyn leads the women munitions workers, all singing the peace anthem, to immobilise the planes of the European airforce.  When the European president insists on proceeding with the war, Dr Seymour shoots him dead and broadcasts an announcement that Europe will submit its differences with the Atlantic States to arbitration.  The Atlantic Council accepts the offer of arbitration and war is averted.  But Seymour is tried for murder and executed.  He goes willingly to his death because he has taken a life but he dies a martyr to the cause of peace.

The Times (9 August 1929) was impressed, praising the ‘admirable acting’ and Maurice Elvey`s mastery of the technique of sound film.  Indeed, the reviewer thought the film was more ambitious than Hitchcock`s Blackmail for ‘Mr. Elvey has endeavoured to visualize the London of 1940’:

And a strange London it is, with a double-decker bridge at Charing Cross, with television in daily use, with the newspapers entirely superseded by the broadcasting service, with airships flying overhead, with helicopters rising vertically from the roofs of city buildings, and with the blowing up of the Channel Tunnel.  The 1940 age is evidently to be a purely mechanical one.  Even in the night clubs the dancers are little more than automatic figures, and the jazz music is proved by mechanical means.

The Bioscope (14 August 1929) actually thought High Treason better than Metropolis.  But is in retrospect crude and naïve pacifist propaganda, wholly lacking the power and drive of Metropolis or Things to Come.

British Science Fiction Cinema: British Popular Cinema by Jeffrey Richards Edited by I.Q. Hunter (1999)

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…By the end of the year (Maurice) Elvey, quick as usual, had turned out both sound and silent versions of High Treason (Trade Shows August 1929 and October 1929), a politically artless forecast of 1940 with Benita Hume and Jameson Thomas and some aggressively futuristic décor.  It is significant of the naivety of the film that in inventing a story of the future such familiar conceptions of the past as white feathers, ‘conchies’ and Zeppelins should have been used.  The Full Talking version seems to have been trade shown first, in August.  (Oswell) Blakeston [was the pseudonym of Henry Joseph Hasslacher, a British writer and artist who also worked in the film industry, made some experimental films, and wrote extensively on film theory] spoke of ‘the effect of actors in need of throat pastilles’:

‘We could go through this picture giving a documentation of the absurdities and failures in imagination of the art department and production staff, but we do not think High Treason is worth the space.

‘There is one attempt to show that Potemkin has been heard of: the sequence of close-ups after the bombs have been let loose on the headquarters of the Peace Mission.  Blood streaming from the mouths, and all the rest, but the same old extras instead of Mr Eisenstein’s types.’

…But even whilst sets were getting bigger and bigger in other countries, techniques were also being developed which in time were to make the erection of huge sets unnecessary.  About 1919 F.P. Earle in America invented the glass shot, the first of a series of special processes which revolutionized the work of film design and extended the scope of the cinema.  Seeking for a way in which a painter could influence the visual appearance of the film, he devised a way for the artist to paint the scene on to glass, leaving clear spaces here and there as required; the glass was supported in front of the camera in such a way that the actors could be seen through the clear spaces, at a correct distance to fit the perspective, and act in front of a neutral background which blended into the painted scene.  This form of shot was later adapted to make it unnecessary to build ceilings or the upper parts of large sets, these being painted on to the glass and put in front of the camera so that the painted upper part and constructed lower part joined exactly.  Considerable skill was needed to conceal the join.

These techniques were adapted to photographs, or to drawings or paintings on plywood, in Hall’s Background Process.  The American rights for this were held by Paramount and it was introduced into Britain by Benito Nichols of M.P. Sales.

‘An artist’s drawing, about 5 ft in length, is first prepared from a photograph of the scene it is wished to reproduce, omitting those sections in which it will be necessary to show movement of living players.  This “cut out” is then suspended a few feet from the camera as a mask for the scene to be played on a real exterior some 60 ft behind.  If necessary, the lower portion of the scene is solidly built to complete the drawing, which will appear on the screen in perspective.’

Once more the principal was extended, this time to the model shot, in which a relief model was suspended in front of the camera and appropriately lighted.  The next development was the Dunning Shot, patented by C. Dodge Dunning, also in America.  This was a process by which the background was filmed first, and then run through the camera again to film the actions of the characters, who were superimposed.  After this came the Schufftan Process, which was described in The Bioscope in January 1927.  The British rights were bought by British National and used in 1927 first on Madame Pompadour after the system had been used in America and Germany.  It was a more sophisticated development of the model shot.  A mirror, a thin sheet of optical glass silvered on the surface, was placed just in front of the camera at an angle of 45 degrees to it.  A model, photograph or diapositive lighted from behind was placed at right angles to the camera in such a way that it was reflected in the mirror.  At appropriate places the silvering was scraped off the mirror to leave clear glass through which the camera could photograph the players performing in constructed portions of the set at the correct perspective.  As in the glass shot the two combined to give a complete picture. And as before, skill was needed to get a good join, but according to Blakeston it was very realistic, especially when using a model.

Split matt shots, which had long been done in the camera, were made much easier when increased precision in optical printing made it possible to do them in the lab.  Still photographic backgrounds, enlarged and pasted on canvas backing behind the actors, were followed by moving photographic backgrounds projected on to a sheet of glass or other transparent material behind the actors and the rest of the scene, the whole being filmed in synchronization with the speed of projection of the background.  There was considerable difficulty in securing the synchronization, but an early attempt was made in England in the filming of a ‘television screen’ in Elvey’s futuristic High Treason in 1929.

The History of the British Film 1918-1929, Volume IV Edited by Rachael Low (1997)

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Synopsis:  The year is 1940.  When a passenger car attempts to smuggle liquor through a frontier station on the border, a grenade is thrown by guards on one side of the fence.  This leads to an exchange of gunfire, and the incident itself threatens to incite war between the Atlantic States and the Federated States of Europe.  “Secret forces,” blares a radio broadcast from New York, “are driving the great continents into war as surely as they did in 1914.  We look to London, the headquarters of the World League of Peace, to prevent a conflict.”

The London of 1940 is an extensive metropolis, quite removed from the vista a citizen of the late ‘20s would have recognized.  The air is speckled with airplanes and dirigibles, and the Thames seems also to have grown wider and more heavily traveled.  Dr. Stephen Seymour (Humberston Wright) heads the World League of Peace, ably assisted by his daughter Evelyn (Benita Hume).  Evelyn, it devolves, is in love with Major Michael Deane (Jameson Thomas), officer-in-charge of the Mobile Air Staff of the European Ministry of Air.  Everyone seems bellicose at the ministry, as is witnessed when one of Deane’s staff harrumphs about declaring war when footage of the altercation at the border is aired on the major’s teleradiograph, a combination phone/television screen.

Concerned as Dr. Seymour is about Evelyn’s dining out with Michael that night, he has far weightier things on his mind.  The Atlantic States Council is debating whether to send an ultimatum to the European government, and Seymour must make sure to communicate with the New York Peace League headquarters to defuse the situation.  Seymour’s message arrives in time to be read at the meeting, but frightened council members conjure up visions of destruction by air (“And that,” thunders the doomsayer, “is modern war!”).

As the debate continues, the camera tracks back to reveal that a group of black-clad, heavily smoking privateers has been eavesdropping on the proceedings via another teleradiograph.  The group stands to make quite a bit of money if it can prod the politicos into organized hostility.  “Fortunately,” chuckles one of the munitions men, “politicians never realize the part played by professional agitators in provoking war.”

War is on Evelyn’s mind as she and Michael head out for an evening of dining and dancing.  Even as the couple is tripping the light fantastic at a trendy club, a group of agitators has rigged a bomb to explode in the midst of the Channel Tunnel.  The detonation collapses the tunnel, killing everyone aboard the London-Paris dining-car express, and the revelers at the nightclub are informed of the incident via an announcement board hanging on the wall.  “The government has decided on immediate mobilization,” they are advised; “All men under fifty and all women subject to the Conscription Act of 1938 will report immediately to their depots.”  Evelyn and Mark part company, seemingly doomed to be on opposite sides in the impending war.  “You’ve no moral courage,” she tells him, when he moves to join his men.  “You’re really…a coward!”

At Mobilisation Centre number 3, a line of dispirited women in civvies channels through a door at the far end of the hall, from which emerges a line of trim, white-uniformed, ersatz—military women.  As this transformation takes place, the munitions group is initiating an assault on the Peace League headquarters.  A biplane, flying scarcely yards above the building’s roof, drops its bomb, and the ensuing conflagration seems almost apocalyptic in scope.  Miraculously, Dr. Seymour escapes unhurt; he informs Evelyn that he’s off for a last-ditch meeting with the president.  “I am a man of peace, but I go prepared!”

The president of Europe is, at that very moment, polling his counselors: peace or war?  When the vote comes back a draw, President Deane (Basil Gill) casts the tie-breaker for war.  He intends to announce the declaration of war to the world at midnight.  Evelyn, meanwhile, has headed over to the mobilization center, where she attempts to rally the white-clad women, the vast majority of whom are members of the Peace League.  Clad from head to foot in black, Michael and his aviators confront the women.  “I warn you,” Michael snarls at his erstwhile dance partner, “don’t interfere!”  “And I warn you,” Evelyn answers, “your planes shall never start.”

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The soldiers cock their weapons and seem ready to fire on the women, when the teleradiograph on the wall interrupts: “Stand by!  At midnight the president of Europe will make an announcement of worldwide significance.”  Pacifists and warriors stand around, awaiting word of their fate; Evelyn leads the women in the “Peace Song.”  In the presidential rooms, Dr. Seymour and the president square off, ideologically.  The president admits he could call off his forces if he so desired, and that’s all the Peace League vicar-general needs to hear.  Allowed to address the world via radiotelegraph, Dr. Seymour announces that Europe will submit to arbitration in an effort to avoid war.  Furious at his having been fooled, President Deane fires a weapon at Dr. Seymour, who pulls a pistol of his own and shoots the black-clad politician dead.  Turning to the broken screen of the teleradiograph, Dr. Seymour advises the waiting world, “There will be no war.”

Spurred on by these words, Evelyn exhorts her female companions to run out into the aerodrome, which they do; within moments each plane is surrounded by the women in white.  Despite having heard the words over the teleradiograph, Michael orders his soldiers to “clear the women from the aerodrome!”  The men, however, refuse to open fire.  Presently, Michael is handed written orders to go off duty, and the deadly impasse is at an end.

A presidential aide and some soldiers breach the locked doors of Deane’s office, and Dr. Seymour is led away.  “I killed him to prevent war.  It was the only way to peace,” the stunned pacifist confesses.  Seymour is brought to trial and found guilty of murder.  A reconciled Evelyn and Michael listen in disbelief as the vicar-general of the World League of Peace accepts his sentence: “I am…content.”

We’re in a pickle right off the bat.  Virtually all of the press materials consulted in preparation for this piece (including the original press book, obtained through the microfiche collections at the BFI) have High Treason’s high drama taking place in 1940, eleven years after the picture’s release date.  It’s obvious that folks back then were much more optimistic about the geometric progression of scientific knowledge than they’ve been ever since.  For instance, when Stanley Kubrick unveiled 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, I remember thinking then how incredible the world was going to be, some thirty-one years thence. (Astronauts had just walked on the moon, you know?  Anything was possible.)  Come 2001. Not only was I not primed to cavort on the ceiling of a spotlessly white spaceship, I was still dealing with dirty subways, lost luggage, and airline food.

The aforementioned pickle isn’t the scenarist’s overactive imagination, but the fact that the introductory titles of the silent version of High Treason maintain that we’ll be gawking at Britain in 1950!  I don’t know whether the talkie prints were set an additional decade in the future (as if to posit some bizarre symbiosis with the picture’s sound technology), or whether no one involved in the actual filming bothered to check with the studio’s publicity mills until after truckloads of erratum-bearing press information were dumped on an unsuspecting world.  (The press book I mentioned earlier was from the sound version.)  In the course of doing research, I was informed that the British Film Institute’s print of the talkie version consists of the visuals only: “The film material that we hold is mute; the original sound material was destroyed when it began to deteriorate by the laboratory that held the film previous to its deposit with the BFI.”  Thus, we’ll have to wait for one of those rogue collectors who (thankfully) lurk in filmdom’s shadows to tell us about the temporal grounding of the talkie High Treason.  British film-music writer John A.B. Wright has advised me that the (sound trailer to the film has survived.

Noel Pemberton-Billing’s three-act High Treason—first performed at London’s Strand Theatre on November 7, 1928—was facilely set “some time in the future,” thus sparing any worrisome anticipation on the part of ticket holders.  The play enjoyed an indeterminable—but brief—run, and the first-night cast included Ursula Jeans, H.A. Saintsbury—renowned to aficionados of obscure thrillers for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in Samuelson Film’s Valley of Fear (UK, 1916)—and up-and-coming stage and screen director James Whale.  Acting in High Treason did not deter Whale from involving himself with the design and direction of Anthony Mervyn’s Dreamers, a spiritual saga about the transmigration of souls.  Nor, following that production’s rather rapid demise, did it enjoin him from falling heir (via a current dispassion with tales of pacifism and the Great War) to R.C. Sherriff’s Journey End, dropped into his lap by the Stage Society, which had nowhere else to turn.

History, unfortunately, has not been so kind to Mr. Pemberton-Billing.  Concise biographical data have thus far eluded my efforts to track them down, and but some sketchy, unsupported and rather adulatory remarks may be found in C.G. Grey’s preface to the printed text of High Treason.  Per Grey, the playwright was a pacifist, an inventor (reportedly responsible for, among other things, the sports car, the long-playing record, and the British national insurance plan), a seafarer, an aviator, a squadron commander of the Royal Naval Air Service, and a member of parliament.  After the war, the newly idle juggernaut “busied himself with the housing problem” and went on to invent new types of houses before taking off for Australia.

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Grey concedes that this shopping list of the man’s many interests “gives no impression of [Pemberton-Billing’s] character, other than that he is constitutionally combative and quite undefeatable.”  As High Treason—both onstage and onscreen—has dropped off the face of the earth in the intervening decades, it may be argued that his putting pacifist pen to paper resulted in the man’s only poor inning.  If, as the preface maintains, “Professional critics and convinced pacifists alike condemn[ed] the play,” one is left to wonder just why the property was thought worthy of a blatantly expensive adaptation to film.

Perhaps the reason is that Fritz Lang’s Metropolis had landed in Britain in March of the previous year, and the edited epic (it was trade shown at 10,000 feet) had impressed everyone.  The Bioscope summed up its exhibitor-oriented critique by crowing how the picture was “the most remarkable and unique spectacle ever shown on the screen” (March 24, 1927).  Even The Times, London’s most venerable organ of measured understatement, admitted (on March 22 of that same year) that Metropolis “proves how wide are the boundaries of [cinematographic technique] and how little they have hitherto been explored.”  Those must have been fighting words to the national collective cinematic consciousness, for the search was soon on for grist for a similar, albeit more imposing, mill.  (Highlighted by a selection of scene stills from Lang’s masterpiece, the March 15, 1927 edition of The Morning Post asked its readership, “Are British Films menaced by a German ‘Hollywood’?”—two days before the Ufa import had its UK premier.)  High Treason was to be Britain’s defiant response to Metropolis.

Now, with the exception of several examples of Michael Balcon’s ineffable good taste and Alfred Hitchcock’s burgeoning genius, “the English silent cinema” and “the full-length motion picture” did not enjoy a happy marriage.  While the industry could crank out notable short subjects with regularity, it proved unable to infuse the lion’s share of its output of feature films with anything remotely resembling fascinating qualities.  Perhaps because they were (in the words of Claude Rains) “so very British,” the island empire’s cinematic movers and shakers set out to record for posterity seemingly every nuance of daily British life.  Paeans to the folk who made England great—if only by their doggedly providing the most mundane of services to their communities—were produced in impressive numbers (and latter-day commentary on these has maintained that the sheer number of such pictures remains their only impressive attribute), as were studies of the sundry lords and ladies who had breathed British air since the dawn of mankind.  Undeniably valuable filmic records of Shakespearean goodies as enacted by world-renowned interpreters were offset by adaptations of drearily banal literature that were foisted on the public solely because the originals had been authored by Britons.  An argument could easily be made that England’s silent cinematic arm succeeded in taking one of the most remarkable peoples on earth and making them as bland and colorless as the London fog.

In addition to its being a countermeasure to Metropolis, High Treason may also have been regarded as a consciously administered antidote to British cinematic stultification.  The following text (taken directly from the picture’s press book) assured potential audiences that they were going to treated to sights they’d never seen before:

HITHERTO, most of the sound and dialogue films shown in this country have either presented stories of the stage or crime and in consequence, an insistent demand for “something different” has arisen.  High Treason breaks the spell of stereotyped “talkies”; more than that, it is sufficiently unusual to be distinctive in film entertainment either sound or silent.

Based on a play by Pemberton Billing, it presents a picture of the world in 1940 [sic] when the Peace Movement has grown [to] large enough proportions to take militant action to prevent war.  No greater theme could be found for dramatization at this day when the whole world is seeking a way to permanent peace; but it may be remarked that since the primary purpose of this film is entertainment and not propaganda, the producers have wisely interwoven the world’s greatest theme, the omnipotence of love in all ages and the triumph of humanity.

In 1940, we shall live in a mechanized world, civilization may be tottering, but the human heart and women’s assertion of their power will save the situation.  This is what is pictured in the story of two great federations of states, those of Europe and those of America, on the verge of a war which is prevented by the action of the founder of the peace League in shooting the President of the federated European States as he is about to broadcast a declaration of war to the world.  The trial of the man who killed another man to save the world is a martyrdom that provides the dramatic climax of the film.

Such a story affords opportunities for unique visual and sound effects, and the film shows us London in 1940, with the new Charing Cross Bridge, double-decker streets, aeroplanes, airships and helicopters which rise from and land on the roofs of buildings in the heart of the City; television in everyday use, news simultaneously broadcast in sound and picture, the Channel Tunnel in operation, the nightclub of the future with its mechanical instruments for jazz music and lady fencers as cabaret turns; fashions of 1940, with plus fours for the women and soft silk shirts and knee breeches for the men; in short, an age of scientific marvels and sartorial surprises.

Tickets to High Treason just flew out the door, although it was apparent to almost everyone that the picture’s spectacle (and not its pacifist theme) was the drawing card.  Kinematograph Weekly, a trade journal aimed at giving the skinny to the thousands of UK exhibitors, moaned that “The story is too vague and illogical to create any great interest or point any particular moral.  There is a moral, but it remains obscure unless one takes the trouble to delve beneath the surface.  The dialogue, too, is utterly undistinguished.”

Viewing the silent version—which is still extant and available, through the BFI—one notes that, apart from some really minor gaffs it shares with Metropolis (like fixed-wing aircraft negotiating turns without dipping a wing), High Treason succeeds in bearing a British soul.  As knowing one’s mind and persevering in the face of contrary opinion is the basic stuff of “stiff upper lip,” it would not do to have the aviators and the pacifists enact their conflict in shades of gray.  Soldiers, therefore, are uniformed in black, while the myriad forces of pacifism (mostly women, it seems) are attired in white.  (In one of High Treason’s most obvious borrowings from Metropolis, an endless row of conscripted female Londoners in stylish mufti enters a changing room via one door, only to emerge through another as an endless line of dispirited, seemingly mesmerized, white-clad clones.)

Rather than depicting a central London as supercity that defies logic and mocks reality, art director Andrew Mazzei contented himself (and his budget) with miniatures that represent an admittedly more impressive—yet still plausible—Thames embankment skyline and glass paintings that moderately exaggerate the New York skyscrapers with which most Brits were familiar only via newsreels.  Likewise, the decadent Yoshiwara Club—where Metropolis’s moneyed set is driven in paroxysms of lust by the false Maria—has its English counterpart in the more subdued (but no less bizarre: The “hesitation one-step” has to be seen to be believed) anonymous cabaret in which Evelyn Seymour tells Michael Deane to take a hike.  A take on the Channel Tunnel (which was even then an on again-off again project that wouldn’t see completion and an official opening for nearly seven decades) provides some much-needed action, besides being another indulgence in British optimism for the future.  If anything, it appears as if the British technicians were determined not to indulge in the architectural excesses of the earlier German epic, and The Bioscope did not offer the only commentary that took pride in the fact that “The forecast of London and New York in the future shows imagination of design within the bounds of possibility and steers clear of the exaggerated fantasy of Metropolis.”

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Inside those less awesome edifices, however, the English imagination was left unfettered.  The audiences of 1929 may have had no inkling that technology would one day present them with ballpoint pens, but they were left gaping at “teleradiographs.”  Those and other sorts of video screens are pretty much omnipresent, in fact, hanging as they do from just about every wall in every building in the screenplay.  The silent print I viewed makes a valiant effort to show that each screen has its own loudspeaker and that there’s never a pneumatic tube or two far off.  (Apart from the pneumatic tubes—which, if memory serves, hit their apex in the late 1950s as department store accouterments—the vision of ubiquitous audiovisual apparatus was pretty much dead on.)  Presaging later days when overuse would render the effect unexciting, there’s a pip of a shot where the camera tracks backward to reveal that the meeting of the Atlantic States bigwigs has been on a video screen all the while and that the warmongers have been eavesdropping!

No onscreen credit was afforded to Gaumont’s special effects people, and neither the press book nor any of the documentation I’ve been able to track down from myriad sources over the last couple of years lends any help whatsoever.  Those anonymous technicians had every reason to be proud of their miniature work—the various settings and mobile pieces are excellently constructed and reasonably well lit—even if jaded millennium viewers would never regard them as anything other than miniatures.  (Still, they are miles ahead of the nondescript New York skyscrapers destroyed in Deluge.)  The bombing that collapses the Channel Tunnel is more adroitly handled than the isolated bombing mission of a low-flying biplane, although the resultant damage in both cases leads one to believe that the London of the future is constructed of little else than wooden beams and loosely packed dirt.

Effects and costuming apart, the production is quite uneven.  Prolific he may have been, but Maurice Elvey was never one to meld profound narrative vision with technical brilliance.  One of his best efforts was undoubtedly Gaumont’s Hindle Wakes (1927), a remake of his earlier (1918) take on Stanley Houghton’s amiable play.  Still, as film historian Henry Nicolella point out, the latter picture’s successes may have been due to the fact that “Victor Saville co-directed and that film had the advantage of Jack Cox’s superb cinematography.”  When assigned a feature and then left to his own devices, Elvey usually resorted to recording the scenario in the straightforward manner that so typified early British cinema.

In fairness to Elvey, Gaumont assigned L’Estrange Fawcett as line producer and scenarist.  Fawcett and Elvey had worked together the previous year on Smashing Through, a comedy adventure tale in which Elvey had produced Fawcett’s screenplay.  Chronologically, High Treason was only Fawcett’s second shot at a screenplay, and he went on to write only three more, all comedies.  If the adaptation of what was intended to be a prestige production had been handed to a screenwriter with a proven track record or (at least) a measurable presence in the industry, the relative banality of the film’s first unit work would lie squarely on the shoulders of Elvey (and cinematographer Percy Strong).  Given that the weaknesses of the story as filmed were almost universally singled out for criticism by otherwise salivating British movie writers, one is left to wonder why the decision was made to entrust this expensive project to (essentially) a cinematic novice.

The six-month span between silent and sound releases points to problems that may have arisen at Gaumont-British about the filming of the talkie version.  Brief mention of the talkie jump-start came from Variety:

What every British producer has done to date is to follow the American lead—years later.  Not so, Maurice Elvey.  When he saw the talker wave coming he stopped production for eight months and then with no sound studio and a lousy untried recording system, set out to make a glorious clean-up or a terrible flop.

Musical arranger Louis Levy also made some en passant remarks in his book, Music from the Movies (London: Marston and Company, Ltd., 1948): “Although technical difficulties compelled us to hold up High Treason for several weeks while some of the dialogue was redone, the musical side was ‘in the bag.’”  It’s impossible to compare the two versions, scene by scene, in order to determine whether some of the silent footage was reprinted and utilized with voice-over, or whether—except for long shots and scenes like the airport confrontation (which were too dark to spot which lips were moving)—all new footage was shot for the new release.  Gaumont’s press book omitted any word of those technical difficulties and crowed as only a press book can:

The sound recording is the world’s best, for voices, music and effects alike, and is particularly good in the graphic realism of the aeroplane raids, the explosion in the Channel Tunnel and the women’s triumphal singing of the Peace Song—to mention but a few of the “high spots” in the film.

Would that the tradeshow invitees had read the press book and then passed on the film: There was virtual unanimity that the picture’s dialogue track was in need of a quick fix.  Mindful that those were British theater managers who sank or swam according to audience levels, The Bioscope admitted:

[Sound], unfortunately, was the weak point at the trade show on Thursday last.  The synchronization was far from perfect, many of the voices were blurred and inaudible from a volume of sound [sic], and a mechanical orchestra emitted such music as to stamp it as the most diabolical invention of the age.  The fact that many of the speeches, notably that of the Judge, improved as the scene went on suggests that these are defects that will be eliminated in future presentations.

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Sound or no, the acting in High Treason is quite decent all the way around, yet there was obviously a disparity between British film critics, who regarded artistic competence as a starting point, and British film critics, who gushed over the profusion of English actors jabbering away in a homespun, high-budge talkie.  Kinematograph Weekly typified the first school of thought when it stated:

Benita Hume makes an attractive Evelyn, but is not equal to the limited emotional demands.  Humberston Wright looks the part of the president of the Peace League, but the role does not allow him very much scope.  Jameson Thomas is adequate as Michael, while Basil Gill is effective as the president of Europe.               [August 15, 1929]

The more blatantly nationalistic Bioscope—which had earlier complained about the picture’s sound—now pandered to the Union Jack and swore that, although they may have had trouble hearing the actors’ tones,

Jameson Thomas as the airman hero; Basil Gill, a very commanding figure as the president of the European States; Humberston Wright, impressive and affecting as the fanatical Peace advocate; Benita Hume, looking very lovely as the heroine, and Henry Vibart, the epitome of dignity as a judge of the High Court, all played with such distinction and dramatic effect as to prove that British players are unrivalled when called upon to use their voices and their own intelligence. [August 14, 1929]

Exhibiting the sort of no-nonsense, cut-to-the chase observations for which the American trade press had become noted, Variety was anything but prolix:

A pip of a cast and Elvey’s old stage producing days show in the directing of this all-talker, all-screecher.  Chief among the eye-fillers is Benita Hume, humdinger.  She’s the first femme they’ve flashed on a British screen who didn’t look like a powdered frump. [October 2, 1929]

I don’t know how the contemporary seat holders felt.  Again, High Treason was released long enough after the Great War and sufficiently before World War II not to have a built-in audience based for a pacifist theme, but several of the commentators had some questions about the kind of pacifism being presented.  What with the vicar general of the World League of Peace gunning down the president of Europe in an act of coldblooded murder—and then lying like a rug on a worldwide radio broadcast—the picture wasn’t portraying the sort of ethical behavior that every British Mum and Dad were supposed to be hoping for where their children were concerned.  The idea that Mr. Pemberton-Billing might have benefited from a brief coming to grips with the concept before committing his thoughts to paper was penned by a least one country vicar to at least one local English newspaper.  Unfortunately, the philosophy that the end justifies the means didn’t originate with Pemberton-Billing, and members of some of today’s sundry extremist groups have shown themselves perfectly willing to commit murder to achieve their own goals or frustrate those of their opponents.  I seriously doubt whether Ralph Spence, George Bricker, or any of the production staff on Warner Brothers’ Sh! The Octopus screened High Treason for ideas on how to depict the violent underbelly of peace leagues.

Without the soundtrack of the talkie version available, one can only guess at the musical value of the peace song into which Evelyn (and anyone standing in her shadow) launches at moments in which inspiration is required.  The recurrent anthem is titled “The Peace Song” in the silent print but was composed (music by Walter Collins, lyrics by Patrick K. Heale) as “The March to Peace” originally.  (In the sound version, the march was presumably sung by Benita Hume or mouthed by her and sung by Marni Nixon’s great-grandmother.)  The march and a dance piece titled “There’s Nothing New in Love” (most likely played for the “hesitation one-step” mentioned earlier) were the only two original numbers in the picture.  As for any other music that may have appeared in the sound release, John A.B. Wright mentions that “Louis Levy had been a music ‘fitter’ for Gaumont British for some years and we assume that the ‘score’ for High Treason is mostly stock material from music publishers’ libraries (probably Campbell Connelly).”

High Treason holds one’s attention without being particularly striking either as pacifist propaganda or science fiction.  The idea that a mere eleven (or even twenty-one) years would see such incredible advances in communications, architecture, aerodynamics, and the comfort-oriented domestic sciences smacks of fantasy, rather than sci-fi.  This is despite the fact that most of the flashier devices shown would end up as mundane labor savers by the end of the twentieth century and were, in fact, present in embryonic form in 1929.  There is no denying either the scientific legitimacy of many of the ideas presented, or the inherent charms of future fashions; what is ludicrous is the conceit that everything has been designed, implemented and grown mundane within the brief span of eleven years.  The underlying story had been done before and has been done since; in almost all cases, it has been done better.  Nonetheless, High Treason has a fascination about it that is hard to explain but easy to appreciate.  Here is a sampling of British opinion:

“One of the most arresting of film productions.”  (Daily Mail)
“Nothing that one can say of this great and greatly successful effort can exaggerate its significance….  In having contrived a great entertainment, Maurice Elvey has achieved a masterpiece.”  (Sunday Pictorial)
“Not only the best talking film yet made, but the screen’s greatest achievement in imaginative construction.”  (Daily Express)
“The wealth of spectacle and the accuracy of detail make this picture a most impressive production… great entertainment.”  (Daily Chronicle)
“A remarkable British talkie, perhaps the best yet.”  (Sunday Times)
High Treason is a masterpiece.  Whereas, in most talking pictures, sound has been timorous and blatant in turn, it is here eloquent and triumphant.”  (Referee)
High Treason is very realistically staged, and, indeed, the mise-en-scène altogether is on the grand scale.”  (Daily Telegraph)
“With some healthy editing, shearing the last reel or more completely, High Treason can be made into acceptable entertainment for any house anywhere.  They’ll like it or they’ll hate it, but they’ll all go.”  (Variety)


  1. In fact, Saintsbury had essayed the role of the Great Consulting Detective upon the British stage more than one thousand times before the 108-minute feature film was shot. In the England of the day, the classically trained actor was the Sherlock Holmes of his generation.
  2. The playwright financed a very small vanity edition (twenty-five copies), and photocopies of copy number seven (presented to Ursula Jeans) came into my possession due to the kindness and generosity of silent film buffs Steve Joyce and Henry Nicolella. Book searches and author queries addressed to any number of libraries, archives and literary periodicals have not uncovered any other editions of High Treason.
  3. I can’t possibly improve on the press book’s helpful verbal tour of the cabaret, so I won’t try: “Before the development of the dramatic crisis in the café scene, womenfolk will enjoy a rare feast of future fashions. And not only in clothes; cabaret dancers are replaced with feminine exhibitions of fencing, a phantom orchestra plays with a full complement of jazz instruments but no instrumentalists, while the guests dance in new kind of hesitation one-step.  Note too that the guests dine reclining on divans and that the men have gone back to knee breeches, soft silk open-neck shirts and opera cloaks for evening wear.”

Up from the Vault: Rare Thrillers of the 1920s and 1930s by John T. Soister (2004)

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Film makers might loosely be classified in two categories—those who pursue art, with a very capital A, without semblance of regard for considerations demanded by the necessity of a popular appeal which shall be re-echoed in box-office receipts, and those who seek money, with an equally capital M, in apparent defiance of all or most of the accepted canons of artistic endeavor. Money, in the present conditions of the cinema, certainly talks louder than art; but after all the history of progress shows that there has been no considerable achievement except upon foundations of a solid and endurable character. So the world can live in hope of a serious alliance between the studio and the box office—an alliance which shall be a mariage de convenance productive of mutual benefit to all concerned, and most particularly to the public whose taste must be cultivated or debased, according to the methods which most prevail at the moment.

At the moment, if one cares to continue these generalizations, British film makers would appear to be stumbling rather blindly after artistic ideals, with half an eye turned upon the box office, while American film makers would seem to be devoting themselves so largely to the acquisition of the shekels which the masses of the public are prepared to spend on their amusements that they do no more than make a perfunctory bow to the canons of artistic taste which are proclaimed in their advertisements.

Britain vs. America
Two new films—both of the talkie variety—which have been trade-shown here this week, furnish particular illustrations of the foregoing general premises. One is a British production, the other is American. “High Treason” is the title given to the former. Perhaps the reader will divine the name of the latter from the description of it which will be given later. “High Treason” is the work of Maurice Elvey. Just as Mr. Hitchcock’s “Blackmail” was hailed recently as establishing the supremacy of the British audible films over American productions, so now Mr. Elvey’s “High Treason” is proclaimed to have “advanced the treatment of spectacle far beyond everything we have yet seen.” It is a possibly pardonable conceit for an English critic to write: “‘Blackmail‘ and ‘High Treason‘ give to Britain complete supremacy in the world of talking pictures.” Such adulation must be balm of Gilead to the very sorely harassed souls of British producers and British holders of stock in all British cinematograph enterprises. It would be “gold, frankincense and myrrh”—and especially gold—if it were found that the public took much stock in these “trade-show” paeans of praise. American talking pictures have got the ear of the British public so much filled with their nine months’ lead over the rest of the world that an auricular operation will be required to open that same ear to the claim of the British sound-film to be heard. If a surgical operation be necessary to get a joke into the head of a Scotsman, all the aurists in Harley Street will be required to work day and night upon the ears of the Englishman to make them thoroughly receptive of such extravagancies as some patriotically-minded London critics have recently indulged in.

High Treason
That there are merits in both “Blackmail” and “High Treason” nobody will deny. The former has already been discussed in this correspondence. “High Treason” suffers from many of the same defects as those which limited the appeal of “Blackmail.” To begin with, it doesn’t wash water. It is founded upon a play written by Pemberton Billings, and produced by the author at his own expense a year or so ago. Mr. Billings’s drama had a run that was short but not sweet, unlike the proverbial donkey’s gallop. It was laughed out of court. Why a film maker should imagine that a play which was a failure should make a successful talking picture passes ordinary comprehension. That Mr. Elvey saw in it possibilities of novel presentation is quite understandable, and in fact in that particular respect his work is most highly commendable. With vivid imagination and great technical accomplishment he has produced pictures of what the “world may be like in 1940 which certainly arrest attention. They are interesting even if one doesn’t consider them convincing. But will London be a robot town in such a little time as ten or eleven years hence? There may be a new bridge at Charing Cross, though even that is not certain; and there may even be a Channel tunnel, which is even less certain. Helicopters may be in common use and airplanes may land on and take off from the roofs of many-storied buildings overshadowing the dome of St. Paul’s. There may be no newspapers, broadcasting having supplanted both The London Times and the journals which are published by Lord Rothermere and Lord Beaverbrook each morning and afternoon in this year of grace.

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But Maurice Elvey does not convince anybody that the pictures he presents so admirably are likely to be a correct forecast of conditions that will prevail in such a short space of time as ten years from now.

Fantastic and Far-Fetched
Then the two stories which go to make up the plot of “High Treason” are, in their respective fashions, both so fantastic and far-fetched that there is no possibility of illusion being created in the mind of the audience to whose eyes and ears appeal is made. There is going to be a war between a united Europe and a united America. International financiers are at the bottom of the trouble. However, there is also a Peace League, with millions of adherents, and with a president who holds that to kill is a crime, but shoots the “President of Europe” just before he can broadcast a declaration of war upon America. This story is really such a farrago of nonsense that one is sorry Maurice Elvey could not find better material to his expert hand. The subsidiary love plot does possess some elements of human interest, and as portrayed and spoken by Miss Benita Hume and Jameson Thomas makes one realize the truth of Shakespeare’s dictum that all the world loves a lover.

Worthy Acoustic Qualities
Both the photographic and acoustic qualities of “High Treason” are on a high scale. American makers of sound films have certainly, as has been said before in this correspondence, something to learn from their British competitors. The Gaumont-British Company is the producing organization.

Reference above made to an American talking film trade-shown this week need only be recalled as illustrative of the extreme tendency of transatlantic producers to play upon strings which give out a golden chink. As this film has already been shown in America and criticized there with kindly courtesy, it need only be said here that when certain canons of art are entirely disregarded pathos deteriorates into bathos. There is a happy medium in all things. When that happy medium between the quest of gold and the pursuit of art is found it will be a good day for the future of the world in general and no less for the film industry in particular.

The New York Times by Ernest Marshall, August 25, 1929

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The future of 1940 is the subject matter of High Treason, based on inventor/aviator/pacifist Noel Pemberton-Billing’s 1928 three-act play of the same title.  Largely due to its unavailability, High Treason is now largely forgotten as the first all-talking picture shot in Great Britain.  Because of issues with the sound recording, however, it was England’s second talkie released, after the far more famous Blackmail, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  Billing’s play—which included future horror director James Whale in the cast—had a brief run, but one that made enough an impact that Guamont-British took note of the drama and optioned the rights to film it.

Contracted with British Acoustic, Ltd., Gaumont shot High Treason with their audio system that utilized a full-aperture picture on one film, and the sound played back (at the equivalent to 48 fps!) on a separate film.  By the time the picture was released State-side by Tiffany Pictures, the separate track was re-recorded onto a new track negative for standard optical playback, as well as a dual-inventory sound-on-disc release.

An August 1929 trade screening of the sound version was particularly well received, with advance notes from The New York Times criticizing the absurdity of the storyline, but admitting of the film’s technical qualities, “American makers of sound films have certainly…something to learn from their British competitors.”  British critics were also somewhat unkind to the film, as Oswell Blakeston wrote for Close Up, “We could go through this picture giving a documentation of the absurdities…but we do not think High Treason is worth the space.”  He also added, “There is one attempt to show that Potemkin has been heard of: the sequence of close-ups after the bombs have been let loose on the headquarters of the Peace Mission.  Blood streaming from the mouths, all the rest, but the same old extras instead of Mr. Eisenstein’s types.”

Shortly before its general release in the U.S. during March of 1930, the New York and Pennsylvania state censorship boards banned the film.  In New York, the film was refused license on the ground that it “tends to incite to crime” and “be inhuman.”  In Pennsylvania, the film was barred on the grounds that it contained content that was “salacious, obscene, indecent or immoral or tend, in the judgment of the board, to debase or corrupt morals.”  The National Board of Review, a nonpartisan volunteer group made of concerned citizens against legal censorship, protested the decision by screening the film at the Roerich Museum in New York on April 16 to a group of five-hundred prominent citizens—“The National Board of Review protests formally and emphatically against the banning of the film, High Treason, as an act of suppression which is not warranted by the public interests, but which, on the contrary, is opposed to democratic principle, and to the proper development of the motion picture as a medium of expression.”  Another protest screening took place in May to no avail—the film stayed banned, and was even rejected in New York State when it was resubmitted five years later!

No rebuke was made to either censor boards regarding alternative motives for the censorship of the film, although it is interesting to note that when the film went into general release in June 1930, the effects of the Red Scare crept into some exhibitors’ minds.  W.J. Gell, managing director of Gaumont British, released a statement denying Soviet ties—“If the picture portrayed anything realistic at all, it was the futility of war, but it was produced exclusively by this company and at their expense and the subject was chosen because it was unique, interesting and entertaining for no other motive whatsoever.”

Despite the bad publicity, on the West Coast, the film opened to far more prestige.  The famous California Theatre, one of the showplaces of Los Angeles, re-opened on May 23 with the picture, supported by the UA/William Cameron Menzies short Hungarian Rhapsody, the Tiffany short Slave Days, Oom Pah Pah, part of the Aesop’s Fables short subject series, and a Pathé newsreel.

An oddball (illegal) screening of the film took place at the Film Forum at the New School for Social Research on March 26, 1933.  The program, obviously that of an educational nature, was also paired with J. Stuart Blackton’s March of the Movies.

In recent years seen exclusively in its British silent version (which, via intertitles, pushes the action ten years forward to 1950), the restoration we present—courtesy of the Library of Congress—is the American sound version, which at 68-minutes runs almost half an hour shy of the original British sound version’s 95-100 minutes (depending on the source.)

Preserved by the Library of Congress.  Preservation funding provided by The Film Foundation. (LoC)

Jack Theakston, Capitolfest 12 (2014), Assistant Manager at Capitol Theatre in Rome, NY.

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…Still, the general respect for the literary genre, as well as the tenor of the times, helped to argue for a number of significant efforts in the (sci-fi) genre—films that suggest how the same “dream of distance” noted in other cinemas haunted British film as well.  In the same mold as the literature about future warfare and apocalypse were such early films as The Airship Destroyer (aka Battle in the Clouds, 1909), The Aerial Anarchists, and The Pirates of 1920 (both 1911).  The one ambitious work in this vein, though, appears only much later. High Treason (1929, remade in 1952), a late-silent-era film directed by one of the top British filmmakers of the period, Maurice Elvey, and based on a play by Pemberton Billing.  Along with a model of London that recalls Metropolis’s famous cityscape, High Treason offered a host of images that would become commonplace in science fiction of the period, such as a giant videoscreen, television phones, helitaxis, and a tunnel under the English Channel.  But qualifying all of these images of future progress, speaking to that ongoing debate about the uncertain potential of technology, and thus testifying to the difficulty involved in constructing an acceptable view of the technological was the film’s prescient depiction of a cataclysmic war in 1940.  This war between two great confederations of nations culminates in a gas attack on New York and the destruction of that Channel tunnel.  (This general scenario, we might note, recurs in an analogous American production, the aptly titled Men Must Fight (1933), which also projects into the year 1940 a great war pitting Western nations against the Confederation of Eurasian States, and depicts the destruction of one of the foremost emblems of Machine Age culture, the Empire State Building.)

A Distant Technology: Science Fiction Film and the Machine Age by J.P. Telotte (1999)

Blogs written by other film enthusiasts on both silent and talkie versions:
The Rediscovered by Mathew C. Hoffman, June 8, 2013
Ferdy on Films by Marilyn Ferdinand, June 15, 2013
I Thank You, November 8, 2014
And You Call Yourself a Scientist, January 2, 2015
Chris Rogers: Writer on Architecture and Visual Culture, September 8, 2015
Alaska Dispatch News by Mike Dunham, December 4, 2015


Many films made in the Great Depression era have strong political views, especially those made in Hollywood during the pre-Code era.  This film is based on S.K. Lauren’s play of the same name published in 1932.  The author is known for other Hollywood screenplays such as director Marion Gering and Sylvia Sidney’s 1933 PICK-UP and JENNIE GERHARDT as well as von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich’s 1932 BLONDE VENUS.  The screenplay was written by C. Gardner Sullivan who, since 1912 was writing stories, scenarios and scripts for nearly 200 films.  He wrote the screenplay for the 1920 film SEX which some of you saw here in September 2014.

Both films tonight have common themes.  They both foretell a future war circa 1940, both have strong pacifistic ideologies and both have the women championing this theory.  Diana Wynyard, another transplanted Brit, plays the female lead.  I remember thinking that her age was hard to pin down in this film but she was only 26 or 27 when she made it and was well-suited to the aging makeup magic of Hollywood.

Robert Young, who had a number of film roles, and main ones if not leading under his belt by the time this film was made, has here what we would call a cameo.

If any of you have seen TRUMBO, the film about Dalton Trumbo, one of Hollywood’s blacklisted screenwriters who came before the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), there is an entertainingly vicious portrayal of Hedda Hopper, in her second career as gossip columnist by Helen Mirren.  She had been in Hollywood close to its inception, with a career beginning 1916 and had parts in close to 150 films.  She was good friends with screenwriter Frances Marion, although it’s hard to imagine Marion would have liked the woman Mirren portrayed.  In tonight’s film, she has the small role of Mrs. Chase.

Adrian designed the outfits and there is a discussion in the first article about this film (the whole article is written in a rather over-sentimentally sincere way) so just a reminder to take notice, especially of the women’s clothing.

The ending of this film is quite different from tonight’s earlier film, but they have enough in common to warrant them worthy of combined viewing.

So, sit back, and enjoy.  Caren

Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Directed by Edgar Selwyn.  From the Play by S.K. Lauren and Reginald Lawrence, Screenplay written by C. Gardner Sullivan.  Cinematography by George Folsey.  Costume Design by Adrian.  Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons.  Film Editing by William S. Gray.  Released:  February 17, 1933.  72 minutes.

Diana Wynyard…………………………………………………… Laura Seward
Lewis Stone…………………………………………………….. Edward Seward
Phillips Holmes…………………………………………………….. Bob Seward
May Robson……………………………………………………. Maman Seward
Ruth Selwyn (married to director)………………………………………. Peggy
Robert Young……………………………………………………. Geoffrey Aiken
Robert Greig………………………………………………………………… Albert
Hedda Hopper……………………………………………………….. Mrs. Chase
Don Dillaway………………………………………………………………… Steve
Mary Carlisle……………………………………………………………….. Evelyn
Luis Alberni…………………………………………………………………… Soto

Men Must Fight (7)


Yes, merely pushing open the rough, heavy door of a huge sound stage on the M-G-M lot, I found her.  She was the only player present.  The others, it seemed, had finished with the picture. Men Must Fight, and only her scenes remained.  I remembered that the picture was laid in the year 1940.

She stood alone, a tall, slender young woman in a gray wig and strange dress, in the center of the stage with the bright Klieg lights blazing down upon her.  Awaiting the signal from the director.  Behind the cameras were the shadowy figures of a dozen or so workmen.  She was the only woman on the set, except Daisy, her maid.  Quietly I crept off to the side, and waited.  Then came a faint whirr from the sound box.

“They’re turning over,” a voice called from somewhere.  We all waited in utter silence.  She, standing there, calm and serene, under the lights.  Now, the signal!  And then began a moment that, in all our lives, I’m sure, none of us shall ever forget.  She was speaking.  Quietly at first, but every word coming straight from the anguished heart of a mother.  Pleading against the war that again seemed inevitable.

“You tear our sons from our arms,” she said, “and when they are gone, you pin a medal on our breasts.  To take the place of the boy we have lost.  Gold star mothers.  After the last war that was to end all wars, you herded them all together, these gold star mothers, on a ship.  You dumped them down on a cold, barren field of France, covered with crosses, and said, ‘Woman, behold thy son.’”

I was vaguely conscious as she spoke, that the workmen near me, had crept out from behind their lights.  That they, as I, were no longer on a sound stage on a motion picture lot in Hollywood.  We were standing on a barren field in Flanders, strewn with tiny white crosses.

In our hearts tore the pain of those anguished mothers.  In our breasts beat their aching hearts.  She went on to the end.  And finished in silence.  It seemed that we could never speak again.  Or find anything to say.  She seemed to sense it as she stood there in the silence and smiled brightly at us.  Uttering some bit of nonsense that brought us all back again to Hollywood and the making of movies.

“How do you fancy the styles of 1940?” she asked, after we shook hands in greeting.

“I can’t bear them,” I said, “don’t tell me split skirts and those awful hats are ahead of us.”

“Adrian, our designer, seems to think so,” turning about for us to examine the atrocious looking outfit.  “He figures that this will be the only style which hasn’t come in for a revival by that time, so we’ll just naturally be in for it.”

All the time she was speaking, the question,” How old is this woman?” kept turning about in my mind.  Knowing her to be a young woman, in her twenties, still we ask it.

Daisy, the maid, was flying about, fussing with this and that.  “Daisy is so happy I’m having a bit of attention from the press,” she twinkled.  “Naturally, not being very well known yet, I haven’t had many interviews and very little publicity from the studio, and it makes Daisy furious.

“Strange, isn’t it,” she said, “that I should again be playing the part of a mother whose heart is broken by war, as I did in Cavalcade.  But I don’t mind, really.  I feel so strongly about it.  Every word I say about it, comes right from the heart.”

As if we, who had listened, hadn’t felt it.

She was off for another retake.

Somehow, you would know by just looking at Diana Wynyard, that anything she decided to do, would be done right.  And in the proper manner.  Without any mistakes, or flutter-budgeting about.

So, after a surprising success in a school play, Diana decided to be an actress.

And set about being one in a straight-forward, business-like way.

She talked it over quietly with her family, who agreed she should try it.

After graduation, she hired a private tutor and, day after day, hour after hour, she studied stage technique.  She learned what to do with her hands.  With her voice.  How to walk on and off.  How to get the most out of every line.  Every word.  And then she was ready for her début.  But not as a star, remember.  Or a featured player.  No, not even as a bit player.  Diana made her début as one of the guests in the cabaret scene of “The Grand Duchess.”  That was all.  Just one of the mob.

Then she felt ready for a stock company.  So, for forty weeks, she toured England with a traveling stock company, playing forty different roles in the forty weeks.

More months of touring about with second companies, followed her stock experience.  And then, she was ready for leads on the London stage.  And ready is the word.  Her first success came with Walter Hackett in “Sorry You’ve Been Troubled,” and when a single benefit performance of “The Devil Passes” was given, Diana was invited to play the lead.

“If you ever decide to produce this play,” she asked them, “May I have the lead?”  So that is presumably how Diana Wynyard came to America in “The Devil Passes”And how, when the movies spotted her, she came to Hollywood for Rasputin and Cavalcade.

In between making Cavalcade, she dashed back and forth to the M-G-M studios for rehearsals and retakes of Rasputin with the Barrymores.  Certainly you remember the story of how that went on and on, far into the night.  And when Cavalcade was completed, she went right into the cast of Men Must Fight.

Suddenly a messenger from the publicity department.  “Your speech for tonight, Miss Wynyard,” he said.

“Speech?” she asked him alarm.

“Yes, it’s what you’re to say over the radio.”

“But, I only wanted to say how grateful I am to be in Cavalcade,” she said.

Her opening!  Her big night!  The premiere of Cavalcade.  We had forgotten it.

Again we were plunged into the late afternoon excitement that precedes a huge opening.  Smart gray trucks from smart flower shops were dashing about.  Stars were flitting from shop to beauty parlor.  Everyone was in a bustle and flurry of excitement, getting ready.

And the star?  The one for whom all this brilliance was intended?  Her first opening?  Where was she?

Inside a studio sound stage she stood.  Years and miles from the outside world that whirled about her.

Speaking lines that even the thought of the glory awaiting her could not rob of their depth and beauty.  “Woman, behold thy son,” we could still hear her say.

Photoplay by Doris Craig (Jan-Jun 1933)

Men Must Fight (8)

With her latest portrayal at the Capitol in “Men Must Fight,” a picturization of the play by Reginald Lawrence and S. K. Lauren, that talented English actress, Diana Wynyard, achieves the unusual distinction, of appearing simultaneously in three Broadway productions, the other impersonations being in “Cavalcade” and “Rasputin and the Empress.”

In this new offering, the story of which touches upon the World War in the beginning and eventually is concerned with hostilities between the United States and a country referred to as the Eurasian States in 1940. Miss Wynyard gives an affecting and very earnest interpretation of a mother who protests vociferously against war. In several scenes her performance recalls her acting in some sequences of “Cavalcade,” which, considering the similarity of the incidents, is not unexpected. As in the pictorial version of the Noel Coward play, Miss Wynyard puts her heart and soul into her work, and the result is the sounding of a strong note for pacifism. She takes full advantage of some stirring lines and compels attention in all her scenes. But although Miss Wynyard’s acting is impeccable, her rôle is not by any means as inspiring as that of Mrs. Marryot in “Cavalcade.”

Like Mrs. Marryot, Laura Seward (Miss Wynyard) of Men Must Fight resents bitterly her son going to war. The youth, Bob, played by Phillips Holmes, is a pacifist at heart, but the bombing of Manhattan by enemy planes prompts him in the end to join up as an aviator.

There are several impressive episodes in this production especially those revealing the breaking up of a pacifist meeting at which Laura Seward, who is the wife of the Secretary of State, is the principal speaker; the depiction of New York’s skyscrapers crumbling during an air raid, and the sight of the airplane fleet above.

In the 1940 episodes the costumes are about the same as at the present. In fact the men’s are unchanged, and only here and there are peculiar hats worn by the women. But the narrative suggests convincingly the stripping of the old glamour and glory from war.

At the outset Laura is a Red Cross nurse in the World War. She is desperately in love with a flying officer, who is killed in his first encounter with the enemy. Her persistent elderly suitor, Edward Seward (Lewis Stone), on hearing of her affair with the flying officer and knowing that she expects a child, asks her to marry him, and she agrees. They are very happy for many years, but when 1940 comes, the anticipation of war causes a rupture between them. Seward, as Secretary of State, opposes his wife talking at peace meetings, and because Bob has inherited a distaste for war, the man whom he presumes to be his father finally tells him the truth, which is palliated by the fact that his real father met a hero’s death.

Mr. Stone does splendidly in his part, even in the difficult episode when Seward stoops to telling Bob that he is not the youth’s father. Phillips Holmes is not especially effective as Bob. May Robson makes the most of old Mrs. Seward, and Ruth Selwyn is attractive as Bob’s fiancée. Robert Greig is a more imposing figure than ever as the Sewards’ butler.

New York Times by Mordaunt Hall, March 11, 1933

Men Must Fight (1)

Supposed to be stirring propaganda against war, this gets nowhere because it hasn’t the courage to be consistent.  It attempts to show both sides, militaristic and pacifist.  The result is tepid, wandering.

The time is 1940, when war is declared against an imaginary country.  The wife of the secretary of state has a son born to her during the late War.  She has brought him up to hate everything military.  It is his struggle to adjust himself to the belief of his stepfather that is supposed to supply drama but doesn’t.  In the end he marches off with the rest, apparently happy to do his bit.  In his act there is no suggestion of the defeat the character must really feel.  Everything is done to make the ending happy.

Diana Wynyard gives a dignified and tender performance, but it is virtually wasted and certainly will not enhance her reputation.  Phillips Holmes, as the son, has another thankless role and other players suffer the same handicap.

Play Magazine: The Screen in Review by Norbert Lusk (1933)

Men Must Fight (11)

Certain films which are neither entertainment blockbusters nor films of great artistic worth still warrant revival for a variety of reasons: as an early landmark in a director or actor’s career, or—as in this case—because of quite astonishing content.  Based on a play, Men Must Fight doesn’t really work dramatically.  It starts off as rather predictable soap opera, then suddenly changes gears and becomes “big” and “meaningful”, presented on an ambitious canvas—but it moves so fast, and remains so theatrical, that motivations (Lewis Stone’s especially) never really have time to be developed properly, nor does it speed allow one time to get emotionally involved with the characters.  Made in 1933, when there was a fashion for both pacifist-inclined anti-war films, and anti-crime films advocating police-state methods, it incredibly predicts a U.S.-“Eurasian” war of 1940, coupled with student revolts, demonstrations and fervently anti-war feelings which parallel to an incredible degree attitudes that have been created out of the Vietnam war.  If nothing else, it reminds us that no matter how fervent are the emotions created by current political climates, those same emotions have been created before.

Diana Wynyard plays gracefully and skilfully in her then traditional role of idealistic family leader and steadier-of-the-tiller; Cavalcade and Rasputin and the Empress were playing concurrently in Broadway movie theatres when this third vehicle for her exceptional talents joined them!  Phillips Holmes’ role is rather poignantly prophetic, since he was killed during World War 2 while serving with RAF.  The New York bombing scenes are excitingly done, and the newly created Empire State Building, already assaulted by King Kong a month or so earlier, is neatly demolished!  Edgar Selwyn, who directed, has a career worthy of detailed investigation one of these days.  A former actor and playwright of note—he starred in his own plays—he retired from the stage in 1913, and went into films.  Hollywood logic calling for stage-trained directors to work on talkies, he found a whole new career opening up for him in 1929, when he made a number of generally good, profitable though admittedly never outstanding films for MGM until 1934.  We can’t alas duplicate the added attractions that accompanied the film at the now obliterated Capitol Theatre in 1933.  The stage show included Bing Crosby, Milton Berle and Eddie Duchin’s Orchestra!

The New School: Film Series 15: Program 3 by William K. Everson, October 20, 1972

Men Must Fight (6)

Diana Wynyard, who had suffered so poignantly through two wars in Cavalcade, was recalled to duty in Men Must Fight (1933), the most original of the antiwar films, for it dealt not with the last war but with the next one, the United States versus “the Eurasian States,” projected for 1940—off by only one year.  A red Cross nurse in the First World War, in love with a flyer (Robert Young), who is killed, the heroine finds herself in trouble, until an older suitor (Lewis Stone) offers to marry her to give her child a name.  By 1940 the foster father has become Secretary of State, but his wife, a militant pacifist, has brought up her son (Phillips Holmes) to be the same.  As war looms, she vehemently urges a giant congress of mothers not to let their sons go, in fact, to stop bearing sons who only end up as cannon fodder sacrificed to old men’s political ends.

Almost as happened in real life, during the isolationist-interventionist struggle of 1939-41, her crusade is bitterly denounced, the Secretary’s home is stoned, his wife and son scorned as “yellow-bellies,” especially by the boy’s fiancée’s super-patriotic family.  But, just as happened after Pearl Harbor, when the enemy bombs New York, destroying the Empire State Building, and the mother is injured, the boy finally enlists and is last seen flying any Army plane.  Once war hysteria has taken over, pacifism is futile—a downbeat but undeniably honest conclusion, at least up until Vietnam.

From Scarface to Scarlet: American Films in the 1930s by Roger Dooley (1979, 1981)

Men Must Fight (4)

Pre-Code films, depicting the same war, became more strident in their pacifism, for reasons that become understandable in retrospect.  After all, this was an era haunted not by one ghost but by two—the ghost of world war past and the more terrifying specter, the ghost of world war future.  That second ghost threatened to take the worst event in human history and turn it into a prologue.  As early as 1930, articles could be found anticipating the next global conflict.  Jay Franklin, in the November 1930 Vanity Fair, set the date for World War II as beginning somewhere between 1940 and 1950.  The first anti-World War II movie, RKO’s Men Must Fight (1933), had the war beginning in 1940, with an aerial bombardment of New York City by the forces of “Eurasia.”

Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man by Mick LaSalle (2002)

Men Must Fight (3)

The distrust of World War I leadership, the suspicion that soldiers had been sacrificed for ends other than those claimed when the war began, and the sense that claims made in the name of altruistic motives were carried out on behalf of class and property interests, all show up as argument in World War I films of the decade.  After the reformed pacifist of Ace of Aces joins the air force, the men of the air squadron introduce him to their commander: a chimpanzee.  The undercurrent of bitterness that marks the joke captures a central current of early thirties treatments of the First World War—an assault on the authorities who run the war.  In the futuristic Men Must Fight, which in 1933 predicts a resumption of World War I, the women of the film associate war authority with male leadership.  At one point the central female character, a leader of pacifist demonstrations, threatens that women won’t give men any more men, will stop having children so no more men will be born.  Near the film’s end the grandmother of a young man flying off to war remarks that women should rule the world so there will be an end to warfare.  The bitterness toward the promises of politicians emerges when Wilson’s words, the World War I had been “the war to end all wars,” are repeated at a peace rally.

This Side of Despair: How the Movies and American Life Intersected during the Great Depression by Philip Hanson (2008)

Men Must Fight (10)


The Vampire Bat (1932) may sound like a horror film, yet it is about a scientist intent on using human blood transfusions to create life.  Possibly fuelled by real scientific developments in Russia and America around storing and preservation of blood, the film could claim both nascent horror and science fiction conventions.  Yet the press book insists it is a ‘thriller,’ a ‘Murder Mystery Drama’ and a ‘shocker’ that will make audiences ‘shudder and gasp’.  Appealing to such disparate generic groups suggests the wider hybrid form of advertising Altman has argued for, and there are other notable examples from the 1930s.  The Man They Couldn’t Arrest (1931) is a ‘superb thriller’ about a complicated machine that can listen to any conversation, with posters that stressed detective thriller elements through images of trench-coated figures in trilbies.  The press book for The Man Who Lived Twice (1935) describes it as the ‘Strangest Drama Since Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde … blood chilling … a leap ahead of science’, a combination of drama, horror and possible science fiction.  Even Men Must Fight (1933), about a future European war, was advertised as ‘vivid film drama’ and ‘romance’.  In each case, the potential science fiction elements of advanced technology, scientific developments or future civilization have been toned down, possibly to appeal to a wider audience.

Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction by Keith M. Johnston (2011)

Men Must Fight (9)

MGM’s Men Must Fight is one of the great curiosities in the Turner Classic Movies library.  Like most war movies made in the early 1930s, it is fervently anti-war, but this one has the twist of being set in 1940, predicting World War II.  In just 72 minutes, it manages to tackle an astonishing amount of content: the knee-jerk flag-waving that arises in wartime; the home-grown violence spawned from “patriotism”; the difficulty in standing firm against a war’s mounting popularity; and an acknowledgement that it’s the young who must die in war.  But those are the most conventional elements of this unknown movie.  Though it is too short to develop any of its themes, Men Must Fight even gives the other side its due, theoretically addressing how the peace movement made us vulnerable as we lagged behind in the arms race, with thousands of Americans dead as a result.  Mostly, the movie is about women’s powerlessness in stopping men from eventually succumbing to calls of honor and duty and their fears of being tagged as cowards.  And so, men must fight.  The movie is appropriately hopeless.

In true pre-Code fashion, Men Must Fight begins with an unmarried couple, a flier and a nurse, getting dressed after a sexual encounter.  The setting is WWI France; the flier is Robert Young; the nurse is Diana Wynyard.  After Young’s death in the air, Wynyard, a firm pacifist, marries loyal friend Lewis Stone (dull as ever).  He accepts her pregnancy and agrees to raise the child as his own.  In 1940, Stone is America’s peace-promoting Secretary of State, while Wynyard’s grown-up love child, Phillips Holmes, is another idealistic pacifist.  Stone and Wynyard are happily married until an assassination brings a new threat of war.  Though sympathetic to his wife’s views, Stone is soon in favor of the war (with “Eurasia”), while Wynyard staunchly opposes it.  Imagine a movie in which the wife of the Secretary of State leads an anti-war rally in Manhattan, making appeals to the mothers of the world to stop the killing of the “other sons of other mothers.”  Young Holmes eventually enlists and the picture ends with him flying over Manhattan and headed for our enemies.  The most jaw-dropping sequence is the bombing of New York, with the special-effects team destroying the Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building!  The movie shows a future of television and picture phones, and features much talk about chemical warfare as the way of the future.

Men Must Fight is no undiscovered classic, barely even a good movie, but it is consistently fascinating.  British Diana Wynyard, a bit too cross-eyed for major stardom, had her big year in 1933, also starring in the Best Picture Oscar winner Cavalcade, one of the worst of all victors in that category.  Wynyard was up for Best Actress for Cavalcade; also competing was her Men Must Fight co-player May Robson (for Lady for a Day).  Robson is the comic relief here, as Holmes’ feisty grandmother.  She believes the world ought to be run by women.  Both Wynyard and Robson lost the Oscar to Katharine Hepburn (Morning Glory).

A final chilling note.  Phillips Holmes ended up dying in a plane crash in World War II at age 35, having enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force.  What a stinging coda to the film’s timeless message.

Screen Savers II: My Grab Bag of Classic Movies by John DiLeo, May 5, 2009 (2012)

Blogs written by other film enthusiasts:
Mondo 70: A Wild World of Cinema by Samuel Wilson, March 20, 2012
Kevin’s Movie Corner by Kevin Deany, March 29, 2012
Unseen Films by Steve Kopian, August 29, 2012
Movie Observers, March 29, 2012
The Ol’ Fish-Eye by Kevin K., January 31, 2013
Shadowplay by D. Cairns, February, 2013
Just a Cineast by Ted S., December 14, 2015

Joining me for the evening were Allen, Allison, Arny, Calvin, Charles, Hanna, Jillian, Karen, Lee, Peggy, Peter and Stan.

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