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The Edge of the World Britain 1937

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2017

The film was screened from a 35mm print at the Hyde Park Picture House as part of the AGM for the Friends of the Hyde Park Picture.

The 1930s is often seen as a ‘low decade’ for British films. But, apart from many of the ‘Quota Quickies’ [made on the cheap to take advantage of state subsidies] there were some fine and well made movies. This title is one of those. It was directed by Michael Powell, shortly before he began his famous partnership with Emeric Pressburger.

The film is a melodrama set in a traditional community where modern influences are threatening the established way of life. Tensions within communities are accentuated by conflicts over tradition versus the new. The central problem is the impact of modern life and new technologies on a traditional community in decline. One example in the film is that the Islands fishing work has been taken over by trawlers operating from the Scottish mainland. This conflict is personified in the persons of the sons of the Manson and Gray families. Ironically the conflict is played out in a traditional ritual: a contest on the steep Island cliffs.

Powell’s story was inspired by reports in 1930 of the evacuation of St. Kilda [in the Hebrides]. In fact he had to shoot the film on Foula in the Shetlands. Given the story that was the source the film’s resolution is pre-ordained. The drama is developed by the conflict, which to a degree is a generational conflict. But there is also a romance, itself tragically affected by the larger conflict.

The film makes impressive use of Island rituals. Early on we see the Sabbath morning and the inhabitants gathering at the Kirk for a service and a traditional sermon running over an hour. Later we see the Islanders herding sheep for traditional hand-picking of the wool. There is an open-air ceilidh. A major event is a funeral and wake for a victim. And finally, we watch as the Inhabitants file onto a trawler, leaving their home for the mainland.

These characters are well played by familiar actors like John Laurie (Peter Manson), Finlay Currie (James Gray) and Niall MacGinnis (Andrew Gray) with lesser known performers like Belle Chrystall (Ruth Manson) and Kitty Kirwan (Jean Manson – seen in other classic films like I Know

Where I’m Going (1945) and Odd Man Out (1947)]. They were supported by actual islanders living on the location, the Isle of Fulva: and [rather Hitchcockian] Michael Powell as a Yachtsman.

The film opens as the yacht, with Andrew Gray, on-board as it sails into the small harbour. On a tour of the Island the trio come on a stone slab, marked ‘Gone Over’; marking the spot where Peter Manson fell. Then as Andrew wanders pass a croft and then the Kirk we enter a flashback to ten years earlier. Finally the film returns to the trio after detailing the mains story.

Three cinematographers worked on the film but the key lighting cameraman was Ernest Palmer [H.E.]who captured the beauty of the wild terrains and massive cliffs of the island. Nearly the whole of the film was shot on location with a few linking shots added at the studio. There is extensive use of superimpositions and these tie together the present and the past in the film. Presumably the experience of location filming stood him in good stead on a later film,  San Demetrio London (1943). The soundtrack was  by W. H. Sweeney and L. K. Tregellas, also excellent and combining actual sounds and music. The music includes three songs by the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. Music is mostly used for sequences that offer drama and heightened emotion.

The production team had to live on the island for several months from June till October, a long way from the studios which were the normal home of film crews. The latter stages saw them battling wind and rain. Michael Powell wrote the story: the script seems to have developed during the shoot, taking in rituals that were part of the actual Island life. The film was produced by a US émigré, Joe Rock, who ran a small independent studio near Elstree. Most of the technical crew had worked with Powell before. He had established himself with a number of ‘quota quickies’, including a recent success for the Rock Production Company The Man Behind the Mask (1936). The film’s pre-release was in the summer of 1937. Michael Powell recalled [in his autobiographical ‘A Life in the Movies’  (1986)]:

“The film opened at the New Gallery Cinema in Regent Street, now the London headquarters of the Seventh day Adventists, but then a rather classy movie theatre. [It is now a Burberry store, but the auditorium and its screen can still be seen and are used for promotional videos]. The critics gave it a cautious reviews. But my old admirer, C. A. Lejeune, writing in The Observer knew the difference between a lyric drama and a documentary, and said: “I hope everyone who can will make a point of seeing The Edge of the World. In some obscure judgement day, when these things are measured, I have a feeling it will come up somewhere near the top of English classics.”

And Basil Wright [of the British Documentary Movement] trumpeted in the Cinema: “If The Edge of the World achieves the success it so well deserves, it will be yet another reminder that vast production costs, exotic casts, and cosmopolitan scenarios are perhaps not the ultimate plan for the British Cinema.”

The film opened at the New Gallery Cinema in Regent Street, now the London headquarters of the Seventh day Adventists, but then a rather classy movie theatre. [It is now a Burberry store, but the auditorium and its screen can still be seen and are used for promotional videos]. The critics gave it a cautious reviews. But my old admirer, C. A. Lejeune, writing in The Observer knew the difference between a lyric drama and a documentary, and said: “I hope everyone who can will make a point of seeing The Edge of the World. In some obscure judgement day, when these things are measured, I have a feeling it will come up somewhere near the top of English classics.”

[Later] Joe Rock, who was fighting for the film, had sent a copy to New York to a small distributor, who submitted it to the National Board of Review film critics, and they chose it as one of the best foreign films of the year, which gave me a wonderful lift.”

This was well before British films won the occasional Academy Award. It was also seen and liked by film impresario Alexander Korda, And it was at his Denham Studio that Powell and Pressburger commenced the most memorable partnership in British Cinema.

The film was restored by the National Film Archive in 1990, though the present 35mm print is slightly shorter than the original release. The film was re-issued in cut version in 1940, running 62 minutes. The restoration runs 74 minutes. The print is good, though the is some variation on the  image, presumably due to different source material. And since 1990 it has suffered a few minor cuts, so we get what seem like ‘jump cuts’.

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