It is customary for Ipswich Film Society to hold an end of season event around this time of year, and on 28th April in Ipswich Library lecture hall Sylvia Hardy gave an informed presentation of the career in film of H. G. Wells. This is something of a specialism for Ms Hardy, who is also a member of the Society, and she has dispensed her knowledge at no lesser an organism than the BFI.
The first thing that struck a chord was that Wells took an interest in the new invention almost immediately, reminding us of the cinematic experiences evoked by certain of his stories: the armchair ride through a constantly changing dioramain The Time Machine, the first appearance of the Martians in The War of the Worlds, the spectacle of humanity frozen in time for the inventor of The New Accelerator. Small wonder, then, that he drew barely concealed contempt from the literary establishment; there was something subversive about his writings, and so many of them seemed concerned with practical jokers.
The evening opened with the most famous of these: The Invisible Man. At least that is how he comes across in the films, the first of which was a French creation called, Le voleur invisible, a marvellous tinted copy of a very early silent (around 1910) which used all manner of devices, optical and mechanical, to achieve its effects. We then segued to James Whale’s bona fide version for Universal, a reminder of how detailed and authentic were some of the Hollywood versions of British life.
We were to climax with a couple of clips from Wells’s notable ‘name above the title’ collaboration with Alexander Korda, Things to Come, which was probably as close as he got to the production of any of his works for the movies. He became disillusioned, we were told, with the collaborative nature of the activity, which tended to lead to too many compromises with the writer’s vision! The 1936 film is certainly uneven in tone and quality – the later sections can sound naïve in their optimism for the future of humanity, and Richardson hams it up somewhat in the middle bit – but the opening vision of the London blitz is a masterpiece of editing and conception.
No, the highlight of the evening for me was a little short from 1928, British again, and starring Elsa Lanchester, called Blue Bottles. The scenario concerned a young flapper who returns home from the pictures, her route taking her past a building being used for a thieves’ convention, apparently, and into which a solitary Bobby is whisked when he gets too close for comfort. Our heroine discovers his discarded whistle, and blows it, first gingerly, though with increasing persistence. Like Norman Wisdom in On the Beat, she is soon surrounded by cops, in a marvellous overhead shot that had me thinking of a similar one in Un chien andalou (made the same year), in which the heroine prods a severed hand with a stick in the street. Indeed, this is but one of a number of inventive uses of the camera by Ivor Montagu, who runs the gamut of high angle, low angle, close-up and pan, not to mention sight gags in abundance. The comedy, which uses Miss Lanchester’s expressive gangliness as a Chaplinesque foil for the villainous, stripe-jerseyed robbers, was clearly another example of late-silent era sophistication to rank alongside E. A. Dupont’s Piccadilly.
Wells died before the films of The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, or even The History of Mr Polly, were made, but I couldn’t help wondering what he would have made of Interstellar, out earlier this year. But that’s another story.