Elstree Calling (1930). 86 minutes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, André Charlot, Jack Hulbert, and Paul Murray. Starring Tommy Handley (as host), Gordon Harker (as man with faulty television), Will Fyffe, Lily Morris, Teddy Brown, The Three Eddies, Anna May Wong, Bobbie Comber, Hannah Jones, Cicely Courtneidge, Helen Burnell, and Donald Calthrop.
Elstree Calling is a 1930 musical variety film, designed by British International Pictures to show off Elstree Studios’ nascent sound technology and to compete with the opulent musical revues coming out of the United States at the time. (You can think of its title, Elstree Calling, as a version of the well-known “London Calling” that had been BBC radio’s signature call sign in London since 1922.) It is notable for being a an early British sound extravaganza, for the many musical artists who appear in it, for its use of the early tinting technique Pathécolor in select scenes, and for the involvement of Alfred Hitchcock as one of its several directors.
The movie is the first that I know of that makes reference to television. The premise is that the musical numbers we see are broadcast from Elstree via television into the homes of characters living in an apartment building; the husband downstairs (played by Gordon Harker, who had worked with Hitchcock prior to this film) cannot get his television to function correctly and spends most of his scenes electrocuting himself while his neighbor upstairs watches the production with relative ease. Although it is difficult at this point to attribute these or other sequences definitively to any particular one of the four directors who collaborated on the movie, film blogger Adam Philips makes the case that Hitchcock directed these scenes. We get to see some of the technology of early television, including the device’s tiny, mostly black screen. What is shown on the television screens in the movie, however, is certainly an idealized version of what the early technology could really do; 1930s television was considerably cruder.
The movie is typical of early sound endeavors in that it seeks to overwhelm us with variety. There is singing, singing with a chorus, singing with a harmonizing quartet, Russian singing, Russian dancing, ballet dancing, tap dancing, and modern dancing. There is also non-musical material, including Shakespearean recitation and a comedy sketch involving a couple that is having an adulterous tryst on a couch who are murdered by an angry husband—he subsequently discovers he has killed the wrong lovers. It is frenetic, and its sketches and musical segments function independently of each other but are joined together by host Tommy Handley’s comic banter (he speaks into a microphone as if he is part of a radio broadcast) and by segments set in the apartment house. Because the movie is a sort of music hall broadcast, not a traditional full-length feature film with a plot and character development, we are perhaps not surprised to see that for the most part, the musical performers behave very much as if they are on stage. Typically at the end of an act, they exit into the wings, and sometimes they even take a bow. Accordingly, the sets look much like theatrical sets, with obviously fake backgrounds.
Of the musical segments, the standouts are Teddy Brown and The Three Eddies. Teddy Brown is a terrific xylophone player, drummer, and band leader. His rendition of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'” is delightful. The Three Eddies perform two numbers, including what is easily the best song in the film, “T’Ain’t No Sin.” They are black artists who sing and tap-dance in blackface—a strange concept, although in my attempt to understand blackface, perhaps I can reason that because blackface is a performative version of blackness, it can therefore be a style of performance adopted by anyone, including black people. It also gestures towards the days of vaudeville, which is where The Three Eddies began, and so as distasteful as it is, the trio’s use of blackface underscores the extent to which we are watching a theatrical production. Admittedly in “T’Ain’t No Sin,” The Three Eddies sing about taking off their skin in hot weather and dancing around in their bones, and their whole bodies are in black suits with only white painted-on skeletons visible. In a sense they are in blackface to achieve a certain x-ray effect that is strange and compelling—sort of. I refer anyone who is interested in the idea of black performers wearing blackface to Spike Lee’s provocative Bamboozled (2000), which explores the politics of the phenomenon with a great deal of thoughtfulness.
I should point out that there is other racial weirdness in Elstree Calling. Examples include an anti-semitic joke by Teddy Brown; the Scottish number with Will Fyffe, who repeatedly makes the stereotypical assertion that Scots are cheap; and the scene where a white singer is shot and emerges from a cloud of smoke in blackface, crying “Mammy.” These instances are related to British music hall and American vaudeville traditions, although the “Mammy” joke must be a direct reference to Al Jolson’s famous blackface number in The Jazz Singer (1927). The frequent racial humor is indicative of the extent to which it was an unfortunate commonplace in the traditions that sound film grew out of.
Elstree Calling makes other attempts at humor that appeal more successfully to a modern audience. One of the running gags in the movie involves an actor (played by Donald Calthrop, another Hitchcock alumnus) who insists on carving out time for a Shakespearean recitation. His efforts are repeatedly thwarted. In one scene, in traditional Renaissance garb, he explains what he intends to recite, but curtain upon curtain comes down upon him. He seems to understand that no one wants to hear him perform classical theater: “You’ll listen and you’ll like it!” he threatens us parentally at one point. He is the worst sort of Shakespeare aficionado: pompous, rigid, clueless, punishing. Finally he gets his chance—he will perform a scene from The Taming of the Shrew and make it entertaining. The curtain rises on him entering a stage on a motorcycle; he then proceeds to whip the machine as it drives in circles. At one point Anna May Wong in a metallic outfit that resembles a bikini emerges from a tower and begins throwing pies at him and others. (I regret to inform you that this rendition of Shakespeare, while comically exaggerated, is not too far removed from many modern productions I have seen.)
The Shakespearean actor reveals one of the subtexts of this movie, which is to say that in his inflexibility and archaic tastes he is antithetical to the flashy modernity that Elstree Calling seeks to convey. This film, like so many other sound movies of its kind, offers a new kind of entertainment. It strives to innovate not only by showcasing recent technological developments in sound, color, and television but also by means of its attitude: as an extravaganza, it attempts to “wow” us with plenty, to give its audience everything it could possibly want in a musical spectacle and overwhelm us with abundance. Eventually audiences in the early sound era maxed out on musicals, especially revues, but for a time movies like Elstree Calling were plentiful and capable of achieving a healthy measure of financial success.
Many thanks to dance band enthusiast Henry Parsons for introducing me to this movie.