The destination for history

Will ‘the talkies’ ever catch on? Film criticism through history


It may have become as much a part of Christmas as the turkey and the tree, but It’s a Wonderful Life was deemed ‘not a good film’ when it first came out in 1947, while Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Vertigo was dismissed as ‘not an important film or even major Hitchcock’ in 1958 - only to be named as the greatest film ever made by a poll of film critics more than half a century later.

The Wizard of Oz may have done its best to exploit the possibilities of Technicolor at a time when most films were black and white, but it was branded as ‘ugly’ by The Times reviewer in 1940. The paper’s anonymous critic did not even think the young Judy Garland or the song Over the Rainbow worth a mention, though he was happy to share his views on just how vulgar the whole thing looked. ‘The scenery and dresses are designed with no more taste than is commonly used in the decoration of a night-club,’ was the slightly sniffy assessment.

There was some hope at least for the young Scottish actor playing a secret agent called James Bond in an adaptation of Ian Fleming’s spy novel Dr No. ‘Perhaps Mr Sean Connery will, with practice, get the ‘feel’ of the part a little more surely than he does here,’ wrote The Times reviewer in an un-bylined review. It was actually written by Dudley Carew, poet, novelist, cricket aficionado, friend of Evelyn Waugh and the principal film reviewer for The Times from the 1940s to the early 1960s.

Mr Carew was only slightly more enthusiastic about Carry on Sergeant. ‘Every now and again a line or a situation is genuinely funny,’ he grudgingly conceded in a single-paragraph review, tucked beneath crits for The Defiant Ones, The Proud Rebel and Rockets Galore!, the sequel to Whisky Galore!. But he showed little enthusiasm for the idea that this was going to turn into a series when Carry on Nurse appeared just six months later, dismissing it as ‘a series of broad music-hall jokes set in a hospital, and anything less edifying it is difficult to imagine.’

As for the addition of speech to films, that was deemed something of a distraction from the visuals. And it seemed there was a very real risk of confusing the audience. ‘All the special subtlety of acting which is peculiar to the film has been sacrificed, we feel, for a poor imitation of the stage,’ said The Times review of The Jazz Singer in 1928.

The job of the film critic is a tough one, offering judgment on a film from one single viewing, whereas history, television, video and DVD have provided the public with the chance to reassess such duds as The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life. And of course tastes change too, for many of the films that attracted critical disdain on first appearance were also shunned by the public when they came out.

‘It is all very loud and overpowering,’ said Dudley Carew in his review of It’s a Wonderful Life, ‘and at the end the audience feels as though it had been listening to a large man of boisterous good nature talking at the top of his voice for over two hours.’ It’s a Wonderful Life lost money on its original release. It was only in the 1980s that its popularity really took off, after the copyright holders failed to renew the rights - television stations could show it and video companies bring out cassettes without having to pay anyone. ‘It's the damnedest thing I've ever seen,’ said director Frank Capra. ‘The film has a life of its own.’

Much of the fun in editing The Times on Cinema was reading those early reviews, which underline just how subjective the film criticism process is, and how distance and new technology, along with changing tastes and values, have given so many films a second chance to work their way into the hearts of the viewing public. In some cases films, damned at best with faint praise on original release, have been recognised not just as classic movies but have, in the case of The Wizard of Oz, James Bond and Carry On, become cultural landmarks.

In many instances The Times on Cinema juxtaposes original reviews with later rather more positive reassessments. So could some of the films disdained by critics in recent years be the classics of the future? I could not resist the temptation of juxtaposing a couple of reviews of Brief Encounter, described as a ‘subtle and deeply moving drama’ in Kate Muir’s 2015 reassessment, alongside a review of Fifty Shades of Grey, which Muir reckoned ‘starts out hilarious, becomes ludicrous and is finally dubious’. Perhaps it too will be reassessed at some future point. But it is doubtful.

By Brian Pendreigh

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