The Complete Humphrey Jennings Volume One: The First Days Review
The Complete Humphrey Jennings is the latest documentary undertaking from the British Film Institute’s DVD division. It’s a major project and one which continues the excellent standards of previous releases. They’d earlier provided two massive surveys of key periods in the history of British non-fiction filmmaking with Land of Promise, which covered 1930 to 1950, and Shadows of Progress, which continued the story to the late seventies. They’d also offered up a host of volumes dedicated to various key film units, including those of the National Coal Board, the GPO, British Transport Films. Now they’ve turned their attentions to a specific filmmaker. Having worked during the ‘golden age’ covered in Land of Promise and been employed by the GPO Film Unit, there’s naturally a little crossover. But this marks the first proper survey devoted to one of British cinema’s all-time greats. Across three volumes the BFI will provide all of Jennings’ directorial efforts backed up with alternative versions, some rarely seen works in which he had a hand plus the expected authoritative booklets packed with a wealth of information, background and historical context. They’ll also be presented entirely high definition.
That it has taken until now for Jennings to finally get his due on disc is somewhat surprising. His work in predominantly short films has no doubt been a hindrance in this respect (only the 63-minute Fires Were Started qualifies as a feature), yet this is also the man responsible for some of British cinema’s most remarkable achievements. Listen to Britain and Fires Were Started are both undoubted masterpieces, wherever their origin, whilst the likes of Words for Battle, A Diary for Timothy and Spare Time - to use just three examples - aren’t that far behind. Yet if we wanted to catch up with Jennings’ considerable output on DVD then we’ve had to do so in a bitty fashion, picking up titles here and there. As well as those earlier BFI collections (six titles on Land of Promise, another six across the GPO volumes) there have been short film compilations from the Imperial War Museum and Panamint Cinema which featured the occasional effort, plus the odd title cropping up in an unexpected place, as when Britain Can Take It! accompanied the James Cagney flag-waver The Fighting 69th. The nearest we have gotten to a proper dedicated disc to date came in the form of MovieMail’s self-produced Humphrey Jennings Collection in 2005 which brought together three of the director’s best alongside Kevin MacDonald’s excellent The Man Who Listened to Britain documentary.
Volume One of The Complete Humphrey Jennings focuses its attentions on the early years, taking us from 1934 to 1940 courtesy of fourteen films, three alternative edits and one additional short. This set’s subtitle, The First Days, has a dual-meaning. Not only does it refer to Jennings’ formative years as a filmmaker, but also the earliest days of the Second World War, a period in history that would prove integral to his standing as a truly great director. We can split these fourteen shorts into distinctive periods: the apprenticeship works consisting of safe, often uninspiring subject matter and the propaganda films designed to boost morale on the home front. We can also slowly plot Jennings’ growing confidence as a director and the development of his voice, one that possessed experimental tendencies and had a clear interest in the common man.
The very first films resemble nothing more than illustrated lectures. Post-Haste, Locomotives and The Story of the Wheel, all of which date from 1934, make use of museum models, etchings and other materials from the archive to relate their subjects. In the first we have the history of the post office - the first ever sorting office, the use of the railways, the introduction of the penny postage, and so on. The second takes in the history of the rail in the UK, from the invention of steam power to the ever-growing expansion of the railway networks. The last is pretty much self-explanatory. In all cases we’re dealing with films that are very obviously apprentice assignments. The simplicity of the films and the briskness of their running times (which average eight minutes) is such that Jennings has little room to manoeuvre; all he can do is deliver what has been asked. From a present day perspective these shorts recall the kind of educational films we were shown at primary school: the simple voice-over (often delivered by a female speaker), the basic visual style, the overall quaintness of tone and delicate pace. These are not adventurous works, nor were they intended to be.
A similar sense of restriction hangs over the three colour films Jennings made for Dufay-Chromex to show off their experimental colour process, Dufaycolor. Made in 1937 and 1938, these three titles were understandably more about the visuals than they were the content. Farewell Topsails from 1937 takes in a barge’s trip from Cornwall. The Farm and Making Fashion, both of which date from 1938, reveal their subject matters in their titles. The former records the spring and summer of rural life in Wessex, whilst the latter takes the catwalk. Without the colour or Jennings attachment they’d likely be entirely forgotten today (in fact, Farewell Topsails was only discovered in the past decade). With the colour, however, they take on a certain gaudy fascination. Dufaycolor wasn’t the greatest of processes yet it possesses a curious unnatural quality which makes it seem like Technicolor’s sickly cousin.
One noteworthy element to Farewell Topsails is the accordion score provided by an anonymous onscreen musician. Jennings cuts back to him from time to time as he stands on the harbour, thus providing a welcome bit of local flavour. It’s the first sign of things to come, the first acknowledgement of human interest that would become so integral. Indeed, it’s an area of Jennings’ work that we’ll see emerge over the course of the next few films. In Penny Journey (1937), which follows a postcard from Manchester to a village in Sussex, we encounter a local postie who has to embark on a three-quarter-mile walk to ensure delivery. In Speaking from America (1938) and The Farm we see a growing interest in men at work and their downtime. The latter was re-edited into English Harvest (included among this disc’s extras) so as to focus almost entirely on this idea.
The culmination came in 1939’s Spare Time, which focuses solely on downtime in three industrial areas. Here are the miners, the steel workers and cotton weavers during their hours off as they perform in brass bands and male voice choirs or nip down the pub and have a game of darts. Laurie Lee provides the commentary, but is happy to remain quiet for long stretches and let the music of these bands and choirs take over. At the time of the film’s making Jennings had been heavily involved in the Mass Observation anthropological movement and Spare Time shares in its curiosity for the unaccounted for aspects of everyday life. As a result we get both the quirky and what has become the clichéd: men in flat caps but also a vuvuzela band adorned in striking uniforms and caps. The mixture is such that it really brings the past alive. Our pre-conceptions of the time are partially confirmed, but our eyes are opened too.
As well as being a superb piece of cinema in its own right, Spare Time would also lay down the template for two of this volume’s wartime efforts, The First Days (1939) and London Can Take It! (1940). The other titles from this period have more specific approaches (Spring Offensive and Welfare of the Workers, both from 1940, consider the effects of war on rural areas and labour exchange, respectively) with particular audiences in mind. These two, however, are clear examples of morale-boosting propaganda and they do the job wonderfully. Both take the capital and its people as their chosen point of focus, with the human angle gaining the most attention. Here we see how Londoners coped with the early stages of the Second World War and the nightly raids from the German Luftwaffe. As with Spare Time, Jennings combines the everyday with the extraordinary, although in these cases the latter is far more serious. The very fact of life during wartime is what makes these scenes so out of the ordinary, not the quirky or the oddball, yet the effect is very much the same. We get to see the familiar images easily described as quintessentially English - tree-lined streets, Sunday walks, a bout of knitting - but they’re tempered with the very obvious realities of the blitz.
Indeed, it is this very combination which makes the films so rousing. Jennings, particularly with The First Days and London Can Take It!, elevates the common man to someone who should be endorsed and celebrated. In propaganda terms this means that he and his fellow countrymen are termed “the people’s army”, “heroes by night” and so forth, but there’s no denying the power behind such ideas and, more importantly, such execution. The methods of Spare Time keep these films firmly rooted in reality - and as such they remain valuable historical documents of the time - yet the greater sense of purpose arguably makes them all the more affecting. Jennings had made another pair of greats, but there were more to come. As this volume’s title puts it, these were just the first days. The Second World War, as it continued, would really bring Jennings to life as a filmmaker. The next volume in the collection contains the real masterpieces and some of the finest works ever committed to celluloid.
Volume one of The Complete Humphrey Jennings was released as a dual-format edition back in September 2011. Volume two is imminent (release date: April 23rd) as is a review, with volume three expected before the end of the year. The BFI have been working on the collection for some time, with restorations beginning in 2009. Each was sourced from the holdings in the BFI National Film Archive, with the exception of Britain Can Take It! (the alternative edit of London Can Take It!) which were loaned by the Imperial War Museum. None of the films is in exceptional condition. They don’t exist in pristine condition and efforts can only go so far to clean them up and remove damage, dirt and the like. This isn’t to say that the films are in a bad shape, merely to make it clear that age has played a part. Importantly, the crucial aspects - those of clarity, level of detail, lack of ill-effects in bringing these titles to disc - are all in place. These various shorts are appearing in as good a condition as we could hope for and in a manner which clearly trumps all previous editions. The additional detail is particularly apparent in the Dufaycolor films. Farewell Topsails was among Land of Promise’s inclusions, but only now can we see the cross-hatch texture to the film stock which allowed its colour process to work. As with the image, so too with soundtrack. Once again flaws are apparent - some crackle, some wobble, and so forth - as age dictates, but a crispness and clarity remains which should impress. Optional subtitles for the hard of hearing are also available.
Extras amount to four additional shorts and the typically meaty BFI booklet. The former consist of three alternate versions - English Harvest (derived from The Farm), Cargoes (from SS Ionian) and Britain Can Take It! (from London Can Take It!) - plus Len Lye’s The Birth of the Robot on whose design Jennings worked. Watching the alternates is an instructive lesson in editing and the effects of voice-over, none more so than in English Harvest which tightens up a somewhat so-so original and places a greater emphasis on its men-at-work core with less reliance on commentary. The Birth of a Robot, meanwhile, is just wonderful - one of my favourite animated films now available in HD! I will use this opportunity to make it clear that a complete Len Lye Blu-ray edition would be excitedly received. (I won’t discuss The Birth of a Robot as it simply needs to be seen unspoilt such is the level of invention and unexpectedness.)
As for the booklet, here we find a foreword from Jennings’ daughter, Mary-Lou Jennings, a bio of the filmmaker from Julian Petley and comprehensive notes for each and every film from experts in the field. Alongside them we also find the expected credits, illustrations and notes on the transfers. Needless to say, the qualities of the various essays across these 36 pages are up to the BFI’s usual standards.
Post Haste (1934)
The Story of the Wheel (1934)
Farewell Topsails (1937)
Penny Journey (1938)
Speaking from America (1938)
The Farm (1938)
Making Fashion (1938)
Spare Time (1939)
SS Ionian (1939)
The First Days (1939)
Spring Offensive (1940)
Welfare of the Workers (1940)
London Can Take It! (1940)