PRINT September 2003


James Quandt on Richard Massingham

HOW IS IT THAT A BRITISH DOCTOR fifty years dead, an oddball amateur who made advertisements and corporate training films, instructional works, and propaganda for the Orwellian-sounding Ministry of Information, is suddenly being discovered as one of the great eccentrics of film history? The coercive power of arcana has seen masters displaced by marginals in many fields, but until recently it did little for the reputation of Richard Massingham (1898–1953). Massingham once seemed destined for posthumous stardom after Henri Langlois, cofounder of the Cinémathèque Française and mentor to the French New Wave, called him “the great English director . . . the king of suspense . . . the greatest technician and the greatest poet of British cinema” and compared him to Vermeer, Méliès, Vigo, Sennett, Buñuel, Daumier, and van Gogh. But the fog of obscurity closed in again, and Massingham has gone unremarked in most accounts of British film, even as such popular genres as Ealing comedies, Hammer horror films, Gainsborough melodramas, and the “Carry On” series have supplanted the cinema of Asquith and Saville, Reed and Lean in academic studies.

Langlois’s paean could be dismissed as perverse hyperbole or French effusion, an indication of the prevailing disdain for traditional British film among the nascent Nouvelle Vague. (Indeed, François Truffaut’s Young Turk assertion that the phrase “British cinema” was a contradiction in terms now seems more like prescience than provocation, given the recent proliferation of pandering Brit inspirationals.) Despite his exaggeration, Langlois was on to something. Massingham’s films—fifteen of which were selected by the British Film Institute to tour the UK last spring and North America this fall and will eventually be released on DVD—are rich miniatures, dense with social detail, eccentric humor, and visual invention. They combine Hitchcock’s sense of foreboding and danger in the everyday, the visual abstraction of Dziga Vertov and Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye’s peculiar obsessiveness, and the ineffable strangeness of compatriots Powell and Pressburger. Hilarious and alarming, Massingham’s work is a trove as much for the ethnographer and historian as for the cinephile; his many depictions of social regulation offer a fascinating group portrait of postwar Britain.

Born into a family of jotters and journalists in Kent, “Dicky” trained as a doctor and became senior medical officer at the London Fever Hospital. Initially a weekend hobby, filmmaking soon superseded medicine as his vocation, and he shot Tell Me If It Hurts (1934) using hospital staff and settings, his cinematographer’s apartment, and his dentist’s office. The film stakes out Massingham’s territory, in which pleasure is paid for by pain and the world is a vast trap of accidents, cruelty, calamity, incivility, and—perhaps scariest of all—“jet-propelled germs.” In Tell Me, a would-be bon vivant cracks a tooth on a roast chicken in a posh restaurant and ends up under the drill of a dentist whom he recently beat at tennis. The sadistic setup is funny enough—the fetishizing close-ups of the dentist’s tools recall Hitchcock—but the film’s handmade experimentalism makes it memorable. A final burst of abstract imagery, a whirling perpetuum mobile of sparking pain, employs Fischinger-like abstraction for its subjective representation of dental agony.

Massingham acted in many of his films, his jowly, astonished-at-the-world rue and rumple reminiscent of an unstylized Robert Morley—part portly pleasure seeker, part Ealing everyman. Working in the circumscribed world of home, garden, office, and pub, and relying on friends, acquaintances, and pets—his poodles star in one of his last films, To the Rescue (1952)—Massingham soon turned to promotional and training films to make a living. Ingmar Bergman made advertisements for Bris soap, and Carl Theodor Dreyer survived for a period by making info films for the Danish government, but these were footnotes to their work. Massingham, on the other hand, parlayed his PR films into an entire career. Terse and conceptually witty, his adverts, made for any number of government ministries, are full of avuncular advice and priggish pedagogy. They teach you how to cross a street and to conserve water by filling the bath only five inches deep; why a handkerchief needs to be disinfected, not just washed; which typing technique is best; how a suit lives out its short life; and ways in which “an Englishman’s home” is both heaven (in an ad for Horlick’s beverage) and full of potential hazard for children (in the disturbing Burns and Scalds [1947]). These lapidary “message films” are estimable as art, condensing narrative in an often strikingly oblique manner, deftly employing absurdist or Benchley-like social satire, and experimenting with serrated editing and surrealist or expressionist visual and sound effects (for example, the pastiche of inappropriate music in the 1944 Family Doctor).

“Watch Out!” one of his end titles exclaims, a phrase that subsumes Massingham’s entire oeuvre of warning and admonition. Postwar fear and suspicion, shortages and rationing, and the British inclination for stricture and straitening are all inscribed in his small, artful anecdotes. Like all great clowns, Massingham had a dark streak. They Travel by Air (1947) instructs staff of the national airline how to treat passengers: the neurotic, the addled, the demanding. From the perspective of the flight attendant, the clients are prats and fools, deserving mistreatment, even murder. (One suspects the film has lost little pertinence.) Massingham’s dim view of postwar England culminated in What a Life! (1948), in which two businessmen suffer enough mundane humiliation and misfortune to drive them to suicide. A Conservative MP fulminated in Parliament over this hopeless view of home being commissioned by the Ministry of Information, an attack that only proved Massingham’s view of the mingy condition of his country. What the Brits call a Dismal Jimmy, his eyebrows perpetually worrying themselves into an inverted V, Massingham asked sadly, “But really, what is there to be cheerful about nowadays?” One answer, more pertinent five decades later, lies in his own work. This doctor is definitely in.

James Quandt, senior programmer of the Cinematheque Ontario, Toronto, is organizing the current North American tour of the British Film Institute’s “How to Be Eccentric: The Films of Richard Massingham.”