Contraband: Powell, Pressburger, Veidt, Hobson, Junge and others.
Contraband appears not only as a "one time effort" in terms of style and theme but also a collaborative effort that "might have been ongoing" had cultural and historical circumstances been different. All key players contributed their own types of unique creative talent from particular cinematic backgrounds making Contraband a significant example of cultural collaboration during the time of its production. It contains many types of European sophisticated humor. However British wartime cinema soon took on more serious concerns with less prestigious national comedies featuring Arthur Askey, George Formby, Will Hay, Frank Randle, Tommy Trinder and the Crazy Gang being the only exceptions to this rule.
Powell began his career working at the Rex Ingram Victorine Studios in Nice. While there he was not only able to observe the great Irish American director at work, but also see how a talent familiar with contemporary German and Hollywood cinema could mobilize professionally qualified technicians in a highly creative manner. Noting the collaborative involvement of scenarist Willis Goldbeck, editor Grant Whytock, stills photographer Harry Lachman, art director Henri Menessier, set designer Walter Pohlman, stars Alice Terry and Antonio Moreno all working on another adaptation of another novel by Vicente Blasco-Ibanez, whose The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse provided Ingram with his first major success, Powell (1987: 126) later wrote that Ingram "knew what he wanted from each shot, he was working with professionals who each knew what he wanted and he was prepared to wait until he got it." Following Mare Nostrum (1926), Powell collaborated with Ingram on The Magician starring Paul Wegener but felt the role should have gone to someone he would later work with. "I feel sure that Rex would have played Conrad Veidt in the part, if had not recently seen The Golem and then I should have met Connie at the time when he was reputed to be the most brilliant and the most interesting heterosexual in the German theatre." (154) After working on Ingram's last MGM silent, The Garden of Allah, Powell returned to England not only with a respect for the artistic achievements of European and Hollywood cinema but also knowing the importance of working with collaborators who were at the top of their profession. It would take him a decade to achieve this goal. Until then, he continued to learn his trade, as stills photographer on Hitchcock's Champagne (1928), as well as working uncredited on Blackmail (1929) until he began directing quota quickies from 1931 to 1936. Some of these such as Two Crowded Hours (1931), Hotel Splendide (1932), His Lordship (1932), and Lazybones (1935) were comedies but designed more to showcase the local talents of British comedians and actors such as Jerry Verno and Ian Hunter. They lacked the sophistication of European comedies. Powell had to wait until that chance meeting with Emeric Pressburger in Alexander Korda's Denham Studios before he could explore this type of film. However, other films, such as The Red Ensign (1934) and The Phantom Light (1935) starring British comic character actor Gordon Harker, are not entirely devoid of German and Hollywood stylistic influences but they usually operate on crude and un-co-coordinated levels.
Screenwriter Emeric Pressburger personified the best traditions of pre-Nazi UFA cinema as did Conrad Veidt. But his track record revealed a more secure grasp of that type of European sophisticated comedy characteristic of the "Lubitsch touch" than anything Powell had attempted. UFA employed Pressburger as contract writer. His first assignment was collaborating on the screenplay for Abschied (1930) directed by Robert Siodmak. Pressburger then worked with Erich Kastner and Max Ophuls on the screenplay of Ophuls's first film Dana Schon Libertran), the title of this lost film suggesting a comedy. As Kevin Macdonald points out, this period was as much a learning experience for Pressburger as the Ingram Studio was for Powell. Although critically lambasted due to their less serious light comedy and flimsy operetta nature, Macdonald (1994: 72) notes that these films "were certainly successful in their day, and were influential on the Hollywood cinema of the Thirties and Forties, if for no other reason than that many of the actors, directors, and producers who made them ended up in America after the rise of Hitler." However, Macdonald does not note that they were also influential on 1930s British cinema.
One of Pressburger's UFA associates was Reinhold Schunzel. Although barely remembered now for his role as Heydrich in Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die (1943) and the nervous Nazi in Hitchcock's Notorious (1946), Schunzel was then a star director specializing in musical comedies as writer, actor, and director. During the early Weimar cinema period he had acted with Conrad Veidt in one of the first films pleading for tolerance towards gays--Anders als die Andern (1919) and Die Sich Verkaufen (1919), both directed by progressive Richard Oswald, as well as one of Veidt's rare ventures into the director's chair, Wahnsinn (1919). Schunzel later directed Veidt in Der Graf von Cagliostro (1920). MacDonald (87) notes that "Schunzel's light style' as a director was often favorably compared to Lubitsch" and he had acted in two of that director's early films. Pressburger first collaborated with Schunzel on his screenplay for Der Kleine Sitensprung (1931). This film starred Renate Muller, a vivacious German actress who would later die under tragic circumstances in 1937 following Nazi persecution. At the time, she was also an international star and had made three films in England--Sunshine Susie (1931), the UK version of Die Privatsekretarin (1931), and Marry Me (1932), the UK version of Madchen zum Heiraten. Schunzel directed Muller in eight films, the most well-known being Viktor und Victoria (1933) remade by Blake Edwards in 1982 with heterosexual James Garner playing the role originally performed by gay actor Anton Walbrook who would later become one of the Archer's collaborators. One scene actually reveals that Busby Berkeley may have borrowed his overhead camera choreographed chorus girl shot from this film.
Pressburger then collaborated with Schunzel on the screenplay of the director's Ronny, an operetta co-starring Hungarian actress Kathe von Nagy and dashing leading man Willy Fritsch who co-starred with Veidt and popular English operetta star Lilian Harvey in The Congress Dances (1931), a film regarded with abhorrence by Dr. Goebbels because of its unwholesome lightweight Jewish features (see Soister: 2002, 227-231). These types of operetta with ironic overtones treating the battle of the sexes with amusement anticipated not only "The Archers's own playfully ironic operetta film, Oh ... Rosalinda!!" (MacDonald, 90), but also the very structure of Contraband. Although no operetta, Contraband not only involves a gender war between Veidt's Captain Hardt and Valerie Hobson's Mrs. Sorensen but also uses a Danish military song containing the chorus "Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!" that functions strategically during several points of the film. Despite its lightweight character, these early German sound operettas provided sophisticated and stimulating roles for leading ladies such as Renate Muller, Kathe von Nagy, Magda Schenider (mother of Romy) and Luise Rainer that were worlds apart from Hollywood leading ladies and the English Rose archetype that Powell detested. Hobson's performance in Contraband owes much to this influence. These types of films did not last in Germany once the Nazis came to power. Anti-Jewish legislation led Pressburger into exile in France where he continued writing screenplays for films directed by fellow exiles Kurt Gerron, Karl Anton, and Robert Siodmak until he arrived in England in 1935 with a stateless British passport.
By contrast, (Guy, 105), some thirty films influenced by this sophisticated Viennese style appeared in England during the mid-1930s and virtually disappeared by 1938. Although Rick Altman (140) notes that the attraction of Viennese operetta had always been its "willingness to deal openly with society's favorite topic--sex, adultery, infidelity, innuendo, double entendre", the British versions of these films tended to be muted by comparison. For example, the Jessie Matthews version of Viktor und Viktoria, First a Girl (1935) tended to downplay the gender-bending naughtiness contained in the original and even Hitchcock had his own troubles with his only musical starring Jessie Matthews, Waltzes from Vienna (1934). By contrast, Contraband uses the Viennese influence by emphasizing sexuality in a far more accomplished manner using double-entendres and other devices that would escape the censor.
Although best remembered today for his roles as Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Major Strasser in Casablanca (1943), Conrad Veidt was one of the greatest talents of Weimar cinema and theatre. Although he appeared doomed to playing Nazis and villains in Hollywood cinema, Jerry C. Allen (1993: 336) points out that on the day of his death on April 3, 1943, "commercially and critically Veidt was in great demand and plans were in the offing for more roles for him." Had he lived, it is unlikely he would have been relegated to "making faces" as Peter Lorre once commented. One of Veidt's last Hollywood films was Whistling in the Dark (1941), a comedy-thriller in which he co-starred with Red Skelton similar to his teaming with British comic Hay Petrie in Contraband. Soister (2002: 302) speculates that Veidt could have appeared in post-war film noir and comedy roles had he lived. However, this anti-Nazi actor with a Jewish wife had to face the problem of adapting to a new country, like all exiles, (see Palmier) but also had to deal with changing his screen persona from the familiar Cesare, Student of Prague, and other sinister roles he was known for. Despite being an extremely versatile actor, Veidt had to avoid becoming stereotyped. He had overcome this in England and this is every possibility he would have succeeded in Hollywood. Like many talented Germans, he had gone Hollywood in 1926 appearing opposite John Barrymore in The Beloved Rogue playing Louis XI to the Great Profile's Francois Villon. Universal Studio head Carl Laemmle contracted him for three films, the most important being The Man Who Laughs (1928) directed by Paul Leni. But the arrival of sound and Veidt's limited command of English led him to return home until the Nazi regime forced him into exile. As Sue Harper (1998: 124) notes, the actor had to change his acting style in a manner whereby he abandoned his familiar Weimar cinema's demonic persona into becoming more charismatic. "Veidt shifted from representing deviant figures to marginal ones, which contained different social meanings. Harper and Gerd Gerdmunden read his roles in films such as The Wandering Jew (1933), Jew Suss (1934), The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935), and King of the Damned (1936) as representing allegories of the actor's now displaced position in British cinema and his identification with persecuted racial minorities such as Jews. However, important as these films are, they do not represent the entire spectrum of Veidt's talents (2). He could perform comedy roles as his Metternich performance in Congress Dances shows. Harper (133) notes that when Korda signed a contract with Veidt in 1936, he "had difficulty finding the right roles for Veidt." In the January 1 1938 issue of Film Weekly, Veidt mentioned that he had only appeared in the 1937 films Under the Red Robe and Dark Journey as a favor to Korda. The great Weimar actor was clearly seeking to do some something different. His meeting with Powell and Pressburger led to The Spy in Black (1939), a film in which he played a doomed German U-Boat Commander but a role laced with humor and regret for the impossibility of breaching national and sexual boundaries (see Williams: 2000, 53-57). Contraband was to be a very different sea-change for Veidt.
Superficially, Valerie Hobson may resemble Powell's detested English Rose actress. She entered films at the age of 16, and invited to Hollywood in 1935, but after appearing in seven films, the most well-known being The Werewolf of London and The Bride of Frankenstein (both 1935), she returned to England disappointed with horror and thriller roles offered her, only to co-star with Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Alan Hale in the disappointing jump for Glory (1937) directed by Raoul Walsh, before appearing in Alexander Korda's The Drum (1938), the first of many roles that appeared to define her according to Ephraim Katz (1994-. 632) as "one of the prime leading ladies of the British screen, gentle, graceful, and elegant, the prime personification of the well-bred upper-crust English lady." This may be true of films such as Great Expectations (1946), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Card (1951) but during 1939 she was capable of playing different roles. Powell (300) describes her as "a crisp young beauty whom I had admired from a distance" and who was facing "being asked to play the usual brainless, nerveless, boneless English heroine" in the original Spy in Black screenplay that Pressburger changed beyond recognition. In 1938, Hobson showed she could play a feisty heroine in Q Planes (1938), a performance foreshadowing her role in Contraband. Powell (306) mentions the first collaboration between actors, director, and scenarist evoking Howard Hawks's definition of having "fun" on a film. This certainly characterized their next involvement on Contraband especially with an actress Powell describes as "a tall, strong intelligent girl and a quick wit", an ideal Mrs. Sorensen.
Despite often being overlooked in most standard accounts of film criticism, the role of the art director is indispensable for creating the visual mood of the film as much as the cinematogra-pher. Alfred Junge began his career designing sets for the Berlin State Opera and Theatre before joining UFA as an art director in 1920. Towards the end of that decade he began working with E.A. Dupont after assisting Paul Leni on two key German expressionist films Backstairs (1921) and Waxworks (1924) the latter starring Conrad Veidt who would again work with Leni in the Hollywood production The Man Who Laughs (1928). Junge had also set designed Salto Mortale (1931) a Dupont film seeing the first screen appearance of Anton Walbrook. In 1929, Junge moved to England with Dupont and eventually settled there. One of his most noteworthy films during 1934 was The Man who Knew Too Much (1934) directed by Alfred Hitchcock starring another Weimar exile Peter Lorre. Sarah Street (2008: 100-110) has noticed Junge's concept of Germanic "total design" in his sets for Dupont's Piccadilly (1929), Art Deco designs in Jessie Matthew's popular 1930s musicals, the integral aspect of lighting in set design as well as facilitating camera interaction with space in his mill design for Hitchcock's Young and Innocent (1937). Similar creative designs appear in Contraband and other Archers films.
Contraband is a film manifesting cross fertilization of talents behind and in front of the camera. Although the film has been compared to Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935), it displays no one direct influence but many derived from different cultural traditions, notably sophisticated UFA light romantic comedies well-known to Pressburger and Hollywood screwball comedy.
Contraband as Gourmet Collaboration
With all these talents involved, Contraband resembles a cinematic gourmet feast. It blends generic elements from different cultures designed to provide audiences with light entertainment during the period of the "phony war" that lasted from Britain's declaration of war in September 1939 against Nazi Germany to the beginning of the Battle of France on May 10 1940. Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister and Winston Churchill replaced him. After location shooting in the East Coast area designed to show the operations of the Naval Contraband control as well as please the Admiralty for providing documentary propaganda, the unit moved to Denham Studios to construct scenes on board Andersen's ship as well as recreate London in blackout conditions for what Powell describes as "the first time in history that a blacked-out history had been put on the screen" (Christie, 27). Powell (339) appears to have regarded the film as "all pure corn, but corn served up by professionals and it worked." However, Valerie Hobson (Macdonald, 160-161) later remembered that the friendship she shared with Pressburger and Veidt influenced the screenplay resulting in certain "touches" such as The Three Vikings Restaurant recreating one the two stars often dined at in London. Veidt was also trying to break away from his sinister German image and appreciated the humane role Pressburger had written for him in The Spy in Black and relieved that he was now playing a Danish sea captain. Although Macdonald (161-162) regards Hitchcock comedy thrillers such as The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) as key influences--and they are certainly present as in the Nazi hideout location near a cinema as in Sabotage (1937)--early 1930s UFA comedies involving the battle of the sexes are more relevant. Both Hitchcock and Powell were very open to international influences. As Charles Barr (2005: 13) notes, these directors both looked outwards rather than inwards "learning from a wide range of international experiences, influences and collaborators, and also repeatedly dramatizing encounters between British and non-British characters." Contraband also displays its own "Lubitsch touch" owing much to the collaborative efforts of five major talents influenced by sophisticated UFA comedy thrillers and romantic entanglements.
This characterizes the relationship between Veidt's Captain Andersen and Hobson's Mrs. Sorensen. It not only resembles the Hollywood screwball comedy "attraction of opposites" seen in Twentieth Century (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), and Bringing Up Baby (1938) but also lighthearted UFA films frowned upon by Dr. Goebbels. Hobson's Mrs. Sorensen is a rare creature in British cinema--a gay divorcee traveling between America and Denmark to see her child now in the custody of his Danish father. However, she is really Miss Clayton, an independent woman playing her own version of the "Great Game" in a manner undreamed of by John Buchan. When she refuses to wear her life-jacket in the opening scene, this begins a battle of the sexes that will not only be played on board ship but also in a blackout London concealing Nazi spies. As Ives points out, conventional gender roles become blurred in a film where language and movement play significantly prominent roles. When his disobedient passenger answers that she has never experienced being put into irons, Veidt responds in a sinister manner evoking his role in Dark Journey. "No--I thought not. You would find it more uncomfortable than wearing a life jacket." This bondage metaphor becomes literal when they are both tied up together. He tells her, "I shall have to hurt you." She replies, "Go ahead." Hobson has to push on her ropes to facilitate his escape and Ives notes the implication. "As she induces pain in herself through quietly orgasmic sighs, Veidt's response is an equally orgasmic "good girl." Before he leaves, he kisses his bound lady in a manner evoking European sadomasochistic practices. When earlier searching her cabin, he suggestively sniffs her stockings in a very suggestive manner before he sees Mr. Pidgeon's cigar in an obvious phallic position. Veidt's Andersen then begins a quest to retrieve his masculine authority. But, as Ives notes, he finds himself without financial means of support leading Mrs. Sorensen to pay his bus fare. Earlier, Andersen nearly followed her into a Ladies toilet. Dialogue contains flighty innuendo representing that lost tradition of "naughty but nice" UFA comedies, to say nothing of the Lubitsch touch now transferred to Hollywood comedies such as The Love Parade (1929 and Trouble in Paradise (1932). She says, "Did you ever try being married? That can be quite an adventure." He replies, sighing, "Why do women always say that? Marriage ends adventure." She copies his sigh. "Why do men always say that?" Contraband ends with another installment of the battle of the lifejacket. It falls to the floor during an embrace and "The End" leaves plenty to the imagination suggesting that other things will also fall to the floor. As Steve Crook notes, Contraband is very risque for 1940, a film having "hidden shallows" or concealed sexy UFA comedy components.
The film blurs boundaries in many ways merging German expressionism with introductory documentary footage. Alfred Junge's designs blend Art Deco sets of his Jessie Matthews musicals with an actual working elevator moving from basement to ground floor rather than using shadows to suggest movement. This interacts with later light and shadow imagery employed by future acclaimed cinematographer Freddie Young. It resembles machine imagery of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and the opening scene of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1931). The female Nazi agent is named Miss Lang. The frequently reproduced still showing Veidt pointing his gun from behind the lift's grille in a menacingly German expressionist close-up is one of many examples of Junge's talent of integrating sets with lighting and camera work supporting Powell's tribute "that it is not sufficiently acknowledged that the art director is the creator of those miraculous images up there on the big screen, and that besides being a painter and an architect, this miracle man has to be an engineer as well." (343)
One negative review of Contraband on the Internet Movie Database describes the film as "camp expressionism." This is an unfair comment since it does not recognize how Contraband blurs many boundaries and not just male-female relationships. When imprisoned with Mrs. Sorensen, Andersen hears what he believes is the voice of a male singer playing a banjo. He later visits several nightclubs, one of which is "The White Negro Club" where white chorus girls perform alongside black painted male dancers. This scene was eliminated from the American version to avoid offending Southern sensibilities. But its presence emphasizes Contraband's indebtedness to those UFA musical comedies that deliberately blurred boundaries on more than one level. Here racial and sexual boundaries merge in the same manner as the alliance between British and Danes led by a German actor with a Jewish wife (who identified himself as Jewish in an act of defiance to the Gestapo) and who was now a British citizen eternally grateful to a country that had rescued him from the Nazis in 1934 (see Allen, 218-215). Although initially advertised by DVD distributor Kino as "British film noir," Contraband blends German expressionism, film noir, Hollywood screwball comedy, and sophisticated 1930s UFA traditions in a highly imaginative manner. It deliberately aims to blur cultural boundaries in the same manner as Archers later did during the 1940s. Rather than finding a male singer he discovers instead a female with a masculine voice bearing a distinct resemblance to an actress appearing in later Archers films whom Powell's wife described as having "a touch of the lesbian" (see Powell: 1992: 95). (3) This is as near as the film can get to the world of Viktor und Viktoria. Andersen also recruits enlists a group of Rugby rowdies having a drunken dinner with their R.A.F. friends. One (Michael Shepley) utters Tarzan's Hollywood yell before engaging in Powell's version of a John Ford bar room brawl in a plush Art Deco nightclub. Terrified female musicians (modeled on the popular 1940s Ivy Benson All-Girl Band) flee in terror and we discover that their glamorous legs are nothing more than part of the set design. The Danish contingent mobilizes for battle with their British counterparts in a mock version of the hoped-for alliance between Britain and Denmark before the German Army May 10th advance into Western Europe quashed that possibility. They sing the Danish military song Andersen taught Mrs. Sorensen to sing at the Three Vikings in the manner of UFA operettas. This time, it forms a war cry with Danes combining with British in a rugby scrum against the Nazis.
Nazi villain Van Dyne (Raymond Lovell) also represents a similar blurring of boundaries. He conceals his German accent beneath carefully constructed English pronunciation. Although ostensibly having lived in Denmark and America for some time, Mrs. Sorensen speaks in a definite English accent revealing that her assumed name actually conceals her real identity as Miss Clayton. The final battle between Andersen and Van Dyne occurs in a warehouse containing busts of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Andersen uses one to fell his foe, commenting "They always said he was tough." Despite Chamberlain's associations with the Munich agreement and appeasement, the line denotes less approval but rather emphasizes Contraband's message that appearances can be deceptive.
Contraband received a trade showing on March 20 1940. It opened at London's Odeon Leicester Square to popular acclaim and went on general release during May when the phony war came to a sudden end. Afterwards things took a more serious concern. The Film section of the Ministry of Information decided to sponsor feature films as propaganda enabling the Archers to go to Canada "to prepare a film intended to alert American public opinion and counter isolationism" (Christie: 1978, 27). This would become 49th Parallel. Veidt sailed to America taking prints of Contraband there for re-editing and re-titling as Blackout. He would never return to the country he became a citizen of in February 1939. His ashes were finally transferred to London's Golders Green Jewish cemetery on April 3rd, 1998. Valerie Hobson never again performed the type of light-hearted leading lady role of she did in Contraband. Alfred Junge left the Archers in 1948. He became the head of the art department of MGM's British studios until his retirement in the late 1950s. Powell and Pressburger's later career is too well-known to mention here. But Contraband is a film worthy of its title. Although critics such as Francois Truffault mercilessly condemned British cinema (sometimes with good reason), this does not mean that it never exhibited cosmopolitanism. Contraband is a good example of a collaborative effort that could have been ongoing had not contemporary cultural and historical factors resulted in a more nationalistic type of cinema relevant to a wartime situation. It remains a good example of different cinematic styles and creative personnel collaborating at a particular historical moment displaying a potential that British cinema occasionally realized whenever rigid national boundaries dissolved.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. He has recently written John Woo's Bullet in the Head (Hong Kong University Press).
(1) Harper and Germunden dismiss Contraband in their respective articles choosing instead to concentrate on the British Veidt films they regard as more important. Alexander Ives's 2005 article in the CTEQ section of www.sensesofcinema.com represents a very welcome exception.
(2) See Soister for a comprehensive survey of this actor's work. Veidt was actually an accomplished comedy actor as films such as Liebe macht blind (1925) and Congress Dances (1931) reveal. Although he does not sing in F.P 1 Doesn't Answer (1932), his recording of the film's song Where the Lighthouse Shines Across the Bay was released commercially at the time and became a popular hit on English radio in 1980 leading to its re-release as a single. (See Allen, 175). His musical duet with Valerie Hobson in Contraband was not without precedent.
(3) Note Powell's comment concerning their affair during the filming of I Know Where I'm Going (1945). "I loved her like a boy" (Powell: 1988, 479).
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|Title Annotation:||Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell, Conrad Veidt, Valerie Hobson, Alfred Junge|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Feb 4, 2010|
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