LONDON — The images tumble from the screen, in glorious Technicolor or flickering black-and-white. The quality is highly variable and so is the subject matter, ranging from the utterly banal to the high-flown.
And yet, there is a connecting thread — the celebration of “Jewish Britain on Film,” a collection which has just been released by the British Film Archive. And, curator Simon McCallum explains, this is part of a much bigger project– “Britain on Film” — where researchers are attempting to digitize more than 10,000 titles.
“‘Jewish Britain’ is one piece of a bigger jigsaw and part of our bid to make our moving image heritage much more available,” says McCallum.
He is no stranger to the Jewish community, having worked as a programmer for the UK Jewish Film Festival and even curated a previous, smaller collection called “Oy, Britannia,” a title which even he has to chuckle at.
“We wanted to show different British communities, both as they are represented on film and how they have sought to represent themselves,” McCallum explains.
So “Jewish Britain on Film” — much of which is free to view — includes powerful feature films, such as the original 1934 version of “Jew Suss,” or the utterly fascinating 1944 “Mr. Emmanuel,” together with odd little documentary films such as 1969’s “Some of My Best Friends,” or a lovely 1968 interview with the then fresh-from-drama-school actress Maureen Lipman, destined to become one of the UK’s best-known and most successful theater and television stars.
There are home movies, too, among the collection, some of which have no soundtrack, obliging the viewer to concentrate hard on what is happening on-screen; and some hilarious TV footage such as a local news story about a group of Jewish pensioners who won a lot of money betting on sports.
The raucous cackles of the pensioners are quickly counter-balanced by a grave but unidentified young woman who works for the United Synagogue in the seaside town of Southend where the pensioners live, telling the reporter that gambling is strictly forbidden in Judaism and that the pensioners should not stand to benefit from their win.
Adding to the charm is that this story was one of the first TV news reports by Judy Finnegan — half of the power couple, along with her husband Richard Madeley — who today dominate British daytime television.
In fact, the non-Jewish input into “Jewish Britain on Film” is striking. Big-name character actors such as Conrad Veidt, later to play the super villain Major Strasser in “Casablanca,” or theatrical knights such as Felix Aylmer or Cedric Hardwicke, stalk the screen, with seemingly no hesitation about playing Jews.
Hardwicke, in particular, who starred with Bing Crosby in the comedy-musical “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” is almost unrecognizable in “Jew Suss,” chanting louder and louder the opening words of the Hebrew “Shema” prayer as the film reaches its dramatic climax.
Much of the BFI’s extraordinary collection — more than a million films — has not been digitized, a fact that McCallum bore in mind while cherry picking titles for “Jewish Britain on Film.”
“I looked at what we could transfer and put in the collection, particularly looking at the obscure and less widely-known titles,” he says. “Not just looking at documentaries and feature films, but also at how Jews have been portrayed in British cinema, because that in itself is an interesting story.”
The earliest films in the series coincide with the 1905 Aliens Act and are, says, McCallum, “pretty anti-Semitic in nature. They rely on Jewish stereotypes that were quite prevalent at the time. Cinema was just getting going and at the same time there were tens of thousands of Jews fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe. They were very much being scapegoated, and with different migrant groups now, we can see that not much has changed.”
The Jewish involvement in the film industry in Britain did not get going as early as it happened in the United States, McCallum says.
“This may explain the negative portrayals which survive — and much of Edwardian cinema does not survive. We do know that the political atmosphere at the time, where Jews were viewed as taking [British] jobs, did start to filter through to cinema,” he says.
After World War I, however, attitudes began to shift, and by the 1920s British cinema was able to produce a film such as “General Post,” in which a Jewish tailor becomes a war hero who falls in love with a wealthy Gentile.
“Though on the surface this is about class, it’s actually about someone who is foreign and therefore not acceptable. His brother is actually more negatively stereotypical, but the lead character is very sympathetically shown,” says McCallum.
One of McCallum’s highlights is a film called “Two Worlds” which looks at the experience of Jews in Eastern Europe.
“It’s set on the Austro-Hungarian border and was made in French and German — as well as in English. It was made to be shown around Europe but used British technology. It told the story, through a fictional lens, of pogroms and persecution. The heroine is a Jewish woman who hides an Austrian soldier from the Russians,” McCallum says.
“Jew Suss,” the 1934 film which was later turned into an anti-Semitic propaganda film by the Nazis, was produced by one of Britain’s greatest film names, Michael Balcon, who was Jewish.
McCallum says that Balcon wanted to mirror what was happening in Nazi Germany by showing anti-Semitism in the film; Balcon was later knighted for his contribution to British cinema. His grandson is the celebrated present-day actor Daniel Day-Lewis.
Much of the work done by McCallum and his colleagues has to do with rights issues, tracking down the copyright holders — even for things as ostensibly trivial as home movies — to get their permission for the films to be re-screened. In this way, they are as much social detectives as cinematic archivists.
Even when a writer associated with a film becomes famous in later years — such as Bernard Kops, the writer and poet who worked on “Just One Kid,” the story of a return to the East End of London — it’s not always the case that they will be the copyright holder.
Some of these films become “orphans,” such as 1962’s “The Barber of Stamford Hill,” based on a play by Ronald Harwood, later to become famous for his play and film, “The Dresser.”
Harwood, now 83, did not own the copyright for this film, but it is in the collection, nevertheless — a little gem reflecting postwar Jewish life.
Another classic documentary from the 1960s features in the collection — “The Vanishing Street,” made by Robert Vas, who went on to become one of the most lauded documentary filmmakers at the BBC.
This extraordinary film looks at Hessel Street in the heart of Whitechapel, in London’s East End. Hessel Street was the core commercial area for Jews — kosher butchers, poulterers, fishmongers and greengrocers all plied their trade here — but gradually the population changed and Hessel Street, some of whose properties were still bombed-out from World War II, was slated for demolition.
Vas’s camera roams over newly-built 1960s high-rise housing and takes in the beginnings of a new population as turbaned men stroll down the street, shaking hands with the shopkeepers.
And, of course, no Jewish street, shows Vas, is complete without a synagogue — this one full of wizened old men and a group of slightly bored pre-bar mitzvah boys, the men showing the boys where to look in the prayer book, the boys sticking their tongues out at their teacher.
Not all the films emanate from London. There is an odd little propaganda film from the Youth and Hechalutz Department of the Jewish Agency called “The Challenge,” in which the camera follows a group of young volunteers preparing to move to Israel. They train for kibbutz life on the Jewish Agency-owned farm, the Eder Farm, in Horsham, Sussex.
In the middle of this film the action suddenly switches to the northern city of Leeds, as the former Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion and his wife Paula arrive to open a Jewish youth club in the city.
Then there are a series of wedding films, home movies dating from 1925 up to the 1970s, providing a delicious guide to fashions of the day.
Besides the scores of free films available to view, there are a selection of clips on the BFI YouTube channel. Much of the charm of the collection lies in the hope that — for the documentary and home movies at least — the casual viewer will be able to spot friends or relatives.
But for Simon McCallum this is by no means a completed project. He thinks it will be possible to add to the collection as more people discover a lost reel of film in an attic or wonder what that dusty box contains.
“There will still be surprises,” he says.