A dot of light appears in the corner of the black screen, swelling and growing. Soon it’s large enough to be identified: it’s a subterranean train station and it’s not moving, we are, perched with the camera at the front of a train, rushing toward the lit platform from the darkness of a tunnel.
Thirty-three years after the Lumière brothers first stunned audiences with train travel, the train is again arriving in the station, this time with the visual dazzle of a medium at the peak of its silent-era power. The film’s production company, British Instructional Films, billed Underground as “a British picture of modern day London,” and director Anthony Asquith, who also wrote the scenario, makes ample use of 1928 London’s modern machinery. The film’s British-ness, however, was debated. Asquith frames, lights, and shoots Underground with the style and verve of a young cinephile drunk on German cinema’s expressionistic mise-en-scène and Soviet cinema’s rapid-fire cutting.
A title card announces that this is a story of “ordinary workaday people.” Ladies’ man Bert falls for shopgirl Nell, but so does porter Bill, while seamstress Kate pines after Bert. The tale of romantic rivalry darkens into a violent melodrama, played out against the busy London backdrop. The film’s quartet lives in a world of crowds, where privacy is nonexistent and constant bumping and jostling is the norm. Even when the young couple retreats to a park, an urchin tries to steal their sandwiches. The film reflects England’s changing society. By the late 1920s, class divisions were, if not disappearing, at least blurring, and the Underground was a factor. Peter Ackroyd writes in London Under that when the Stockwell line got rid of the distinction between first- and second-class tickets in 1890, “the Railway Times complained that lords and ladies would now be travelling with Billingsgate fishwives and Smithfield porters.”
On the surface, Asquith seems an unlikely choice to depict this new reality. The son of a former prime minister and a Scottish heiress with artistic tastes, Asquith was educated at Oxford, rubbed elbows with cabinet ministers and members of the peerage, and was indulged by his parents in his passion first for music, then film. When the budding cinephile went to Hollywood, it was as the guest of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Not yet 20, he visited film sets, dined with Lillian Gish, and argued with Charlie Chaplin about camera technique.
Asquith was no aristocratic playboy, but a tireless student of film. He joined the London Film Society, founded in 1925 by a group of frustrated cinephiles who had formed the organization in order to see innovative and experimental work that failed to find commercial distribution in England. Under the auspices of this early cine-club, Asquith was exposed to films by Paul Leni, Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang, and Vsevolod Pudovkin. When Asquith joined British Instructional Films in 1926, he was, writes Rachael Low in her History of British Film, one of “the new generation of well-connected, well-educated young men who, unlike their parents, were prepared to take films seriously.”
Asquith rose with enviable speed at the studio. In 1926 he was stunt-doubling for the actress Phyllis Nelson-Terry as Queen Boadicea (Asquith wore a blond wig and rode in a chariot), and the next year he was making the very successful Shooting Stars. Although he was originally credited as veteran director A.V. Bramble’s assistant, the film is widely regarded as Asquith’s. In Underground, directing on his own for the first time, Asquith let loose with all the visual and technical ideas he had soaked up in his years of filmgoing. With German lighting designer Karl Fischer he created the ominous angles and exaggerated stair-rail shadows that frame the seduced and abandoned Kate, while the film’s mobile camera and rapid pacing are clearly an homage to German and Soviet cinema. Asquith’s camera rides up an escalator as well as atop a train and takes a punch during a pub fight. In the climactic chase sequence, there are 40 shots in perhaps two minutes, as pursuer and pursued burst from the Metropolis-like power plant, clamber over rooftops, down a crane, and take a dunk in the river before disappearing into the Underground tunnel.
The Chicago Tribune got comic mileage out of Asquith’s supposed difficulties shooting on location. In “British Bobby is Agin Making Movies,” the paper informs readers that London police told the director to “’op it” as he was setting up a shot outside Westminster Abbey. The reporter waxes indignant that such treatment was given to “the man who, in Shooting Stars, provided patriotic Britishers with practically their sole example of British cinema technique to which they might justifiably point with pride.”
This sort of dig at British film was fairly standard for the time, and not just in America or on the Continent; English critics were perhaps the loudest in their complaints about the poor quality of domestic films. Briton Paul Rotha, describing the state of British film in 1930 wrote: “it rests on a structure of false prestige, supported by the flatulent flapdoodle of newspaper writers and the indifferent goodwill of the English people.” Part of the problem was the quota system, which went into effect in 1928, the year Underground was released, setting minimums on British-made films for both exhibitors and distributors. The quota succeeded in increasing Britain’s output from 41 films in 1927 to 92 in 1928, but it also led to the rise of the notorious “quota quickies,” cheap films made solely to meet this new legal requirement. On March 24, 1929, the New York Times reported that “English films seem to have gotten a reputation for inferiority.”
Underground came in for its share of criticism. Low writes that the general public complained about the “distorted” angles and “murky” lighting, while highbrows criticized Asquith as unequipped to understand the common people (an ironic accusation in light of the director’s later trade union activism). Rotha wrote sternly that Asquith “has studied the Soviet and German cinema, but has failed to search deep enough.” One Variety reviewer mocked Asquith’s visit to Hollywood: “Asquith … is credited with having studied American production methods in Hollywood … None of it shows in this film.” In the same publication, another praises the film because it is better than the average British picture and “it never attempts to ape Hollywood.”
This reception seems unfathomable today. Perhaps it was provoked in part by resentment of Asquith’s privileged position and rapid rise. Maybe it’s that Asquith never had the knack of pleasing critics, particularly not his countrymen. In his Biographical Dictionary of Cinema, David Thomson calls Asquith “a dull journeyman supervisor … of proven theatrical properties,” referring to Asquith’s brilliant adaptations of Pygmalion (1938) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952). Certainly Hollywood’s commercial ascendancy and Britain’s filmic inferiority complex were factors in this critical assessment. Or, maybe it’s just that everyone likes to make fun of Britain—the weather, the food, and, back in the 1920s, the films. Léon Moussinac, a French filmmaker and critic, quipped in 1929, “England has never produced a real English film.” If Asquith’s Underground isn’t a real English film, whatever that is, it is a thoroughly entertaining one, made by a perennially underrated Englishman, giving us a glimpse of a vanished English world.
Presented at SFSFF 2014 with live music by Stephen Horne