Melanie Bell paper

Melanie Bell
Women’s Film History Network
12/02/10

‘Freelance journalism and historical ‘absence:’ the missing women film critics of the fifties’

Research project – women film critics forties & fifties.
Catherine de la Roche; Isabel Quigly; E. Arnot Robertson; Betty Ross; Nina Hibbin; Penelope Houston; Margaret Hinxman.

Case Study - Catherine de la Roche - starting the researchers trail. Her autobiography – reconstruct her career – CV - MoI Soviet Relations Division, 1946-59 freelance film critic – reviewing British & European films, recognised expert on Soviet Cinema (voice-over translation films without English subtitles at society screenings – fluent in 4 languages), festivals - Cannes, Berlin, Brazil, public lectures, Chair International Federation of Film Critics. Continued her career in NZ, 59-mid-late 80s.

Missing from existing accounts of post-war film criticism. British film history understands criticism (Quality/Sequence); women’s film history account of criticism – Lant – stops around 1950, in part because of the assumption that nothing much of any great significance was said by women.

But film criticism as an example of women’s work undertaken not in the teeth of opposition (like directing).

Where to look for Archival material - some were richer than others.
 BFI Special Collections (broadcast scripts on David Lean, Carol Reed, Boulting Bros. & why kept),
 BBC Caversham (broadcast scripts, memos detailing what commissioning editors thought of her & unrealised projects)
 British Library
 Personal papers (NZ Archive, letters to publishers, drafts of manuscripts, scripts for public lectures).

Key interest - the role of women in the film industry (disavowal / the ‘female’ prefix) and the representation of women on the screen. Where she publish this material; did she address female audiences on this topic?

Film journals – Penguin Film Review (included in Lant’s anthology). Does she just stop in 1950?
Woman’s Hour (commissioning policy on ‘light’ content)
Good Housekeeping – the address to the female audience is one of education – how to discern how a good picture is made.
Public lectures (BFI & women’s guilds). Public lectures as a grey area (neither publishing nor broadcasting). BFI relaunch and post-war ‘cultural uplift’ policy (rolling film appreciation out to the provinces).
BFI archives only have documentation pertaining to policy decisions (taken by men, Denis Forman, Stanley Reed), rather than women like de la Roche who rolled out the education programme [Also, lectures might be wrongly attributed – de la Roche substituted for Ernest Lindgren, 1950]

Surviving scripts in her personal papers (she thought important enough to keep). Scripts are similar to the PFR articles - describe how production works, roles in production team, nothing that women can’t do, problematise screen representations of women – invite the female audience to consider their own position on representations – patronising or flattering.
100 lectures across 8 years (both BFI & women’s guilds). Highly suggestive – begins to bring into focus an informal space of (m/c) women discussing film.

But, Patchy archival evidence. This is not being written into the more official histories of the BFI, currently being written by Dupin (policy rather than practice). Terry Bolas’ work on screen education (film appreciation) – looks at the published educational materials – very hard to get at how they were used or where alternative materials were substituted.

Difficulties/Questions
 Freelance Careers. The challenge in reconstituting a career where the output was very highly dispersed across a number of media platforms. Dispersal made it hard to see the writer’s contribution in the round. Also, written out of other media histories. Not a radio ‘star’, merely a regular contributor.
 Pertinent to women’s film history - Migratory career. Material across a number of archives, and continents.
 Intersection of her career with changes in Broadcasting policy. The concern over women’s ‘squeaky voices’ on radio; the shift on the Third programme from having single speakers to round table discussions like The Critics and the inclusion or exclusion of women on the basis of ‘balance.’ (The exclusion of professional film critics from television in favour of ‘amateurs’, all male).
 Subject of enquiry? Women’s authorship & agency? ‘Women’s film criticism’ can be understood as criticism by women, for women and about women. When the 3 of them come together is that a form of feminist film criticism?
 Why does it matter if women wrote film criticism (in the 40s & 50s?), is this only the recovery of ‘lost’ women (Gaines’ on lost & found approaches)? Alternative version of post-war film criticism – the quality debate has been wholly conceptualised in gender blind terms. Post-war film criticism becomes much more contested when we look specifically at women’s contribution.
 Criticism as ‘a suitable job for a woman’, and writing the history of a (low-status) profession. Women wrote film criticism/reviews because Film had low status, it was a route into other types of more prestigious journalism. Dilys Powell (1939), her predecessor at the Sunday Times ‘didn’t know the difference between a film and a sponge’ and there was little expectation that she should either. Given film reviews rather than literature & theatre.
 Organisation of work & press film screenings. Criticism fitted around child-care responsibilities – viewings during the day (Mon-Wed., 10.30-4) write copy Thursday, deliver Friday. Structured, routine existence, unlike editing, directing. Isabel Quigly for example. Nancy Banks-Smith, television critic for The Guardian, ‘criticism was considered a nice little job for a woman, so, for a while, most of us were. It was not, you see, considered central.’

Why we did we forget.
 Freelance careers are hard to trace and see.
 The Inconvenient truth – Gender & Taste. Critics like de la Roche weren’t interested in the types of popular film that were enjoyed by many women (melodrama, romances). The gap between box office success and critical acclaim placed limits on the ways in which historians could use these critical writings – sharp disjuncture between popular taste & critical taste. But, considered as cultural journalism, rather than a reflection of popular reception, its stands on its own merits as a rich seam of creative work by women. (Also de la Roche didn’t write a form of film criticism that we as feminist historians like – not intimate or reciprocal in its address to a regular audience like Lejeune and Powell’s work at its best was, doesn’t discuss women & the cinema space as female sphere. She isn’t want we want from a women writer).
 Incompatibility between feminist film theory and historical approaches – the cold war which thawed around 1998.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License