Pevsner at the pictures

Odeon cinema, Sutton Coldfield, 1935-36. Image courtesy of Richard Coltman at Ellettra Designs

Pevsner notoriously neglected cinema architecture, largely because of its leanings towards the moderne, of which he was not a fan. But before the war, and before the Buildings of England took over his leisure, actually going to the cinema was one of his chief entertainments. On his own in Birmingham, or escorting his eccentric but generous landlady, he tried a variety of films, with mixed results.

Elisabeth Bergner, 1935

Elisabeth Bergner, herself now settled in England, was a favourite, and Pevsner went eagerly to see in Birmingham a film of hers which he would have been unable to see in Germany: Bergner was Jewish, and Catherine the Great had been banned by the Nazis in 1934. He admired her performance, but balked at Douglas Fairbanks as Grand Duke Peter and was irritated by the melodrama of the film itself. 

More to his taste was Henry Hathaway’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer.  ‘1750 to 1!’, shouted the trailer. ‘ Always out-numbered! Never out-fought! These are the Bengal Lancers … heroes all … guarding each other’s lives, sharing each other’s tortures, fighting each other’s battles.’ ‘Very tendentious but fabulous all the same,’ enthused Pevsner. Even if the three leading Lancers were all American, this, he felt, was a picture of British imperialism at its best. 

Understatement and reasonableness were qualities that would always appeal to him in the British character, and he responded to them even when the filmmakers were pointing a contrast with the country of his birth.  His sympathies were uncomfortably torn by what he described as  ‘a war story with spies, set in Belgium, very English but fair and good. When ‘Deutschland Über Alles’ was played, I was quite kaput – not just a few tears but like that time in Rome – oh hell. My neighbours must have wondered.’  

Fredric March, 1934

Walter Gropius

No such high emotion for David Selznick’s Anna Karenina (see trailer). Garbo as Anna left him cold – ‘Sometimes she is just beautiful and nothing else’- and Fredric March’s Vronsky he could not take seriously because March had an uncanny resemblance to Walter Gropius. ‘I have such a wild veneration for this man,’ Pevsner wrote of Gropius at this time, ‘the way he holds himself, what he has achieved, and his manner of speaking.’  This was not reverence that he could easily transfer to March, or to MGM’s take on Tolstoy. ‘Disappointing,’ he wrote home sadly to Lola about his night out.

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