The Bootleg Files: Elstree Calling

BOOTLEG FILES 678: “Elstree Calling” (1930 British musical revue co-directed by Alfred Hitchcock).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public exhibition of this film.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On bootleg video labels only.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Never made available for U.S. commercial home entertainment release.

It is possible, but not a priority.

In 1930, the first British musical feature film was released under the title “Elstree Calling.” Today, most people are aware of the film only because of Alfred Hitchcock’s involvement in the production.

No, “Elstree Calling” is not a Hitchcockian thriller. In fact, Hitchcock’s exact contributions have always been somewhat cloudy. Part of the confusion can be found in the opening credits, which attribute the direction to Adrian Brunel and acknowledged Hitchcock for “Sketches and other interpolated items.” Hitchcock himself was disinterested in discussing the production with his biographers, curtly dismissing it as being “of no interest whatsoever” and even claiming he devoted a single day’s work to the effort while other directors were called in to shoot sequences. Complicating matters was the decision by British International Pictures (BIP), the film’s production studio, to fire Brunel before the end of the project, which has generated speculation that Hitchcock was needed to complete Brunel’s task on a for-hire basis.

“Elstree Calling” was intended to be the British answer to the all-star revue films created by the Hollywood studios when sound technology permeated the motion picture industry. But whereas “Hollywood Revue of 1929,” “Paramount on Parade” and “The Show of Shows” packed the screen with the era’s major U.S. movie stars, “Elstree Calling” opted to cull the top attractions of Britain’s music hall venues and West End theaters to populate this musical-comedy revue.

“Elstree Calling” – the title refers to BIP’s Elstree Studio – is framed as a “cine-radio revue” with 19 vignettes hosted by Tommy Handley, a popular radio comedian who specialized in a brand of smugly condescending commentary and ancient puns. The revue is supposedly being televised – this might be the first film to ever acknowledge the television technology – and a running gag involves an inept inventor trying to fix his homemade television set in order to watch the show. Most film historians credit Hitchcock with directing the television scenes.

As for the revue, the strangest thing about “Elstree Calling” was having the most invigorating numbers performed by expatriate American acts. Teddy Brown, a morbidly obese tuxedoed percussionist and band leader, opens the show with a playfully catchy xylophone number and returns later for more musical showmanship on the drums and xylophone. Brown’s style was graceful yet mischievous, and his rendition of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is, hands down, the best cover of a Fats Waller tune ever performed.

Also from across the Atlantic are The Three Eddies, a singing-and tap dance trio consisting of African-American men wearing blackface, derbies and oversized white-framed eyeglasses. While the use of blackface will make many contemporary viewers uncomfortable, one cannot deny their energetic showmanship. The most inventive sequence in “Elstree Calling” finds the Three Eddies dressed like skeletons and performing before a black backdrop while singing “Tain’t No Sin (To Take Off Your Skin and Dance Around in Your Bones).” It is a brilliant use of black-and-white art direction and costuming, and the trio’s jollity electrifies the proceedings.

Unfortunately, that’s about the best of “Elstree Calling.” The rest of the film ranges from hoary to incompetent to astonishingly inept, and sitting through the film without fidgeting is deserving of a gold medal. Part of the problem was that the actors were framed and shot as if they were giving a stage performance – they play to the last seat in the balcony, not the camera, so their actions are come across as exaggerated. The scenes are also mostly set-up for long and static takes, which intensifies the monotony of the experience.

Here is the best (or least bad) of the bunch: Donald Calthrop has a running gag as a hammy Shakespearean actor who attempts to launch into a soliloquy are inevitable disrupted by falling curtains or vigorous yanks off-screen by stagehands. He finally gets to play Petruchio in a “Taming of the Shrew” segment, riding in on a motorbike to confront a Katherine played by another American expatriate, Anna May Wong (the only genuine film star in the cast), who shrieks in Chinese while wearing a metallic flapper outfit. Wong throws pies at Calthrop and everyone in sight, including an actor dressed as Shakespeare. The sketch stops without actually ending.

Also on hand is Will Fyffe, a kilt-wearing coming who reels off a string of bad jokes on Scottish stinginess before launching into something called “Twelve and a Tanner a Bottle” about the rising price of whisky. A zaftig comedienne named Lily Morris sings and dances her way through two songs, one about being a chronic bridesmaid and another being married to a lazy working man – she tries very hard to be adorably cute and falls miles short. An extended sequence involves the Balalaika Choral Singers, who drone on in Russian-language folk songs while dancers dressed in Cossack outfits perform Russian dances. Okay, whatever.

There are also a couple of dance sequences featuring battalions of chorus girls who must have been hired for their off-stage charm rather than their on-stage precision footwork. They support Helen Burnell, a singer-dancer whose wild gyrations suggest efforts to evict a mouse crawling up her dress, and Cicely Courtneidge, a comic singer-dancer whose charisma didn’t quite click here, despite her hard sell on being appealing. These numbers were shot in the primitive Pathecolor that only seemed to pick up hues of yellow and brown – not the most visually spectacular treat, to be certain.

One odd moment in “Elstree Calling” is a brief sketch called “The Wrong Flat” that involves an intruder sneaking in on a tryst between two lovers. The sequence was shot with a sophisticated level of camera blocking and editing that feel Hitchcockian – a far cry the mostly static camerawork that captured the rest of the action – but the ultimate punchline to the number is dull. There are also sketches where two men slap each other endlessly and a bit involving four men who sing a number that results in each off-key singer being taken off-stage to be fatally shot.

BIP initially intended to make nine different versions of “Elstree Calling,” with Tommy Handley’s role replaced by performers from different countries who would introduce the acts in the languages of their respective homelands. This never happened – and BIP could barely get the film seen in the English-speaking world due to its lack of international star power. “Elstree Calling” arrived in the U.S. for a scant release minus half of its original 83 minutes and with the new title “Hello Everybody.”

Over the years, bootleg copies of “Elstree Calling” circulated in the U.S. A 2004 restoration was released on DVD in the U.K., but that was never made available for the U.S. market. However, gray market DVDs of the restored version are easy to find online. But unless you are a Hitchcock completist or a fan of the worst of old-time British musical hall entertainment, it is easy to hang up on “Elstree Calling.”

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, now in its third season.