H.A.V. Bulleid: Cinema historian who specialised in the silent era and studied the work of amateur film-makers

Monday 17 August 2009 02:07

I began writing professionally in 1954. My column for the Amateur Cine World was devoted to silent films and I was convinced that I was the first since sound arrived to tackle such an unfashionable subject.

But when I glanced at back numbers, I discovered that I was not. During the shortages of the Second World War, amateur film-makers were deprived of raw stock. Since they could no longer make films, they had to settle for projecting them. Film libraries came into their own, and an ACW writer called H.A.V. Bulleid started a column entitled “Famous Library Films”.

He had been making amateur films since he was at Cambridge in the early 1930s – one was about spies, appropriately enough. He was an assiduous filmgoer and a connoisseur of home-movie presentations (although once, when he invited a girl to see a rare film, she replied, “I’d much rather go to the cinema.”)

Anthony Bulleid was born in 1912, and although well into his 90s when I knew him, he drove a car to the very end, his memory remained sharp and he could bring to life forgotten films like The Girl in the Taxi with Carter de Haven. Bulleid was responsible for donating the sole surviving print of this 1920 comedy to the National Film Archive along with such priceless treasures as William S. Hart’s Hell’s Hinges, and D.W. Griffith’s True Heart Susie (1919).

He was brought up with railways – his earliest memory was wandering across the tracks at Doncaster station looking at rolling stock with his father.

In the bitter winter of 1918-19 he was in Ramsgate. His mother caught Spanish flu and became seriously ill, so Anthony and his sister were sent to a local convent to be looked after.

“He remembered being cold and frightened,” said his son, David. “The experience must have stayed with him. Over 80 years passed before he returned, yet he had no trouble finding that Ramsgate house.”

At his Catholic public school, Ampleforth, in the 1920s, he was fortunate; the theatre was equipped with a 35mm projector. It was excellent training, for he was one of the boys selected to assist the monk who operated the projector. The shows were the highpoint of the week.

“They were enhanced by the fact that one of the monks had a natural gift for piano accompaniment,”

he recalled. “I thought he was very, very good. In Don Q, Son of Zorro there’s a long argument where Douglas Fairbanks is teasing his opponent who doesn’t know who he is, and this monk did a wonderful, teetering sort of argument.”

Bulleid was instructed not to show one of the reels in Wings – the scene of Clara Bow caught half-naked by military police in Buddy Rogers’ hotel room. Bulleid explained that there was perfectly good aeroplane action in that reel – was it all right to run that? The monks good-naturedly granted permission.

He began to go to the local cinema twice a week, seeing such classics as Steamboat Bill Jr, with Keaton, from which he remembered a sequence missing from modern prints in which Buster and Marion Byron get married on the river; Laugh Clown Laugh, with Lon Chaney (another film he donated to the NFA); and The Wedding March, with Erich von Stroheim and Fay Wray. “A tenor came on singing during the long love scenes,” recalled Bulleid. “Quite effective.”

The Bulleid class locomotive was designed by his father, O.V.S. Bulleid, and Anthony was expected to follow him into railway engineering. But he wanted to go into film-making. “My father actually went to Elstree Studios and had a session with the producer Joe Grossman, who said, in effect, that if you want to join the film industry you’ve got to join as a boot boy. ‘Get into a team and then it’s entirely up to you.’ People like Michael Powell did exactly that. He took better stills than the stills man so everybody sent for Michael Powell. I haven’t got that personality and would never have succeeded.

My father said, ‘You’ve got to go on with the engineering course, get a good, pensionable job, then you can do whatever you like as a hobby.’ I thought that was a very good idea.”

After an engineering degree at Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1930, Bulleid was apprenticed at the Derby Works of the LMS. He was not allowed to join the LNER as they had a “no fathers and sons” policy. Anthony was given a thorough training, spending time in all departments.

“Up until 1920, cabs had no side windows and drivers were able to lean out with their arms resting on the scrolled edge of the cab,” the railway historian Tony Sanders said. “Anthony discovered that after the introduction of windows, drivers complained that their arms got sore when they had to lean on the metal channel. Anthony designed a simple yet effective wooden armrest which could hinge up to cover the channel when the window was open.

He managed to get it accepted as a modification. Up to about 10 years ago, our trips always included a footplate ride. He was delighted to see his modification had still been included on the British Rail Class 4 we were riding on.” His interest in railway engineering continued with his own live steam model-making and visits to a number of model engineering societies.

“Talking to him about his father’s railway designs, it was apparent that he was not always in favour of the well known Bulleid trademarks such as enclosed valve gear and air smoothed casing of the original Bulleid Pacific designs,” Sanders said.

He wrote a number of railway books, including Bulleid of the Southern, the biography of his father; Master Builders of Steam, the biography of six mechanical engineers; and The Aspinall Era. His son David, who also went to Ampleforth, remembered that he and his schoolfriends saw the window of the York station bookshop given over to a massed display of Master Builders of Steam. David felt that his father’s best book was about his work – Brief Cases, 12 concise studies about how to run a business.

In 1936, Bulleid became a production assistant at Vickers Armstrong armaments factory, and although he was busy – he was also teaching - he had already begun a column on amateur film-making in Amateur Cine World. When the war started, and he switched to articles about library films, his column was primarily devoted to silents. The first reactions were not encouraging; “I feel I must draw your attention to a matter which makes me boil,” said a correspondent from Surrey. “Why devote so much of your very excellent magazine to a commentary on a film that is l6 years old and in such detail that I don’t need to see the film? Having to share ACW with several other amateur cinematographers, I can assure you that is the feeling in general.”

The editor of ACW, Gordon Malthouse, was not deterred and Bulleid’s pieces became much admired. Whenever possible, he would write to the director or to technicians connected with the film to get background details. Some would decline to answer, saying it was all too long ago, but others supplied unique and valuable information.

ACW had planned to publish his articles in book form, but in 1947, due to the severe winter and the financial crisis, they bowed out. This was a pity, because Bulleid had obtained a preface from the great director, Fritz Lang.

When I asked about that preface he said he still had it, so I was able to add it to his articles on the films to produce an electronic equivalent of his book on a website, silentsaregolden.

Bulleid was a modern renaissance man. He had been aware of musical boxes all his life, his mother having been given one as a wedding present, and he became fascinated by the makers of these instruments, how they worked and how they influenced the Victorian world. He joined the Musical Box Society in 1973 and published Cylinder Box Design and Repair in 1987.

This was followed by Cylinder Musical Box Technology in 1994 and The Tune Sheets in 1999.

Arthur Cunliffe, President of the Musical Box Society, said: “Because of the depth and accuracy of his findings, many believe these books rank above the works of all others. Those who knew Anthony personally will testify how he loved to be presented with a challenge. Discussions were always conducted in a kindly and enthusiastic manner. In the background there would always be his gentle sense of humour. Even if he disagreed with your views, he appreciated your efforts and never discouraged them.”

Kevin Brownlow

Henry Anthony Vaughan Bulleid, writer, film historian and railway engineer: born 23 December 1912; married 1942 Ann McCann (died 2007, two daughters, one son); died Ifold, Sussex 5 May 2009.

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