Katherine Mansfield & the movies - review by Claire Harman

Claire Harman

Modernism in Motion

Katherine Mansfield & the movies


One of Katherine Mansfield’s defining characteristics was her restlessness, both personal and artistic: she was always most at home when on the move. ‘Do other artists feel as I do,’ she wondered, ‘the driving necessity – the crying need?’ Ambitious, curious, greedy for experience, she became a formidable innovator, reading and borrowing from other authors, adapting techniques from avant-garde painting, music and new media, and trying all the time to make it new.

It helped that she was no snob about ‘low’ culture and enjoyed panto and vaudeville as much as the cutting-edge art she wrote about for the magazine Rhythm. When ‘the Fillums’ took off dramatically in the 1910s, she became a frequent cinema-goer (there was a theatre very near her flat) and noted down things she thought might make ‘a good cinema film’. Her first date with her future husband, John Middleton Murry, was at the movies, and it’s obvious whose choice that was. ‘Will you suggest the day for the visit to the pictures?’ he wrote. ‘They’re all the same to me.’

Mansfield was a far from passive consumer of the new form. She had come of age in New Zealand planning a career as a professional musician, and later wanted to compose and perform dramatic monologues solo. In the mid-1910s, she was writing not only stories and novels but also plays, one of which (for an amateur group at Garsington) was thought ‘superb’ by her friend Aldous Huxley, who later had a lucrative career as a screenwriter. All through 1917, Mansfield was planning to write monologues and ‘cinema plays’. There was money in it and – who knows – if she’d lived as long as Huxley, she might eventually have joined him in Hollywood.

But she wanted to be in the movies as well as write for them, and rather surprisingly she had at least two stints as an extra. Ida Baker recalled accompanying Katherine to ‘an audition to some agent who was offering small walk-on parts in the films’ as early as 1913, and that her friend had looked discouraged and tired when she emerged. ‘It all seemed very sordid,’ Baker remembered. Katherine put some of this experience into a short play called ‘The Common Round’, written for The New Age, later reworking it as a story called ‘Pictures’, which appeared in Bliss and Other Stories. In it, an ageing singer called Ada Moss is trying to get work as a film extra to make ends meet. The story is almost entirely about the gig economy of the day, with Mansfield taking some sharp swipes at the film companies and their treatment of the ‘crowd’. Not only do they keep everyone waiting for hours in cramped offices and down staircases, only to announce there’s no work, but the staff are also rude and heartless; when asked about expenses, the young typist can’t help laughing as she says, ‘Oh, you weren’t to have been paid.’

We know that one of the films Mansfield appeared in was shot in London in January 1917, though alas it’s impossible to do anything but guess what this production might have been. Hundreds of films were made every year in London during that decade, but very few prints of them still exist, and though the names of the companies survive, along with those of some of the directors and leading actors, there are rarely any hints of a film’s contents or traces of scripts or stills. The only clues to Mansfield’s actual movie acting are fleeting references in two letters to Bertrand Russell from January 1917. In one she tells him she needs to turn up in walking dress for an exterior scene and in the other that she has spent the day ‘walking about a big bare studio in what the American producer calls “slap up evening dress”’. Not much to go on, though perhaps in the future someone will spot her in the background of a ballroom scene in a previously lost silent drama, wearing something ‘slap up’ and posing dramatically.

By any standards this was an extraordinary sideline for a major modernist. You can’t imagine Virginia Woolf turning up for such work. Being in the movies satisfied some of Mansfield’s ‘thirst for experience’ but also gave her unique insights into the storytelling power of the new medium, which she drew on in her writing. She introduced effects such as flashbacks and fade-outs in stories like ‘The Tiredness of Rosabel’ and ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’; in such stories as ‘Prelude’ and ‘At the Bay’, she made filmic shifts in focus and tempo, to marvellous effect. A highly autobiographical story that she wrote in 1915, ‘An Indiscreet Journey’, is stuffed with what we might now think of as cinematic tropes, though this was several years before they had developed in the cinema itself. It’s as if Mansfield is already imagining story as film, from the ‘tracking shot’ of the narrator hurrying to catch a train along a platform choked with immobilised soldiers, through the jump cuts that dramatise the lovers’ three days together, to a chapter ending that feels like the prose equivalent of a freeze-frame: ‘Down went the suit-case, the postman’s bag, the Matin. I threw my passport up into the air, and the little corporal caught it.’

Everything in the movies was about showing rather than telling, and it’s clear that Mansfield responded to that excitedly. She also appreciated the cultural significance of cinema, particularly the success of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Everyman’ character the Little Tramp. Mansfield was one of the first critics to see Chaplin’s importance to the zeitgeist, writing in 1920 that ‘within his province he is one of the first actors of the world; he has a universal significance. This great little comedian who suggests the background of tragedy is the underdog, the waif of humanity, the plaything of Fate. That he should be popular is a tribute to the people who love him.’ She discussed Chaplin’s films with Dorothy Brett and her brother-in-law Richard Murry, named a black-and-white kitten Charlie in his honour and was sorry to have missed meeting the star at one of Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington lunch parties. Mansfield had to be satisfied with reports in the Daily News. ‘The picture of him is extremely good,’ she wrote to Brett, adding thoughtfully, ‘It’s the look behind the look which is wonderful.’

In other ways, the power of film was almost too much for Mansfield’s sensibilities, and there was a lot she didn’t like about the medium, particularly its reliance on stereotypes and melodrama. In her sinister story ‘Je ne parle pas français’, the narrator wonders why he is so bitter towards life, why he imagines it as ‘a rag-picker on the American cinema, shuffling along wrapped in a filthy shawl with her old claws crooked over a stick? Answer: The direct result of the American cinema acting upon a weak mind.’ Mansfield felt vulnerable to the force of cinema, having been both amazed and terrified by a film she saw alone in Paris in 1915 that was ‘almost too good’. There was a beautiful ingénue in it whose gestures ‘sprang from her’, and a haunting score, played live, ‘a tango that we have heard before – a very “troubling” tune’, she told John Middleton Murry. The music, the powerful acting and the ‘noir’ evocation of an evil-looking dockland all led to a sleepless night: ‘the three apaches of the cinema … tried the key of the door all night & tip toed on the landing’. It was ‘simply Hell’.

She didn’t live to see the talkies, or to see other writers, such as Woolf, adapt cinema style in their own ways. She died suddenly and horribly of a lung haemorrhage while rushing upstairs one hundred years ago this January, aged only thirty-four – in the middle of things, impatient, curious, thoroughly modern.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

The Art of Darkness

Cambridge, Shakespeare

Follow Literary Review on Twitter