Friday, September 28, 2018

Russell Campbell's "Codename Intelligentsia"

Russell Campbell is Adjunct Associate Professor of Film at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His previous books include Cinema Strikes Back: Radical Filmmaking in the United States, 1930-1942; Marked Women: Prostitutes and Prostitution in the Cinema; and Observations: Studies in New Zealand Documentary. Campbell applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Codename Intelligentsia: The Life and Times of the Honourable Ivor Montagu, Filmmaker, Communist, Spy, and reported the following:
Page 99 begins with Ivor Montagu’s reflection on being partially disinherited by his father, the immensely wealthy 2nd Baron Swaythling, because he had married a typist:
It is clear from Ivor’s unpublished autobiographical manuscript, written forty odd years later, that the partial disinheritance rankled, even while he acknowledged the privileged position a private income afforded him. ‘Two- fifths of a loaf is very much more comfortable than no bread,’ he observes philosophically. ‘I could be a rebel with comparative impunity.’ And he quotes William Morris, who ‘puts it rather caustically’:
When the poor man thinks – and rebels, the whip lies ready anear;
But he who is a rebel and rich may live soft for many a year,
While he warms his heart with pictures of all the glory to come.
The interest income turned out to be roughly equivalent to the allowance he had been receiving; and while he could not touch the capital, he could raise credit on it.
The passage is typical of the book’s portrait of Montagu as a highly educated and intelligent Englishman from a privileged background who chose to revolt against his class and throw in his lot with Communists. His private income, modest though it was, allowed him to devote his time to political causes throughout his life without too much concern about making a living.

The bulk of the page describes the type of jobbing film editing work Montagu was then (1927) engaged in:
Montagu’s working life was at this time mainly centred on Brunel’s editing company in Dansey Yard. ‘The variety of the work,’ Brunel was to write, ‘was one of its many attractive qualities. We never knew from week to week what would be coming in. Next week’s film might be American, Burmese, or Japanese; it might be a spy drama, a village comedy or a medical instructional film. Again, anything might happen in connection with the work; one of us might have to go to Berlin, Rome or Paris; or F. J. Perry, the [future] tennis champion, might call in for a game of table tennis with Ivor, his coach; or we might have a sudden trade-show job, requiring three or four of us to go down to a film studio and work on the editing of a film for forty-eight hours without going to bed...’ Montagu confirms that ‘people would call us in to remedy a catastrophe, or when they were unexpectedly short-handed, or if an unscheduled problem cropped up.’ The bread and butter, however, remained the preparation of English versions of foreign productions.
The description gives the flavour of Montagu’s versatility, and in fact he became a jack-of-all-trades in the film industry, being at various times (and sometimes simultaneously) editor, scriptwriter and script editor, cameraman, director, producer, importer, distributor and exhibitor. He was also a critic, campaigner against censorship, and activist in the film technicians’ union. The paragraph, too, references another of Ivor’s passions, table tennis. Montagu was a pioneer in the revival of table tennis as a competitive sport, and later its longstanding international administrator, but the tale has been told elsewhere and I mention it only in passing in Codename Intelligentsia.

Page 99 is not typical of the book as a whole as it does not deal with Montagu’s manifold political activities, which are the major focus of the biography. Ivor declared himself a socialist at the age of thirteen and scandalised his parents by becoming a teenage radical. He took an active part in the 1926 General Strike, corresponded with and befriended Trotsky in his Turkish exile and campaigned for his admission to the UK, joined the Communist Party in 1931 and became a functionary in the Friends of the Soviet Union, took part in numerous anti-fascist activities, worked as a leftwing journalist and lecturer, spied for Soviet military intelligence, and eventually devoted a decade of his life to the secretariat of the Moscow-backed World Peace Council. So dedicated to the cause was he that he upheld the probity of the Moscow show trials and denied the existence of the Great Terror even as many of his comrades and associates were being liquidated. It is probing the psychology of the committed Stalinist that is at the heart of Codename Intelligentsia.
Learn more about Codename Intelligentsia at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue