C. A. Lejeune

British film critic

Caroline Alice Lejeune (27 March 1897 – 31 March 1973) was a British writer remembered as The Observer‍'‍s film critic from 1928 to 1960. She was among the earliest newspaper film critics in Britain, and one of the first British women in the profession. She formed a friendship early in her career with Alfred Hitchcock, "when he was writing and ornamenting sub-titles for silent pictures," as she later wrote.

Lejeune with her son Anthony, c. 1931

Quotes edit

1926–1939 edit

  • For the kinema must please the women or die. The vast majority of picture-goers are women and always will be. The time o day is in their favour, to steal an odd hour from me afternoon; and woman, whose work lies at home, just as glad of the opportunity to escape from home for an hour us ma, whose work lies outside, is glad of the opportunity to be in it. The price too, is a woman's price, easily found. When a man spends money, he likes to feel he is spending; when a woman spends money, she likes to feel she is not.
  • But the main attraction of the kinema for women rises out of a common factor in their natures. Woman is desperately personal, and the kinema the most personal of all the arts. Through it a woman can get into close touch with the shadows she has longed to meet, can seem to know them, can follow them through the whole gamut of their moods and share with them the most intense experiences. For women and because of women the "star" system has grown up in the kinema. It is nothing more or less than a commercial means of giving women the most of what they want—personality.
  • A Night at the Opera, which is, oddly enough, quite largely about a night at the opera, seems to be the best of all the Marx Brothers pictures so far. It has more movie sense if you can call any Marxian manifestation sense; than any of its predecessors; it is better cut, better presented, has better gags, and the emphasis is more evenly distributed among the brothers. Groucho, whom the microphone has always distorted unfairly, is tuned down and slowed up a little to the level of his stage performance; Harpo's zany act is better assimilated, and Chico, for whom I have always had a sneaking preference, comes out more strongly than in the earlier pictures.
  • A book could be written if Harpo didn't eat it first, or Groucho and Chico tear it up page by page on the art of the Marxes. You could call it surrealism, or or dadaism, or what about that -ism that all depends on the use of staircases? You could analyse its clear cold illogic, entirely divorced from emotion. You could suggest that Harpo, with his motor horn, is in the direct line of the clowns of history. You could even argue that it represents the furthest manifestation of, pure comedy on the modern screen, and you wouldn't be far wrong.
  • He has a funny voice that makes you nervous on its high notes, a funny face, no one could call handsome; he cannot, so far as I know, act, and he never appeared yet in a film that merited a moment's serious attention. And yet this frank and friendly Yankee hoofer, hat, white tie, tails, and everything, been elected to the academy of international celebrity. After the first gasp of surprise, however, at the thought of Fred Astaire in company with Pythagoras and astronomies and the alimentary canal and the origin of species, you realise that the compilers of the Encyclopaedia [Britannica] have behaved in a perfectly natural way, assuming—as it is reasonable to assume—that they are going to do their job properly for Mr. Astaire [in the next edition to be published].
  • For Mr. Astaire, along with Chaplin and Disney, is one of the only really significant trio that the cinema has yet evolved. These three are universal artists, at once masters and servants oi form which the whole world can assess and appreciate. It is possible that Chaplin his time, and Disney at the present, is the completer artist. It doesn't matter, Evaluations of this kind are little more than academic exercises, a sterile study, a conscript thesis. The important fact that Astaire, with his dancing, like Chaplin with his clowning and Disney with his drawing, has found a way of expressing an idea, a feeling, or even clean and acute perception of physical well-being, to millions of people who cannot follow his steps, understand his songs, or speak his language.
  • To. come down to film criticism, which is the first reason of this article, you are faced with a difficulty which distinguishes this from almost every other form of critical writing. The film is not really a lovable art, and to criticise well you must first love deeply. Don't misunderstand me. You may enjoy the cinema. You may admire its ingenuities, and find relief and comfort in its evasions; you may even prefer it, as many of us do, to any other form of public entertainment. But I defy anyone who has had rich experience of life, who has thought deeply, or felt honestly about life and its manifestations, to draw from the cinema, in its present stage of development, anything more than a fleeting participation in pleasure. Good music, great poetry, fine architecture, pure painting, can somehow take possession of the soul and succour it. For centuries men have felt these things deeply, and written about them greatly. But until there is something of this elemental quality in the cinema—and I often doubt whether there can be any such elemental quality while it is still the cinema—we shall have no greatly written criticism of the film.
    The film critic, then, even if he cherishes no delusions of greatness, and aspires simply to be a good critic, doing a smaller job well; must look for his inspiration in something other than the material of the cinema. Occasionally, very occasionally, he will see a picture or an individual performance that sets his typewriter tapping out the word genius, but on the whole he must be prepared to deal creditably, and, if the gods bless him, creatively, with undistinction.
  • It is one of the rarer necessities of film criticism that one has to write, occasionally, about films. This is a necessity which I find, as the years go on, my colleagues and I evade as much as possible. Those of us whose persuasion is high, write about theories the bourgeois ideology of Donald Duck, the mediumistic freedom of Messrs. Hecht and MacArthur, the upthrust of the artistic cinema in Czechos-Slovakia. The simpler of us enlarge on personalities the golden career of Mr. Clark Gable, what Alfred Hitchcock said when presented with forty canaries, and that dear little £4,000 contract that Shirley Temple pulled out of her birthday sock.

Alfred Hitchcock's British period edit

  • The Lodger was the best film made in England up to the end of last year. It had power, point, and an entirely new angle, that, is to say, in' an English studio—of visual expression. Downhill carries out every promise of its predecessor without being at all a good film.
  • Hitchcock gets jubilantly to work on this very raw stuff, expressing with clever conjunction of shots, with superimposition, double exposure, dissolves, the moving camera, and all his bag of technical tricks, the feelings of loneliness, bitterness, and nausea which his characters might be expected to enjoy; he even tries to give the thing symbolic weight by sending his hero to perdition down the moving staircase of a tube station and the descending shaft of a mansion flat lift. I have never seen such an interesting, production of rubbish nor a clever film which deserved quite so little praise.
  • If Mr. Hitchcock would rid himself of the delusion that it is enough for an artist to give perfect expression of any subject—the feelings of a cat sitting on a garbage can, the smell of over-ripe bananas in a broken basket on a dusty street—he would become a film producer of considerable merit in the world. He has originality. He has a fine economy of detail. He has made himself independent of words with a strongly developed pictorial sense. Some day he may surprise us all, and himself among the number, by making a picture that is as good in its conception as in its execution. And when Hitchcock sets to work on real film material, real artist's material, there will not be more than half a dozen producers in the world who will be able to beat him. There are none in England now.
  • [A] film-version of Noel Coward's Easy Virtue ... for all its cleverness, is not a good film.
  • Hitchcock had an artificial story and an artificial society to deal with here, but his treatment of them is not that of a director who matches artificiality of substance with artificiality of form, but of a man who has in himself so little reaction to flesh-and-blood truth that he is almost incapable of knowing the living from the dead. Hitchcock's blindness to the things that people do in expression of their real emotions is not a mannerism but a fact. In his work he thinks, and cannot feel. No director in England, and very few in America, can tell a screen story as cleverly as he—can narrate so subtly and simply to the eye, without a word written, using all the tricks of the camera and all the loquacity of silent things to carry his audience from point to point in perfect understanding and ease. But he will have to learn to know men as well as he knows the camera or, not knowing men, to turn his talents from the intimate to the impersonal kinema before he can become one of the great directors of the screen.
See the article on The 39 Steps (1935) for extracts from Lejeune's Observer review of the film.
See the article about Alfred Hitchcock for extracts from a November 1935 profile article in The Observer published while Secret Agent (1936) was in production
  • I have spent the afternoon arguing with my old friend Alfred Hitchcock. Because we are old friends it was a long argument. And we did not, oddly enough, argue about his new picture, which I review, with some asperity, below. I did not like Sabotage, and Hitch," who never tries to persuade the Press against their conscience, didn't attempt to suggest that I should like it. But it is a long-standing custom between us that we should meet and eat and talk after every Hitchcock first-night.
  • Sabotage, the new film at the Tivoli, is the cleverest picture Alfred Hitchcock has made since the arrival of talkies. It is also, to me, the least likeable of them all.
    Every shot in it, every sound, every conjunction of images, is the result of close and consummate care. It is a cold, calculated, and quite masterly piece of film technics, designed to raise suspense and horror to the highest frequency. There is no department of the industry, script-writing, direction, cutting, sound, and camera, that could not learn something from this picture. I am prepared to give it every honour in the academy so long as I am never asked to sit through it again.
    The keynote of Sabotage is complete destruction. Not only is the main plot concerned with a conspiracy to blow up Piccadilly Circus and terrorise London, but everything that is human and innocent and ordinary in the picture seems consecrated to the needs of ruthlessness. The young schoolboy brother of the heroine, the only really sympathetic character in the piece, is smashed to pieces with a time bomb in a London omnibus. With him go a puppy, an amiable old lady, a friendly conductor, and all the most cheerful group of sentimental commonplaces that Hitchcock can gather together into one locale. Following this event, the heroine sticks her husband in the stomach with a carving knife, and a kindly old anarchist blows the corpse and himself to glory with another hand grenade, leaving the murderess free to marry the Scotland Yard detective.
  • But I believe and I stick to it that there is a code in this sort of free-handed slaughter, and Hitchcock has gone outside the code in Sabotage. As a detective fan and an Inveterate reader of thrillers I suggest that this is the sort of thing that should get a fellow blackballed from the Crime Club. Discreet directors don't kill schoolboys and dogs in omnibuses. Believe me, it isn't done..

1940–1946 edit

  • It would seem that Gone With the Wind, written by a woman, concerned with a woman, and read by millions of women all over the world, is working out on form. That is to say, it is primarily a woman's picture.
    I say that advisedly, not to suggest that men won't like it, but because I am so sure that women will. It may not be a great, significant picture, with a strong, central theme, but I don't honestly believe that women care so much about great, significant pictures with strong, central themes. What they prefer, and what they will get in Gone With the Wind is a vivid account of personal and intimate details of this meeting and that quarrel; [life] seen not broadly, in perspective, but urgently, from day to day, as if they were living it themselves. Women are only dimly concerned with the meaning of what is happening in the world, but passionately concerned with the effect of what is happening on So-and-So. The American Civil War. the abolition of slavery, the burning of a city, the end of a social order, even the birth of a nation, would hardly in themselves justify the film's three hours and forty minutes of running-time. But in order to discover what happened to Scarlett O'Hara, to Melanie. to Rhett Butler, to the black mammy, to Scarlett's baby, during these events, most women will sit through this enormous picture without a murmur.
    Curiously enough, the dominant feminine interest in the picture has worked through even to the acting. The best performances are all women's.
    • "Gone With the Wind", The Observer (21 April 1940), p. 9
    • The word assumed to be "life" is practically illegible in the source text.
  • Les Efants du Paradis, which opens the Rialto for a new season of French films, is the crown of the French cinema, and must be an abiding delight to anyone, in any country, who feels the stir of the world of art.
  • Its true concern, however, is with something much larger and more impalpable; the relationship between the crowd and the individual; the impersonal, jubilant, clamorous voice of the multitude, and the personal, agonisingly articulated dumbshow of a man.
    You have to go to literature, to the novels of Dickens and Dumas, to find crowd scenes so superbly and massively handled. The changing scene is packed with people; you fix your eye on an individual player, only to find him presently overwhelmed, submerged, drowned in a sea of faces. And rightly so, for that is the whole secret of Les Enfants du Paradis. The characters are initially thrown together by the crowd and eventually torn apart, like so much flotsam and jetsam.
  • Les Enfants du Paradis seems to me to stand head and shoulders above every other film of the year. I recommend it ... to anyone who relishes fine performance, exact dialogue, magnificent manipulation, and an honest, if fatalistic, groping towards a philosophy. He may not get the thing completely, but he will feel the bite of it.

1948 edit

  • I have never made any secret of my distaste for films concerned with the glorification of the spiv, and I must declare al once that Brighton Rock, the new British film at Warners, is not my notion of entertainment. Graham Greene's savage storv about a couple of race-course gangs and their fancy ways with a razor is one of the most brutal things I have seen on the screen since They Made Me a Fugitive...
    Once having made this point clear, I have nothing but the highest praise for the way in which the film has been done. Brighton Rock is a splendid bit of picture-making. I do not think that for direction and all-round performance it could have been excelled by the work of any other country. ... [The Boulting Brothers] have taken the audience triumphantly behind the front of Brighton in the holiday season, into an underworld as subtle as the Casbah, where sleazy-lodging houses bed shameful secrets, and a youth can become a seasoned murderer at seventeen.
  • Oliver Twist (Odeon, Marble Arch) is the third of the Dickens novels to be filmed, with conscious solicitude, in this country; and while it is obviously very much better than Nicholas Nlckleby, I cannot think it as good a picture as Great Expectations. Possibly the fault lies in the choice of subject: for Oliver Twist, let us face it, is a pretty ugly story. ... And while it is one thing to read about the violent and vicious and sordid experiences that attended the progress of the poor-house boy, it is quite another to see them acted. The only essential difference between Oliver Twist and the modern gangster tale is that the former is written superlatively well.
  • The Cineguild director and producer, David Lean and Ronald Neame, have spared us nothing of the brutality of Oliver Twist.
    All the ugliness is there: the filth and cold, humiliation and hunger; the thrashing of Oliver; the savage beating to death of Nancy; the special lust which Dickens describes in italics as "the passion for hunting something." All these things are realistically set out in the film in pictures as remorseless as a Cruikshank drawing. The producers have even added two special savageries of their own; an introduction in which Oliver's mother is seen battling through the storm in the last pangs of travail, and a climax in which the child is forced to climb to the chimney-stack and watch Bill Slkes hang himself. The introductory scene, as it happens, is magnificently done; the roof-tops sequence seems to me both distasteful and silly.
  • It is an odd and somewhat ironic commentary on the entertainment of the times that the best, happiest, most intelligent and human picture of the week, I was about to say of the year, should be a murder story. But so it is: The Naked City (Gaumont and Marble Arch) is a thriller and a beauty.
  • They have not only given us a first-class detective story but they have added the suggestion that this sort of thing might impinge on any one of us, unknowingly, on our way home from business; but would not in the end affect a community armoured with life and decency, private concerns, family responsibilities, mealtimes, bedtimes, train schedules and sunlight. The film has been shot almost entirely, and most magnificently shot, in the streets, homes, stores, and Government departments of New York, and I have never seen a picture that expressed more fundamentally the difference between the extraordinary person who practises crimes of violence, and the normal, blessedly ordinary person who doesn't. The Naked City is at once keen observation and grand filmmaking.

1950s edit

  • [On the new CinemaScope process] The effect produced on the viewer is to make him feel he is sitting inside a monster pillar-box looking out through the slot at a world in the rough proportions of a dachshund.
    For views of processions, or wide horizontal sweeps of plain or water this does not work out badly, but it comes hard-on actors who have to 'exchange confidences from the opposite, sides of a proscenium arch.
    • "New Look", The Observer (22 November 1953), p. 11
    • From a review of The Robe, the first released CinemaScope film

1960s edit

  • A new film by Alfred Hitchcock is usually a keen enjoyment. Psycho turns out to be an exception. There follows one of the most disgusting murders in all screen history. It takes place in a bathroom and involves a great deal of swabbing of the tiles and flushings of the lavatory. It might be described with fairness as plug ugly.
  • I couldn't give away the ending if I wanted to, for the simple reason that I grew so sick and tired of the whole beastly business that I didn't stop to see it. Your edict may keep me out of the theatre, my dear Hitchcock, but I'm hanged if it will keep me in.
    • "Psycho: Archive review" The Observer (7 August 1960, reprint: 22 October 2010)
    • Films were then shown in continuous performance and it was normally possible to enter or leave screenings at any time. Hitchcock used the publicity tactic of instructing theatre managers not to allow admittance after the start of Psycho. The reprint has some (minor) unacknowledged cuts, but the full original version is "At the Films: Something Nasty in the Motel", p. 19.
  • From the imaginative point of view, the Fellini is a masterpiece of its kind. I hasten to add that it is a very dreadful kind.
    I should not like to send anyone to see the picture unprepared. [In] La Dolce Vita ... [s]ome of the scenes are the most sickening exhibitions of human degradation and depravity ever shown on a public screen. They are intended to he so, for Fellini is a rebel who feels bitterly about the spurious sweetness of the dolce vita.
    The leading character is a gossip-writer on a scandal sheet ... smelling out sensation. Wherever the scent is rankest, there he goes, with a pack, of other velping photographers at his heels. The wildest of wild orgies, a fake miracle, suicide following a father's murder of his sleeping children, the public striptease of a middle-aged woman to celebrate the annulment of her marriage, all these find our hero in attendance.
    Why should anybody choose see it? Because it is a work of deep imagination, signed with an artist's individual hand. The black-and-white photography is masterly. Everything Fellini's camera touches springs to urgent life. He can pour life suddenly Into an empty street, illumine some hitherto unnoticed figure and make it live and breathe. No comer of the huge screen is ever wasted. Space left blank is as deliberately significant as space filled.
  • [Recalling The Mark of Zorro (1920)] Suddenly, as I watched [Douglas] Fairbanks' harlequin poses and swirling trajectories across the screen, there sprang into my mind a wonderful idea. Why should I not turn my pleasure into profit, and earn my living by seeing films? The profession of film criticism had not yet come into being ... An extra deterrent was the fact that women had very little standing yet as journalists.

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