April 17, 2008

Alberto Cavalcanti (b Rio de Janeiro, 1897 – Paris 1982)

Alberto Cavalcanti (b Rio de Janeiro, 1897 – Paris 1982)

Went the Day Well 1

The traitor is rumbled in Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well (1942)

Alberto Cavalcanti was a director and producer and enjoyed a distinguished career as an avant-garde film-maker in France. Rien que les heures (1926) shot on the streets of Paris. It was the first of the ‘City Symphony’ films made in Europe during the 1920s and preceded the better know Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) by Ruttman. It was very influential amongst the documentary movement at the time. He was making ‘quota quickie’ comedies for Paramount’s Paris studio in the early 1930s when he was invited in 1934 to come to England by John Grierson to join the GPO Film Unit. Cavalcanti was enormously influential in this British documentary movement encouraging realist film making to have a wider aesthetic dimension. He was very influential in the making of Night Mail (1936) and other of the best known works of the GPO Film Unit (See filmography below).

Exploring the possibilities of montage and sound he was foundational in developing the poetic style developed by his leading disciples Ken Lye and Humphrey Jennings. In 1940 when the GPO Film Unit became the Crown Film Unit and was intimately connected with making propaganda films it was more appropriate that as a Brazilian and therefore an ‘alien’ that he not be head of the Crown Film Unit. Cavalcanti therefore joined Ealing studios supervising both documentary and feature out at the studio and directing the influential propaganda film Went the Day Well? (1942). He made the musical Champagne Charlie (1944) making Ealing comedies more sophisticated. He made another three films with Ealing including the crime drama They Made Me a Fugitive (1947). From 1949 he divided his time between Europe and Brazil where he helped to establish its nascent film industry and founded the Brazilian Film Institute.

Michael Balcon credited Cavalcanti with having a special role within Ealing Studios because his most important job was training new directors who included Robert Hamer, Charles Frend and Charles Crichton all of whom went on to make important British films in the 1940s and 1950s. Balcon talking about Ealing has commented “The whole of the Ealing output has a certain stamp on it. Whether I would have done it on my own I don’t know. But most certainly I acknowledge… that of all the help I got his is the help that is most important”.

Filmography (Important British Films)

As director 

Pett & Pott (1934) 

Coal Face (1935)

Went the Day Well (1942)

Dead of Night 'Ventriloquist's Dummy' episode [Portmanteau film] (1945)

They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)

Producer & Sound Supervisor 

Four of the best known documentaries from the GPO film Unit

Song of Ceylon (1934)

Night Mail (1936)

North Sea (1938)

Spare Time (1939) Humphrey Jennings

Many of these films will be readily available on the forthcoming BFI multiple DVD

Land of Promise available from 28 April 2008 

Land of Promise DVD

For full filmography please go to IMDB


Screenonline Alberto Cavalcanti

Sexton, Jamie.  Scope May 2004. The Audio-Visual Rhythms of Modernity: Song Of Ceylon, Sound and Documentary Filmaking

Glossary of documentary terms  


Aitken, Ian (ed.) 1998. The Documentary Film Movement: An Anthology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (pp. 179-214)
Aitken, Ian, Alberto Cavalcanti: Realism, Surrealism and National Cinemas (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 2000)

Caughie, John & Rockett Kevin. 1996. The Companion to British and Irish Cinema. London: Cassell
Cavalcanti, Alberto, Filme e realidade (Rio de Janeiro: Editora Artenova, 1977)
Hillier, Jim, Alan Lovell, and Sam Rohdie, 'Interview with Alberto Cavalcanti', Screen v.13, n. 2, 1972, pp. 36-53
Monegal, Emir Rodriguez, 'Alberto Cavalcanti', The Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television v. 9, n. 4, 1955, pp. 341-358

Russell, Patrick. 2007. 100 British Documentaries. London: BFI  

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