Research can be such an adventure at times. Being a film archaeologist, excavating the influence and importance of films that sometimes cannot be found means assessing the worth of a range of opinions. So when I was asked to give a five minute introduction at Bristol’s MShed for a screening of a First World War related film, A Couple of Down and Outs (1923), I thought a little research would be sufficient. Since I knew nothing of the film a quick visit to Wikipedia might do the trick. A page on the director, told me that, born in Barnstaple to a family of actors, Walter Summers (1896-1973) served in the trenches and left the army as a Captain having been awarded a Military Cross and Distinguished Service Medal. He had then “co-directed a couple of pictures before flying solo for the first time with a comedy, A Couple of Down and Outs (1923).”
A comedy! Well, that’s Wikipedia for you!
Of course, this film was not a comedy. Billed by Mshed as the original War Horse, the film told the story of the bond between man and horse in the trenches. A cursory mention of Summers on the Imdb site confirmed him as a British director of the 1920’s and 30’s, chiefly with BIP and Associated British, whose films were “mostly routine, except for a few above average thrillers” (such as House of Mystery, 1940 and The Human Monster,1939). However, since it had been screened at the British Silent Film Festival in 2012, I learned from a short piece by HELEN COX that A Couple of Down and Outs told a “reverent and moving” tale with “hauntingly realistic depictions of the front line”, and was sensitive in handling a moral dilemma in the economic climate of the day. The BFI Screenonline site was more forthcoming on its “modest tale about a soldier who becomes a tramp” and its director who “possessed boundless energy”, had been an “invaluable acquisition” to British International Pictures in the 1930s, but was ultimately “too eccentric and forthright ever to become a company man.” He had rejoined the Army during the Second World War and, despite returning to Associated British in 1946, never directed another film, dying in undeserved obscurity in Wandsworth, April 1973.
These details suggested that there was something of an edge to Summers (right): boundless energy, not a company man? Then there was a slew of web pages on The Battle of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927), which further investigation revealed to be a restored film by Summers that BFI trumpeted as “one of the finest films of the British silent era”. This did not square with Imdb’s assessment of a director of “mostly routine” films in the 1930s. In fact it turns out that his historical battle recreations for British Instructional Films in the 1920s (Ypres, 1925; Mons, 1926; Nelson, 1926; Bolibar, 1928) are highly regarded. With their tone of deep patriotism, they are considered by some as his finest achievement. Clearly the war had had a profound effect on Summers and A Couple of Down and Outs reflected his outrage at post-war conditions, his patriotism mixed with anti-authoritarian energy. His 1930s output showed the competence of a director whose real talent for movies had not been allowed to reach its zenith. A Couple of Down and Outs stood at the threshold of a desire to put truth on screen and hints at things to come in the 1920s.
At this point I thought I had enough for a 5 minute introduction … but then a devastating article emerged. Walter Summers was not a Captain in the Great War, Walter Summers was not the recipient of a DSO and precise details of his early life and military career had been mangled according to Joseph Pugh, writing for Silent London ( a silent film screening site). Far from being born in Barnstaple in 1896, Summers was born 1892 in the West Derby district of Liverpool and the date has become confused because Summers himself had written different ages on just about every official form going.
The most telling details revealed by Pugh’s painstaking research noted that, despite claiming in a 1972 interview that he had never dreamed of doing anything other than returning to filmmaking after the war, Summers had written to the War Office within months of being gazetted out as a lieutenant: “I have been demobilised since January last, but the Service, and all that campaigning means, has got into my blood, and frankly I want to come back: I want to join one of those minor Field Forces operating in odd corners of the Empire: Persia, West Africa, Russia or anywhere where men who know their business are wanted.” The War Office wanted a recommendation from a senior officer, which was not forthcoming, so it seems that film making was very much Summer’s second choice of career. Pugh suggests that the patriotic undercurrent of the films he made in both the 1920s and 1930s in some sense articulate his longing for the lost adventure a military life would have provided.
This nostalgia is one of the themes of A Couple of Down and Outs. The middle of the film presents a lengthy flashback sequence, comprising a skillful blend of documentary footage and recreated scenes, recalled by Danny Creath, the main character (whose facial features are not unlike those of Summers – see left). If the theme of outrage over treatment of war horses seems less central than it should, we might consider that, although in his forties by the mid-1930s, Summers was still writing letters to the War Office asking for a commission. In one, to convince them of his physical fitness, he points out that, “I own and continuously ride a horse.”
And yet, despite its importance to the motivational drive of the plot, the mistreatment of horses occupies a relatively small emotional ground in the layered narrative of A Couple of Down and Outs. It is almost overshadowed, for example, by the moral dilemma over the theft of the horse (which the police unofficially sanction) and this translates the theme to a very British (and subversive) one of ‘rescue’ for the down and outs of the film’s title.
And if we are inclined to take the horse theme as a personal expression of Summers character (since he still owned and rode a horse in the 1930s), then perhaps we can also interpret a further sub-plot of the film – the one involving the wrongful accusation of the stable boy (Creath) by the aristocratic landowner – as a condemnation of the class system. Although the close of the film weakens that condemnation by suggesting a potential reconciliation, there remains an underlying social inequality in its general depiction of society both before the war and in unemployment that greeted returning ‘heroes’ afterwards, which may be read as symptomatic – if not of a radical stance then at least of a disillusionment.