Kudos to the Northwest Chicago Film Society for its June 5 screening, “only the second showing since 1930, outside of the Library of Congress.” The sound restoration of this gem was completed by the Library of Congress in partnership with the Film Foundation, Chace Audio, and the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association.
It would be nearly treasonous if this piece of cinema history wasn’t readily available one day.
Directed by Maurice Elvey, “the most prolific film director in British history,” HIGH TREASON takes us to an eccentric, Metropolis-like, and very contemporary future vision of 1940.
The United States of Europe and the Empire States of the Atlantic are at the tipping point of declaring war. In the mix are national pride, terrorists, squabbling border patrols, a split war council, and greedy munitions industrialists. The President (Basil Gill) seeks the fight. He doesn’t expect that the leader of the Peace League, the virtuous Dr. Seymour (Humberston Wright), will commit murder to change the course of events.
Regardless of the threat of mayhem, there’s always time for love and romance. Dr. Seymour’s lovely daughter Evelyn (Benita Hume) is not only beautiful, vivacious, charming, and fashionable — but she’s also willing to stand down an entire army in the name of peace, even if it threatens her relationship with her suitor, Michael Deane (Jameson Thomas), the commander of the Air Force. His troops, by the way, have a very cool black leather fashion sense.
Regardless of Evelyn’s moral fortitude, we get to watch her ready for a shower and dry herself off, not with a towel, but with an impractical handheld blow dryer while she maneuvers behind a peekaboo screen. Women can hold their own in this future world, but they are indeed vulnerable to being exposed in various states of undress when being rescued from rubble and inducted into public service.
In and around the politics and cheesecake, what amazing technology there is! Blade-Runner-esque public projection screens. A one-man orchestra with automated instruments. Electronic scoreboards tallying up peacenik enrollment numbers (like the National Debt Clock in Times Square).
The lovers chat and woo through their retractable Skype machines, albeit with a bit of difficulty in a humorous, modern-day “Can you hear me now?” situation.
My favorite scene in the film is set in an Art Deco nightclub where glitzy couples take to the dance floor, alternating between a traditional twirl and a kind of Vogue, simultaneously freezing for breaks in the music. I’m still wondering why there is a floor show with a fencing demonstration, but maybe it’s a comment on the art of conflict, better that it be practiced as entertainment and a demonstration of skill rather than as a real battle to the death.
A compelling piece of cinema history, HIGH TREASON addresses a conundrum of human existence: We are capable of such powerful and wondrous things — like being in love and creating grand cityscapes with skies full of floating dirigibles. Unfortunately, we are also capable of justifying our self-destruction.