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Friday, 9 March 2018

Typewriters in the Movies, 2017

The Christmas-New Year period provided a veritable feast of typewriter-laden good movies. One, Darkest Hour, deservedly won for Gary Oldham the best actor Oscar, but my annual Oscar for Best Typewriter Movie goes to The Post. In making this decision, I am unreservedly showing the bias of an old hot type, type-and-print-on-paper newspaperman. Watching copy typewritten, briskly but accurately sub-edited, expertly typeset on Linotype machines, hammered into formes on the stone, turned in flongs and clapped on to the presses was all too much for me. I wept buckets, not out of a sense of nostalgia, but from sheer bitter sadness for the sequence of lost art forms. The people who performed these cherished skills have all been discarded from the newspaper industry. As so many journos commented after seeing The Post, that’s how it was done when newspapers were the Real McCoy, when journalism was real, and that’s how we’ll never see it done again. While most ex-journalists were left pining for the production values and could smell printer's ink in the theatre air, I was, strange as it may seem, reminded of Hemingway. The Hemingway, that is, writing to his father from Toronto, describing quadruple checking of the spelling of a man’s name, typing it, having a copyboy stand at his shoulder waiting for each paragraph to be completed, the copy kid running to the subs desk page in hand. And when it was done, Hemingway going out on to the street for a breather, and seeing newspaper sellers heading off with papers that had his story in it. Computerised newspapers can never, ever, come within a bull’s roar of capturing that thrill, that excitement. Tom Hanks and his reporting crew were all superb in The Post, of course, as was Meryl Streep. One small doozie: no press machinist ever stood on the press deck shouting reminders about what time the newspaper trucks left the loading bay. But cinematic effect, I suppose …      
 Above, Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian in The Post.
      I also came out of The Post thinking of it as a sort of prequel to All the President's Men, except for capturing the atmosphere of a typically busy newsroom, and for the choice of a range of typewritersThe Post was far better - perhaps Hanks had something to do with that? Still, ATPM would have won my 1976 Oscar for Best Typewriter Movie.
      The directors didn’t need to strive for cinematic effect in Darkest Hour. Someone warned me in advance, “We all know the story, yet the tension builds enormously.” And so it proved. I did have to wonder, however, whether the Imperial War Museum, which according to the credits loaned the typewriters to the film makers, had got it wrong with the choice of an American-made Remington Noiseless, when George VI’s dad had insisted, a mere eight years earlier, that only British-made Imperials could be used in British government offices. Richard Polt has been to the Churchill Museum in the underground Cabinet War Rooms, and has photographed a Noiseless there, so he has an advantage over me in this regard. Still, the movie’s typewriters didn’t come from the war rooms. It’s been suggested Churchill demanded quiet typing, and Elizabeth Nel’s obituary in the London Daily Telegraph in November 2007 said she had used a “specially adapted silent typewriter”. Whether this was indeed a Noiseless, and calling it “specially adapted” merely exposed the ignorance of a once highly-esteemed and accurate British daily, we may never know. Pounding a Noiseless in Darkest Hour, as well as a nosiy Imperial and a portable, was Lily James, playing Elizabeth Layton (later Mrs Nel), who started as personal secretary to Churchill in late May 1941, more than a year after the events portrayed in the movie (she wrote Mr Churchill's Secretary in 1958). James said she took a six-week typing class to be able to keep up with Oldman's speeches. “I got really good," she said. “And I enjoyed feeling like I'm able to access Elizabeth Layton through something so technical.”

There was certainly a Remington Noiseless on Churchill’s desk when he made his VE Day broadcast to the British public from the Cabinet Office at 10 Downing Street on May 8, 1945. In an earlier 2017 movie, Churchill, based on the hours leading up to D-Day in 1945, Ella Purnell plays a fictional Helen Garrett, and also uses a Noiseless.
Real-life Churchill secretaries included Joy Hunter and Myra Collyer, who later recalled each using Imperials, as well as Hunter (below) a Royal and Collyer (second image below) an electric typewriter “provided by the Americans”.
Lily James has since Darkest Hour been able to put her typing skills to further use, in the much-anticipated The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The film is set in early 1946, following the five-year German occupation of the channel islands, Guernsey and Jersey. The script is based on the 2008 novel of the same name and written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This time James has the lead role, as Juliet Ashton. I can't be certain, but the portable typewriter Ashton takes to Guernsey looks suspiciously to me like a German model, which I would have thought highly unlikely in the circumstances.
Among the more enjoyable movies of 2017, and another one set during the Second World War, was Their Finest, based on the 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half  by Lissa Evans. Typewriter use in this was as extensive as in The Post and Darkest Hour, and like Darkest Hour, it was an adept female typist who starred. Gemma Arterton played Catrin Cole, a scriptwriter who worked with a British Ministry of Information team making a morale-boosting film about the Dunkirk evacuation.
As for the movie Dunkirk itself, I saw no trace of a war correspondent’s portable typewriter, nor any typewriters in The Greatest Showman. But as we all know, James Gordon Bennett barred typewriters from The New York Herald, so I guess that was to be expected.


Bill M said...

Thanks for the great review of those movies Robert. I've seen some of those, but the others I need to look for on DVD. Your mentioning of the old news room and newspapers brought back many memories of my younger days loafing around the local newspaper office and printing room, Such fascinating machinery. Nothing like it in today's monotonous computerized everything world. Back then we did not see correctly spelled, mis-placed by the word checker, words in any printed article.

Richard P said...

Thanks for a great post. I learned the word "flongs"!

I knew you'd like The Post. It was very stirring for me too, even though I have no first-hand experience of a traditional newsroom, or any newsroom for that matter. Some people today are wistfully remembering the virtues of printed papers. Here's a story from The New York Times, which admittedly has some skin in the game since it still produces a widely available print edition.

There are at least two Noiselesses in the War Rooms.

Richard P said...

I'm trying to figure out the typewriter in "Guernsey" that is shown in the dark photo, with the case being opened. I agree that it looks suspiciously German. Possibly a circa-1940 Triumph Durabel. Why wouldn't they use a British, or at least American typewriter?

Johnpyyc said...

Hi Robert:

Very interesting post today. I remember visiting newsrooms as a child both the Calgary Herald and the Philadelphia Bulletin. the News rooms were very exciting and noisy. Now both news rooms are gone.

As for Churchill's typewriter I alway thought they used the Remington Noiseless around him due to his sensitivity to noise.



Terry Murray said...

Re The Post vs. All The President's Men: I preferred ATPM for its depiction of reportorial legwork, newsroom atmosphere and role of the editor-in-chief. It may be that I've been very tired (have just spent six months as sole caregiver to my kid sister in palliative care and then immediately shifted to being executor of her estate, also a solo job - all the while being 300 miles from my home), but I think the lawyers got me during The Post. Lawyers were essential to that story but when I saw the movie a month ago, I nodded off. I decided to give it another try last night - and nodded off again. That is more a sign of my exhaustion but still...

JoshBeta1 said...

"The Post" poster (with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep) has an Olympia SG 3! Although it's the 60's model. I have the 80's model. xD

I have never visited a newsroom in my lifetime (I'm 26 years old), but I think the old newsrooms were like our traditional Mexican "hoosegows" (courthouses: the Mexican legal system was very different to the normal legal system from other countries until the year 2016, when it was replaced with the normal legal system you can see in any American TV series; it was inherited from the legal system used by the Spaniard Inquisition, and it used to be all by writing, instead of oral declarations made by judges, witnesses and the accused ones! You could get huge handwritten and then typewritten records from each judgement!): A great army of mechanical typewriters working at the same time, being operated by another great army of secretaries (male and female), under judges' orders (or sometimes the judges by themselves). The sound of all those machines (most of them were Olympias SG 3, and the rest of them were Olivetties Linea 98) was deafening, and yet enjoyable! Impossible falling asleep there! I miss that kind of scenes (despite how slow used to be the Mexican justice due to that...)... <3

Peter said...

As a son of a printer, I thrilled seeing the hot Linotype action in The Post. And I can't help wondering exactly how much consulting Tom Hanks did about the typewriters in that film. Did any come from his own collection, I wonder? Especially the one he uses at "his" desk in "his" home. I've never seen any hint about this in any of the publicity appearances he's made in connection with the film.