Throughout the roaring 20s, many of the great cities of the world were cast in starring roles in a new and exciting development in filmmaking – the ‘city symphony’. If the musical term seems confusing – given that most of these films are from the silent film era – then it might be best to think of them as made up of several movements or acts, each with their own mood and tempo. The city symphony is a variety of documentary, but is in a quite distinct sub-group – a somewhat exclusive club of films whose rules of membership are a little hazy and hard to define.
The earliest generally accepted example is Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s Manhatta (1921), a one-reel testimony of the filmmakers’ love affair with Manhattan, with words from Walt Whitman. Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927) is the defining specimen, giving the ‘genre’ its name, and remaining a fascinating and engaging portrait of the capital city of Weimar Germany in its brief golden years. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) (voted the greatest documentary of all time in a 2014 Sight & Sound poll and back in cinemas from 31 July 2015) is often thrown into the mix, although it actually features four cities and foregrounds the filmmakers as much as the places themselves.
New York, Berlin, Paris, Nice, São Paulo, Prague, Amsterdam… all had their symphonies of sorts in the late 1920s. But what about Britain? Is there a British city symphony? You be the judge, as perhaps the closest example of the form from these isles comes onto the BFI Player as part of our Britain on Film collections. The city in question is not London or Birmingham, nor Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff or Belfast, but Liverpool – a keystone of the British Empire through its historic dockyards and feted by The Bankers’ Magazine in 1851 as the ‘New York of Europe’.
Watching A Day in Liverpool it’s clear to see that it was inspired by the city symphony phenomenon, and it shares many of the key characteristics of the form. Like Berlin: Symphony of a City and others, A Day in Liverpool is structured as a day in the life of the city. The film is bookended by the arrival and departure of a ‘ferry cross the Mersey’, as workers pour into (and, later, home from) the city by tram, boat and rail. The film was sponsored by The Liverpool Organisation, established in 1923 as a partnership between local businesses and the city council to promote Liverpool as a prosperous centre of commerce and industry. So it’s not surprising that the ‘day’ of the film is a working one, or that much of the film is given over to the range of economic activities in the area.
Though structured around a notional single day, A Day in Liverpool must have taken many weeks to shoot, and the filmmakers were clearly granted remarkable access around the city. The film was directed by Anson Dyer, who was better known as one of Britain’s first and most prolific animators. Born in 1876, Dyer worked as an artist in a stained-glass window studio until he was nearing 40, but began to produce ‘lightning sketch’ cartoons and then stop-motion animation during the First World War. His career in animation was something of a financial rollercoaster, and though it continued into the 1950s, the 1930s was a fallow period for his cartoon work – this is one of his two known live-action works. The artist-turned-filmmaker is actually another occasional trope of the city symphony – Manhatta’s Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler were better known in the photography and art world, and Walter Ruttman was an animator – albeit of abstract works that could hardly be further from Dyer’s populism.
Whether it was down to Dyer’s vision, or that of his uncredited cinematographer(s?), there is some remarkable photography in this film. The camera climbs the heights of Liverpool’s modest but effective skyscrapers, hugs the surface of wobbling road bridges, and hops onto a variety of means of transport for a series of ‘phantom rides’. The editing is at times elaborate and makes heavy use of dissolves – feet running up the steps overlap with a clock face striking nine, in one example.
It’s probably in the editing and overall structure of the film that it falls short of that elusive city symphony member’s club badge. If there is an aspirational, symphonic structure to the film, it’s not obvious. The montage from shot to shot largely seems to simply take us from A to B rather than elicit any particular insight. The film is neither avant-garde nor experimental, and while this is a debatable check box for city symphony branding, it suggests that the film is as much about the vision of its sponsor as it is of its artist.
However, one of the things it has in common with many a modernist masterpiece is that in portraying Liverpool as a complex machine, run by the clock and kept alive by a constant circulation of goods and people through its arterial transport links, it dehumanises the Liverpudlians themselves. A rare departure from this approach produces some of the film’s most engaging scenes, as the city is left behind and the beaches of the Wirral are shown as a relaxed and lively playground.
Ultimately, this is what makes the film so appealing today, particularly to the people of Liverpool. It is no landmark of film history, nor is it a key example of a filmic genre, or complex vision of an auteur filmmaker. It is a time capsule of a thriving city, unearthed many decades later and filled with remnants of a life that is familiar yet distant. Take a look at a diverse, cosmopolitan metropolis that deserves its place in the spotlight.