Last updated: 05 March 2010
If you watch British mainstream films up to the 1930s you could be forgiven for thinking Wales was devoid of industry or factory disputes, and entirely populated by shepherdesses, gypsies and lovelorn swains prone to romantic quests. Harsher realities rarely intruded into these rustic or Ruritanian-style idylls.
In the 1930s, out of the cinema mainstream at least, there were stark, chastening images of Wales (usually from committed English - or American - 'outsiders') to remind people of the miseries of unemployment in the Depression and the battles of working men to preserve jobs and self-respect.
The first wave of 'Welsh' mining films gave viewers a glimpse of the gruelling conditions facing pit communities.
In the vanguard of the new British agit-prop cinema was Today We Live (1937) a courageous film by card-carrying Communist director Ralph Bond, a Londoner noted for helping distribute Russian and later Spanish Civil War films, notably to mining institutes in the south Wales valleys.
Today We Live, part-set in Pentre in the Rhondda, was made for, and heavily influenced by, left-wing documentary producer Paul Rotha. Bond's film featured the plight of three local miners, all unemployed, and was part-funded through the National Council for Social Service in a scheme to encourage men back to work creating social or leisure centres.
Despite obvious constrictions imposed by funding sources, the 'doc' conveyed something of the miners' disenchantment with a scheme they regarded as a short term palliative, scarcely a substitute for permanent or real work.
The film indicted Capitalism, hinting that the Industrial revolution had herded men into factories, making them dependent on industrialisation, then cast them onto the scrap heap. Bond said as much as it was possible to say about working conditions at a time when overt trade union activity was still banned from the screen.
Today We Live was most notable for its skilful montage work and evocative shots of men toiling on slag heaps, scrabbling for coal for their families; images were taken by Strand Company employee, Cambridge University graduate Donald Alexander, who had previously made Rhondda (1935) and recoiled from the sight of the "beastly houses" and poverty he found there.
Alexander then directed Eastern Valley (1937), set in a Gwent co-operative of unemployed men and families producing food and textiles. The film, backed by the Order of friends and Subsistence Production Society, had a similar rhythm and formula to Today We Live, with families again seen as victims of industrialisation and economic imperatives. Yet the film adopted a generally affirmative stance with the co-operative community working hard to rebuild their lives.
The most interesting mainstream film to emerge in the 1930s set partly in Wales but shot mainly in London studios, was The Citadel (1938) made by American King Vidor. Crucially, it was based on the novel by AJ Cronin, a former south Wales GP and staunch critic of a laissez-faire medical profession afflicted with corruption.
Opening scenes in Wales capture the sense of a down-at-heel mining community in the throes of health scares and a plague emanating from water pipes. The film's nominal hero Manson (Robert Donat) a crusading doctor, risks his profession to right wrongs but is gradually corrupted by the enticements of social life in London and seduced by the lucrative pickings from hypochondriacs, who frequent private practises. A tragedy brings him to his senses and he finally redeems himself by delivering unpalatable home truths at an official medical hearing.
The most significant screen star to emerge from 1930s Wales was Emlyn Williams, a Welsh speaker from north Wales who topped a 1933 Film Weekly poll as outstanding British performer of the year.
Williams' overall 1930s screen output was wildly uneven but he was superb in a string of fine films notably Carol Reed's The Stars Look Down (1939), They Drive by Night (1938) and as a smarmy, superficially beguiling blackmailer in Victor Saville's entertaining if flawed portmanteau feature Friday the Thirteenth (1933).
The decade saw the premature screen retirement of Cardiff's matinee idol screen star and writer Ivor Novello, just two years after his finest role - as a Russian aristocrat in Maurice Elvey's comedy I Lived With You (1933), a film which also allowed Novello to express his natural scripting gift for humour. Novello quit the cinema, citing the heavy demands of a hugely successful stage career.
The decade also saw the first Welsh language fiction film Y Chwarelwr/The Quarryman (1935), made at Blaenau Ffestiniog by Sir Ifan ab Edwards, son of the renowned educator OM Edwards and father of S4C's first chief executive Owen Edwards.
This short doc has only a slight story but deserves continued attention as the first narrative fiction film from a Welsh filmmaker exploring the realities of working men's lives in the north Wales quarry areas so long ignored by mainstream British cinema. CH Dand, from London's Wembley studios, then experimenting with sound, shot another fictionalised quarry film Men Against Death (1933) at Dorothea Quarry but only half the film is now known to survive.
A more conventional and silent documentary Slate Quarrying in North Wales (1935) gives a fine visual impression of the scale of operations at the Dinorwic quarry. The decade also saw the Workers' Newsreels which embraced shots of Welsh miners on hunger marches and also the arrival of that fine documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings in Wales for the first time, making a segment in Pontypridd, of his Spare Time (1939), about men's leisure activities.
There was a paucity of relevant Welsh material by British filmmakers in commercial cinemas but one landmark was the first Hollywood sound film set in Wales (but shot in the States) - James Whale's irresistible black comedy The Old Dark House (1932), with Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff and Raymond Massey.