Human Law

UK/Germany 1927, 91 mins
Director: Maurice Elvey

+ Intro
Isobel Elsom gives a strong performance as a wife deprived by her child by having technically ‘deserted’ her husband, despite being morally justified in doing so. Her husband, who spent three years in prison for assaulting a man in a jealous rage, finds on release that his wife has fallen in love with his lawyer. The ‘Human’ Law enables him not only to abuse her with impunity, but to gain custody of the ensuing child. Maurice Elvey was having a good year, having just directed Hindle Wakes. This German co-production is in a similar, socially progressive vein, while featuring some impressionistic camera work in the German style.

Maurice Elvey was born William Seward Folkard on 11 November 1887 in Stockton-on-Tees. He left home while still a child, seeking his fortune in London, where he worked variously as a kitchen hand and hotel pageboy, and later as an actor and stagehand. Ambitious and hard-working, Elvey rose quickly to directing and producing plays, establishing his own theatrical company before switching to films in 1912. He directed an array of comedies and dramas for the Motograph company and British and Colonial, most of them starring Elizabeth Risdon and Fred Groves, including the melodrama Maria Marten: Or the Murder in the Red Barn (1913), an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Suicide Club (1914), and a version of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, more plainly titled Love in a Wood (1916).

By the end of the First World War, Elvey was making popular features in a variety of genres. Best known are his biographical films, of Florence Nightingale, Nelson, and Lloyd George. These reveal a Janus-faced director, working firmly in a tradition of Victorian hagiography, but clearly searching for contemporary relevance. They show some startlingly modern touches of associative editing and a facility for location and crowd scenes. Indeed it has been argued that if his Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918) had not been suppressed for political reasons, British cinema may have taken a different direction. The rediscovery of this remarkable film has forced a re-appraisal both of British cinema in this period generally, and of Elvey’s (largely lost) output in particular.

By the early 1920s Elvey had become the chief director at Stoll, a studio that gained a reputation for swift, unimaginative literary adaptations, but was one of the first to model itself as a major producer with a distinctively national output. In 1924 he went to America, where he made five films for the Fox Film Corporation. He returned in 1925, putting his experience to especially good use on the psychologically sophisticated Anglo-German melodrama Human Law/Tragödie Einer Ehe (1926), and Hindle Wakes (1927), Roses of Picardy (1927), Palais de Dance (1928) and High Treason (1929): films that display an awareness of visual storytelling and spectacle often lacking in his later work. Hindle Wakes is a particularly successful example of Elvey’s blend of realism, melodrama and sense of location.

During the 1930s Elvey’s tireless energy led him to work across the spectrum of British production, on ‘quota quickies’ as well as on ambitious productions such as The Tunnel for Gaumont-British. At Ealing he made Gracie Fields’ first film, Sally in Our Alley (1931) – notably more realistic and downbeat in tone than her later vehicles – and subsequently This Week of Grace and Love, Life and Laughter. During the Second World War he worked with Leslie Howard on the critically praised The Gentle Sex (1943) and took over direction on The Lamp Still Burns (1943) after Howard’s death. Medal for the General, his wartime production for British National, and his big-budget post-war melodrama Beware of Pity are also worthy of consideration. Elvey continued to direct a wide variety of dramas and comedies until failing eyesight forced his retirement in 1957.

With such a massive output, and working at such speed, it is inevitable that many of Elvey’s films have a perfunctory flavour. But the best of his work, particularly from the silent period, reveals a sympathetic and imaginative craftsman whose role in shaping British cinema has been unjustly neglected in favour of more flashy and less experienced contemporaries. He died in Brighton on 28 August 1967.
Lawrence Napper, BFI Screenonline,

Director: Maurice Elvey
Production Companies: Astra-National Productions, Maxim-Film-Gesellschaft
Screenplay: Ruth Goetz, Maurice Krol
Original Novel: E. Ehlert
Photography: Mutz Greenbaum
Art Directors: Ernest Stern, Artur Günther

Isobel Elsom (Louise Radcliffe)
Alfred Abel (Radcliffe)
Paul Richter (Mason)
Ernst Verebes
Frieda Richard
Eduard von Winterstein

UK-Germany 1927
91 mins

With live piano accompaniment

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
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