Alberto Cavalcanti - Director

Nationality: Brazilian. Born: Alberto de Almeida Cavalcanti in Rio de Janeiro, 6 February 1897. Education: Attended law school, Brazil, and Geneva Fine Art School, Switzerland. Career: Art director in Paris, early 1920s; directed first film, Rien que les heures , 1926; directed French language versions of American films for Paramount, Joinsville, 1929–30; joined General Post Office (GPO) Film Unit, London, 1937 (head of unit, 1937); joined Ealing Studios as feature director, 1940; head of production, Vera Cruz group, Brazil, and co-founder, Brazilian Film Institute, 1949–50; settled in Europe, 1955; director, British and French television, 1950s to 1968; film teacher, UCLA, 1963–65. Awards: American States Medal for Superior Artistic Achievement, 1972. Died: In Paris, 23 August 1982.

Films as Director:


Le Train sans yeux (+ sc, ed)


Rien que les heures ( Only the Hours ) (+ pr, sc, ed)


Yvette (+ sc, ed); En rade ( Sea Fever ) (+ co-sc, ed); La P'tite Lilie (+ sc, ed supervisor)


La Jalousie du barbouillé (+ sc, ed, art d); Le Capitaine Fracasse (+ co-sc, ed)


Le Petit Chaperon rouge (+ sc, ed, art d); Vous verrez la semaine prochaine (+ sc, ed); A michemin du ciel (French language version of George Abbott's Half-Way to Heaven )


Toute sa vie (French language version of Dorothy Arzner's Sarah and Son ); A cançao do berço (Portuguese version of Dorothy Arzner's Sarah and Son ); Les Vacances du diable (French language version of Edmund Goulding's The Devil's Holiday ); Dans une île perdue (French language version of William Wellman's Dangerous Paradise )


En lisant le journal ; Le Jour du frotteur (+ sc, ed); Revue Montmartroise (+ sc); Nous ne ferons jamais de cinéma ; Le Truc du brésilien ; Le Mari garçon ( Le Garçon divorcé )


Plaisirs défendus ; Tour de chant (+ sc); Coralie et Cie (+ sc)


Pett and Pott (+ sound supervisor, bit role); New Rates


Coalface (+ sound supervisor)


Message from Geneva


We Live in Two Worlds (+ pr); The Line to Tschierva Hut (+ pr); Who Writes to Switzerland (+ pr)


Four Barriers (+ pr); The Chiltern Country (+ pr)


Alice in Switzerland (+ pr); Midsummer Day's Work (+ pr, sc)


La Cause commune (+ pr) (made in Britain for showing in France); Factory Front (+ pr) (British version of preceding film); Yellow Caesar ( The Heel of Italy ) (+ pr)


Young Veteran (+ pr); Mastery of the Sea (+ pr)


Went the Day Well? ( 48 Hours )


Watertight ( Ship Safety )


Champagne Charlie ; Trois Chansons de la résistance ( Trois Chants pour la France )


"The Ventriloquist's Dummy" episode of Dead of Night


The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby ; They Made Me a Fugitive ( I Became a Criminal )


The First Gentleman ( Affairs of a Rogue )


For Them That Trespass


Simao o caolho ( Simon the One-Eyed ) (+ pr)


O canto do mar ( The Song of the Sea ) (+ pr, co-sc) (remake of En rade )


Mulher de verdade ( A Real Woman ) (+ pr)


Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti (+ co-sc)

Alberto Cavalcanti (left) with John Mervyn
Alberto Cavalcanti (left) with John Mervyn


Die Windrose (d prologue only, collective film co-supervised with Joris Ivens)


La Prima notte ( Les Noces vénitiennes )


The Monster of Highgate Ponds


Thus Spake Theodor Herzl ( The Story of Israel ) (+ sc)

Other Films:


L'Inhumaine (L'Herbier) (co-art d)


L'Inondation (Delluc) (art d); La Galerie des monstres (Catelain) (asst d, art d); Feu Mathias Pascal (L'Herbier) (art d)


The Little People (Pearson) (art d)


Au pays du scalp (de Wavrin) (ed)


Windmill in Barbados (Wright) (sound supervisor); Granton Trawler (Anstey) (sound supervisor); Song of Ceylon (Wright) (sound supervisor)


Book Bargain (McLaren) (pr); Big Money (Watt) (pr)


Rainbow Dance (Lye) (pr); Night Mail (Wright and Watt) (pr, sound supervisor); Calendar of the Year (Spice) (pr)


The Saving of Bill Blewitt (Watt) (pr); Roadways (Coldstream and Legg) (pr)


North or Northwest (Lye) (pr); North Sea (Watt) (pr, sound supervisor); Distress Call (Watt) (pr) (shortened silent version of preceding title); Many a Pickle (McLaren) (pr); Happy in the Morning (Jackson) (pr)


The City (Elton) (pr); Men in Danger (Jackson) (pr); Spare Time (Jennings) (pr); Health of a Nation ( Health for the Nation, Forty Million People ) (Monck) (pr); Speaking from America (Jennings) (pr); Spring Offensive ( An Unrecorded Victory ) (Jennings) (pr); The First Days (Watt, Jennings, and Jackson) (pr)


Men of the Lightship (Macdonald) (pr); Squadron 992 (Watt) (pr); Sea Fort (Dalrymple) (pr); Salvage with a Smile (Brunel) (pr)


Guests of Honour (Pitt) (pr); The Big Blockade (Frend) (assoc pr); Merchant Seamen ( Merchant Convoy ) (Holmes) (pr); The Foreman Went to France ( Somewhere in France ) (Frend) (assoc pr); Find, Fix and Strike (Bennett) (pr)


Greek Testament ( The Shrine of Victory ) (Hasse) (pr)


The Halfway House (Dearden) (assoc pr)


Caicara (Loafer) (Celi) (pr, supervisor)


Terra sempere terra ( Land Is Forever Land ) (Payne) (pr); Painel ( Panel ) (Barreto) (pr); Santuario ( Sanctuary ) (Barreto) (pr)


Volta redonda ( Round Trip ) (Waterhouse) (pr); Film and Reality (selection and compilation)


Lettres de Stalingrad (Katz) (role)



Film and Reality , London, 1942; as Film e realidade , Rio de Janeiro, 1952.

By CAVALCANTI: articles—

"Sound in Films," in Film (London), November 1939.

"Cavalcanti in Brazil," in Sight and Sound (London), April/June 1953.

Interview with J. Hillier and others, in Screen (London), Summer 1972.

Cavalcanti, Alberto, in Filme Cultura (Rio de Janeiro), January-April 1984.


Klaue, Wolfgang, and others, Cavalcanti , Berlin, 1952.

Hardy, Forsyth, editor, Grierson on Documentary , revised edition, London, 1966.

Lovell, Alan, and Jim Hillier, Studies in Documentary , New York, 1972.

Barsam, Richard, The Non-Fiction Film , New York, 1973.

Rotha, Paul, Documentary Diary , London, 1973.

Sussex, Elizabeth, The Rise and Fall of British Documentary: The Story of the Film Movement Founded by John Grierson , Berkeley, 1975.

Pellizzari, Lorenzo, and Claudio M. Valentinetti, Albert Cavalcanti , Locarno, 1988.

Ellis, Jack C., The Documentary Idea , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1989.

On CAVALCANTI: articles—

De La Roche, Catherine, "Cavalcanti in Brazil," in Sight and Sound (London), January/March 1955.

Monegal, Emir Rodriguez, "Alberto Cavalcanti," in Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television (Berkeley), Summer 1955.

Minish, Geoffrey, "Cavalcanti in Paris," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1970.

Taylor, J.R., "Surrealist Admen," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1971.

Beylie, Claude, and others, "Alberto Cavalcanti," in Ecran (Paris), November 1974.

Sussex, E., "Cavalcanti in England," in Sight and Sound (London), August 1975.

Zapiola, G., "Medio siglo de cine en la obra del eurobrasileño Alberto Cavalcanti," in Cinemateca Revista (Montevideo), September 1982.

Courcier, J., obituary in Cinéma (Paris), October 1982.

Obituary in Films and Filming (London), November 1982.

Pilard, P., "Cavalcanti à Londres. Quinze ans de cinéma brittanique," in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), November 1983.

Casandey, R., "Alberto Cavalcanti," in Plateau (Brussels), vol. 10, no. 2, 1989.

* * *

Alberto Cavalcanti was multi-national to a remarkable extent. Brazilian by birth, he worked in French commercial and avant-garde cinema of the 1920s, in British documentaries of the 1930s, and in British features of the 1940s. He also returned briefly to Brazil in an effort to revitalize its production, then lived in Paris during his last years, although he visited and made films elsewhere. In the long view, however, Cavalcanti may be most closely associated with British film, especially with British documentary.

Even Cavalcanti's early years in France led to that subsequent connection. Following work as a set designer, most notably for Marcel L'Herbier, he made the seminal Rien que les heures in 1926. Though part of the avant-garde experimentation of the 1920s, Rien inaugurated the "city symphonies," one of the lines picked up by John Grierson as he was molding the British documentary of the 1930s. (The other lines came from the work of Flaherty, and of the Soviets, notably Vertov, Eisenstein, and Turin.)

Before being invited by Grierson to join the General Post Office Film Unit, Cavalcanti had experience in the early sound films produced by the French studios. As he became involved in British documentary he distinguished himself, especially through his work with sound in relation to image. Granton Trawler, The Song of Ceylon, Coal Face, Night Mail , and North Sea offer evidence of his contributions. It might be argued that these films contain more sophisticated multi-layered sound and edited images—what Eisenstein called vertical montage—than that evident in narrative fiction films of the time. Cavalcanti's personal creativity became the basis for teaching other, younger members of the documentary group. Harry Watt, Basil Wright, and others have attested to Cavalcanti's significance as a teacher of conception and technique.

Though Grierson always acknowledged Cavalcanti's importance to the artistry of British documentary, there developed a split between the Grierson faction (dedicated to making films to bring about social change) and the Cavalcanti faction (more concerned with ways in which realist film technique and style could be brought to the larger audiences of the theatres). In fact, an anthology surveying the documentary film, The Film and Reality , co-produced by Cavalcanti and Ernest Lindgren in 1942, created a furor behind the scenes when it was released. It presented essentially an aesthetic history of documentary (Cavalcanti selected the excerpts), ending with coverage of feature fiction films embodying some of the characteristics of documentary. The Grierson group was reputedly outraged that no attention was paid to what they viewed as the dominant purpose of British documentary, which was a sort of citizenship education—communication by the government to the citizenry.

For his part, Cavalcanti said late in life that he always thought he and Grierson were up to the same thing essentially—that of course he had a social sense, as surely as did Grierson. The real trouble was that he had not received adequate screen credits for the work he had done for the GPO Film Unit during Grierson's regime. (Grierson favored the idea of anonymous collective rather than individual auteurs.)

When Cavalcanti returned to entertainment filmmaking early in the war he was missed by the documentary bunch. At the same time it must be said that Cavalcanti (like Watt, who followed him shortly) brought with him a documentary influence to Ealing Studios that extended into the wartime fiction film. The impact of his experiences in the documentary world can be seen, for example, in The Foreman Went to France , which he produced, and in Went the Day Well? , which he directed. On the other hand, Cavalcanti's finest achievement as fictional producer/director may well be Dead of Night , a mingling of fantasy and actuality. The surrealistic elements of the film recalled the French avant-garde.

In summary it can be said that Cavalcanti seemed always to be the artist, personal creator and, especially, consummate technician. He applied himself to the basic modes of film art—narrative fiction, avant-garde, and documentary—in a full range of capacities—set designer, sound recordist, producer, and director. A charming journeyman artist with a cosmopolitan and tasteful flair, he taught and influenced a lot of other filmmakers and was responsible for noteworthy innovation and experimentation in many of the films with which he was associated.

—Jack C. Ellis

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