The ostensible subject of A Midsummer Day’s Work is the laying of an underground telephone cable in the Chilterns, from Amersham to Aylesbury. It certainly shows the various stages and types of work activity involved in this project, from the initial drafting of the project, to the manual labour involved in its creation. However, within, and despite, its restricted and prosaic remit, A Midsummer Day’s Work also works at another, more symbolic level, in conjuring up a sense of rural English pastoralism.
The film is replete with imagery of an idyllic English countryside, with the Chilterns being held up as emblematic of an English way of life which, in 1939, stands united and at peace in the face of the coming threat of war. The historical past is also conjured up here as part of this portrayal of a rural homeland, and we are, for example, shown the cottage in which Milton once lived, and the historical home of Sir Francis Drake.
Alberto de Almeida Cavalcanti was born in Rio de Janeiro on 6 February 1897, the son of a noted mathematician. He left Brazil at the age of fifteen to study architecture and interior design at the School of Fine Arts in Geneva, from where he moved to Paris to take up work as a set designer in a film studio. As one of a group of young avant-garde artists surrounding Marcel l’Herbier and Louis Delluc, Cavalcanti soon began producing and directing films on his own account, among them the pioneering ‘city symphony’ Rien que les heures (France, 1926), which reputedly inspired Dziga Vertov’s more celebrated Man with a Movie Camera (USSR, 1929). It has been suggested that the key influences at this early stage of Cavalcanti’s career came from the French realist tradition and, to a lesser extent, from surrealism.
In 1934, at the invitation of John Grierson, Cavalcanti left Paris for London to join the GPO Film Unit. There he worked on numerous films in a variety of creative capacities, including producer, director, sound supervisor, editor, scriptwriter and art director, and took over as head of the Unit upon Grierson’s departure for Canada in 1937.