The Strangler (1930)

The Strangler (1930) is by far one of the more memorable Secrets films. It showcases perfectly the time-lapse technique and its ability to ‘capture the vitality of a living plant’, and it is one of the only films of its kind to include a clock in the picture to help viewers understand that the image has been sped-up. But it is also fascinating because its subject is a parasite – a ‘criminal’, as the film calls it – called dodder.

Dodder refers to a genus of around 200 plants in the genus Cuscuta of which two, Cuscuta epithymum and Cuscuta europaea, can be found in the UK. The plant is unusual in that it has no roots. Instead of getting its nutrients from the ground, it wraps itself around the stems of other plants. Attaching its ‘suckers’ (haustoria) to these plants, it feeds on them and keeps growing. The plants can form large tangles of wiry shoots – a “Medusa’s hair of waving threads” – often red or yellow because of their low levels of chlorophyll.

The Strangler shows the life history of dodder, from its earliest stage as a seedling, to its parasitic stage feeding off its host. Interestingly, the ‘host’ plant featured in the film is flax, instead of the usual nettles of shrubs that the UK varieties of dodder tend to attack. This is because F. Percy Smith, who did the filming, discovered that growing dodder in laboratory conditions was hardly an easy task. As he would find, all the literature about dodder referred to its eradication, with very little information available on the best conditions for cultivating the plant. Having tried repeatedly to germinate cuscuta europea seeds provided to him by Kew Gardens, Smith tried his luck with cuscuta epilinum, which is parasitic on flax. This plant was one of several dodders discussed in a 1917 leaflet by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, which expressed concern about the impact that dodder could have on crops like clover and flax.

The language used to refer to the plant is striking because of the moral judgement that it bestows on its behaviour. The film’s title is typical of Secrets films that sought to tap into contemporary currents in cinema – while ‘romance’ and sexual allusions were one common trope, The Strangler aligned itself more with the horror genre. From the very beginning, we are told that dodder is “born criminal”. As it emerges from the ground, the narrator describes it as “a creature, like a serpent”, out looking for a “victim'” Then, it attaches itself to its host with the ‘coiled grip of the master criminal’. F. Percy Smith echoed this tone when writing about dodder. “We see him,” he wrote in Secrets of Nature (1934), “an unfamiliar, sinister, snakelike vegetable vampire, ravaging beautiful plants with which we are acquainted and upon which we unhesitatingly bestow our sympathies.” Despite praising the film’s photography, the British Film Institute’s Science Committee criticised this characterisation of the plant, especially the “totally false impression that the plant thinks for itself”.

If you’ve been watching David Attenborough’s The Green Planet, you’ll have come across a more recent appearance of dodder in episode 3, ‘Seasonal Worlds’. In this case, the photographers seem to have had less trouble than Smith in capturing dodder’s movements in full colour and in its natural habitat, in this case showing a dodder that is parasitic on nettles (probably cuscuta europea). Some of the close-up shots are really amazing, and the time-lapse sequences, as in The Strangler, seem to endow the plants with life. The Green Planet also shares something amazing that we have learned since The Strangler was made – that host plants can use the writing network of dodder to communicate with other plants, warning others of leaf-eating grubs and therefore permitting them to emit toxins which repel a potentially decimating attack. But The Green Planet sequence is remarkably similar to its 1930 counterpart when it comes to language. Dodder is introduced as a ‘hunter’ with an ‘exceptional sense of smell’ a description which no doubt the BFI Science Committee would have had problems with. While dodder ‘searches for its prey’, dramatic music puts us on notice that an attack is imminent. As the plant grabs the stalk of a ‘young nettle’, we hear a whipping sound, and a high-pitched squeak, as though coming from the innocent nettle victim. The dodder’s feasting on nettle sap is accompanied by sounds of crunchy digestion of the sort that Hollywood usually reserves for the most uncanny of beasts when they have ensnared a victim. This a form of vetegable grotesque – or what Cari Hovanec, writing of The Strangler, calls the “Darwinian Grotesque”, in reference to the way that many Secrets series “elevates water fleas, slime molds, vegetable molds, weeds, and garden pests to the status of aesthetic objects. They put viewers in a position to at once squirm at these creepy-crawly creatures and marvel at their hitherto unseen beauty.”

The British public seem not have been quite as enthused about dodder as F. Percy Smith was, as shown by the following quote from Field and Smith’s book:

Presented to the general public, the film of the dodder aroused little enthusiasm […] as it possessed certain peculiarities which, experience had clearly shown, tended to prejudice the average cinema audience against it. […] First, the plant itself was quite unknown to almost every member of the audience. This is a very bad beginning. Nothing is more difficult than to work up, in the very limited time represented by a reel of film, an interest in an unfamiliar object. This remark, of course, does not apply to the type of individual who is anxious to add to his knowledge, but to those cinema patrons who are desirous of being merely entertained.

Mary Field and Percy Smith, Secrets of Nature (1934)

This is an idea that recurs across the literature on the Secrets films, and is in many ways contrary to what we might expect today. Viewers, it seems, were less keen to learn about new plants or animals, but instead seem to have preferred seeing things that they already knew about – albeit through the new visual lens offered by the cinema.

You can watch the whole film on British Pathé’s youtube channel:

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