Saturday, February 17, 2007

The wonderful Mr Malleson


You know him, even if you think you don’t.
If you’ve ever watched a British comedy film or a Hammer horror, chances are you’ll have come across this cherubic king of the two-minute cameo. He is never the star, though he appeared in nearly a hundred films. He leaves all the hard work to Peter Cushing or Peter Sellers and then, usually about half an hour in, he comes on, steals the show, and goes again.
Yet he was much more than a mere eccentric old man who wanders on in the middle of horror films. After abandoning his original plan to become a schoolteacher he achieved a considerable reputation as actor, playwright, screenwriter and translator. He worked for Hitchcock, Michael Powell, Michael Winner and Paul Rotha.
Neither was he the cosy pillar of the establishment that his image – and the generally imperialistic nature of his major screenwriting assignments – would suggest. Despite celebrating British history and values in such scripts as Nell Gwyn (1934), Rhodes of Africa (1936), Victoria the Great (1937) and The First of the Few (1942) he was a prominent member of the anti-conscription movement in the First World War, an outspoken pacifist and part of that band of woolly liberal intellectuals that surrounded Bertrand Russell. He sat on the advisory council of the Masses Stage and Film Guild, established by the Labour party in 1929 to bring great cultural works to the working classes.
He even sent his children to Russell’s appalling experimental school, where discipline was outlawed and children not obliged to attend lessons if they didn’t want to: barbarism and savagery soon held sway as the great sage watched placidly from his tower.
Russell also, as was invariably his custom with close male friends, struck up a long-standing affair with Malleson’s first wife, actress Colette O’Neil. (The two had only married under pressure: they were both advocates of co-habitation and sexual freedom. Yes, this is Miles Malleson I’m talking about.)
My favourite Malleson anecdote is the one about him coming out of an early performance of Look Back In Anger, the worst play ever written, ruefully shaking his head and mumbling "But bad manners isn't social criticism..." Quite a few chickens came home that night.
All of which surely points to a biography screaming to be written, yet for all of his achievements and the variety of his gifts, this is ultimately his greatest talent: when you’re watching a Hammer film and Miles Malleson comes on, you smile.
Malleson was Hammer’s jolly old man: a beaming, sweet natured, white-haired elf. His inimitable style and perfect timing made him an unlikely but definitive component of the studio's formula, and a bit of their magic died when he made his last appearance in 1962. (He retired from acting, due to failing eyesight, in 1965 and died, aged 80, in 1969.)
Luckily for us, Malleson was around when it was still felt that audiences needed occasional comic relief from the intense terror generated by the sight of Christopher Lee in a long cloak. His job in Hammer films, then, is to come on at half time like the gatekeeper in Macbeth, and lighten the mood. The early Hammer films are forever stopping off at inns to eavesdrop on the rustic chorus, and the studio kept a rotating pool of actors on its books solely to play this assortment of drunks, innkeepers, layabouts and poachers, men like Harold Goodwin, George Woodbridge, Michael Ripper and such occasional guest yokels as John Laurie and Lionel Jeffries. They were all superb but Malleson was king, and his little cameos of good cheer retain their charm even now when, like the songs in a Marx Brothers film, they no longer serve a necessary dramatic function.
Malleson was never to be found in disreputable taverns at Hammer, he is usually cast as a professional man, albeit one of considerable eccentricity. (His last Hammer appearance, as the cabbie in The Phantom of the Opera [1962], is as downmarket as he got.) In Dracula (1958) he is a top-hatted undertaker who does drum-rolls on the coffins and laughs as he tells the story of a mourner who slipped on his steps and died. (“He came to pay his last respects and he remained to share them – oh yes, very amusing it was.”) His face, a gift to any cartoonist, never relaxes its vast, contorted smile. When Malleson laughs his eyes disappear and his mouth outgrows his face.
If you’ve seen Dracula with a live audience you’ll have noticed that while much of the horror receives the de rigeur ignorant laughter now expected of sophisticated audiences, and later comic relief involving a blustering toll-gate keeper is met with impatience, when Malleson comes on the change in reaction is unmistakable. The sophistication of his playing leaps the years, and the laughter is warm and genuine.

His best role for Hammer (and his largest) was the befuddled Bishop Frankland in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). In his first scene (of two) he keeps mentioning sherry until the hint is taken and a glass proffered: he ends up having two. (“Now that you mention sherry, do you know I think I might like a glass.”) The plot would have us believe he is a world authority on spiders and insects, but it is hard to credit the man we see crawling about on a flight of stone steps trying to scoop a spider into his hat with the capacity for scholarly study. Dressed elegantly in a black tail coat and top hat, he audibly creaks when in motion.
His second scene is a beautiful duet; he is matched perfectly with Peter Cushing’s Holmes, the one all business and laser focus, the other dancing pirouettes around him, offering sherry and drifting off on vague tangents. First mistaking Holmes for the workman come to mend his immobile telescope, he is delighted when Holmes does the job himself and couldn’t be happier when the telescope’s sudden fluidity of movement causes him to swing it too forcefully, smashing a window. Unaware that Holmes has left the room while his attention is fixed on the comings and goings of his neighbours, director Terence Fisher cuts to a beautiful long shot as Malleson does a full 360 degree turn, extends both his arms at right angles from his body, pauses, looks at the camera and says “Well! He’s gone!”

One suspects Fisher had a particular fondness for Malleson, just as James Whale did for Una O’Connor. In Brides of Dracula (1960) he comes close to letting him shuffle off with the film’s proper atmosphere. Again paired delightfully with Cushing (here as arch vampire hunter Van Helsing) he is a hypochondriac doctor in a startling blonde toupee who dismisses vampirism as superstitious nonsense but is happy to immerse his head in a bowl of noxiously steaming quack remedies. Straight man Cushing does the seriousness and grim portent while Malleson makes inane suggestions and attributes the vampire’s bite marks to an over-fond pet dog. His interplay with Cushing is especially amusing for the manner in which his character treats Van Helsing as his intellectual peer, while the latter is merely indulging an ally he clearly finds buffoonish and tiresome. Only Malleson is blind to the implications of Van Helsing’s attitude toward him, and continues to discuss matters of which he knows nothing in hushed professional tones. (“I might even put your specialist’s fee on my own little account!” he chirps delightedly.)
While Cushing talks gravely of vampires to the headmaster of the girls’ school through which one is prowling, Malleson is clearly visible in the background, fumbling about at the headmaster’s desk, stealing our attention simply by picking things up and putting them down again, gazing distractedly at books and looking around the room. It is probably the humblest, most inadvertent bit of scene stealing in film history, but I challenge anyone to recall what Cushing is actually saying.
He pops up in one or two other interesting places, too, such as Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Here he is the elderly porn enthusiast who enters his local tobacconist’s and asks to see some “views”. The proprietor produces an album of soft core photos from under the counter, Malleson makes approving noises as he leafs through briefly before asking “How much would the lot be?” And he brings just the right blend of eccentricity and eeriness to the role of the ominous hearse driver/bus conductor in Dead of Night (1945). (“Room for one inside, sir…”)

Malleson is always exactly the right man for the job; his scenes are funny not because he is given funny lines but because he is a superb interpretive actor who has been given lines that are exactly what his character would say. That’s why it is easy to believe that these parts were written with him in mind, or even were largely improvised. That we no longer actually need him to lighten the mood in horror in films that now seem uniformly charming and innocent only adds to his appeal. Stripped of his actual function, his performances are pure indulgence. And still, when he appears, forty years after he made his last film, we smile.