Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Jack Cardiff, Master of Technicolor (1914-2009)

Jack Cardiff, one of the greatest directors of photography Britain ever produced, as well as the director of some of its most peculiar exploitation films, died this month.
His reputation as master of colour cinematography is unchallenged. He had trained in the Technicolor laboratories in America in the thirties, and brought to British cinema in the forties an innovative confidence in the process's potential.
He photographed Vivien Leigh in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945),
and Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock's Under Capricorn (1949),
but by far his most important and acclaimed work was done under the aegis of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, for whom he created the stunning visuals of A Matter of Life and Death (1946),
Black Narcissus (1947), for which he won an Oscar,
and The Red Shoes (1948), which Natalie Kalmus called the best Technicolor film ever made.
Without a presiding imagination equal to Powell's to inspire him, his work in later decades never quite scaled these heights, though it was never less than beautiful in a number of large-scale and demanding projects such as The African Queen (1951),
and Vidor's absurdly under-rated War and Peace (1956).
As a director, he had either limited opportunities, bad luck, or an unerring eye for the eccentric and outré. I think the jury is still out as to which. Sons and Lovers (1960), photographed in black and white by Freddie Francis, another master DP turned oddball director, found acclaim, but the rest ranges from hack work to downright bizarre.
His first assignment had been the legendary Errol Flynn disaster William Tell, begun in 1953, the collapse of which is documented mesmerisingly in the opening chapters of Flynn's book My Wicked, Wicked Ways.
Scent of Mystery (1960) is a routine thriller with an unforgettable gimmick hinted in the title: it was produced in Smell-o-Vision: a variety of different aromas were pumped from a central generating unit to small outlets concealed in each cinema seat.
Girl On a Motorcycle (1968) is naff swinging sixties stuff, with Marianne Faithfull in and out of a zip-up leather catsuit, Alain Delon as a master seducer in bobble hat and sandals, a bunch of ludicrous soliloquies, dopey back projection and a tragic ending that will keep you laughing for hours.
But my favourite of all is The Mutations (1974), one of the weirdest and scuzziest of all weird, scuzzy 1970's British horror films.
Donald Pleasence plays a scientist and university lecturer trying to cross-breed animals and plants. At one point he is asked if he has had any success. He replies that he most certainly has, and proudly produces a dead mouse with a sprig of watercress sticking out of it.
He pays a deformed freak show proprietor called Lynch (Tom Baker drooling and covered in plastic lumps) to abduct girls, and post-experimental rejects are passed on to the freak show. Some of Donald's students (including Jill Haworth and Julie Ege in Man About the House fashions) get a bit too close to the truth; one of them, a wisecracking buffoon crass beyond endurance, is satisfyingly turned into a human venus fly trap. Yes, it's tasteless, but at the same time, it's a film in which a man feeds a rabbit to a growling shrub.
It was also Cardiff's last film as director. I've a feeling it would have been anybody's last film as director. He returned to photography, but there wasn't much left to photograph. He made Egypt look sensational in Death On The Nile (1978) and The Awakening (1981), and did some lovely work on Michael Winner's remake of The Wicked Lady (1983).
Still at work in his nineties, Jack Cardiff died on April 22nd at the age of 94.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Charles Laughton in Hollywood: Different from all the world

“UGLINESS which is as powerful as CHARLES LAUGHTON's can spell as great success as beauty, it seems...”
- caption to Laughton's picture in The Wonder Album of Filmland - A Beautiful Collection of Super Art Plates Comprising a Complete Pictorial Survey of Filmland, published in 1933.
Ugly? Well, yes, I suppose he was. But ugly is relative, isn't it? I mean, look at Fred Astaire. Look at a picture of Fred Astaire and imagine you have no idea who he is. Observe that massive cranium, almost medical-textbook in its bulbousness, the faint, sickly wisps of brilliantined hair, the nervous, distended eyes. Here, surely, is a gargoyle to rival Rondo Hatton.
But then you see him in Top Hat, see him move, react and relate, and you realise that what you mistook for one of the most unattractive people to have ever been born is actually the most attractive person to have ever been born.
It’s all part and parcel of our tendency to look at the curtains rather than the view from the window, the lamentable desire to see greatness in beauty, rather than beauty in greatness. Laughton, it seems to me, when he’s really alive on screen, really on fire, has as strong a claim to being beautiful as anyone in the movies. It’s some kind of movie star’s face he's got, that's certain; the camera can't get enough of looking at him, and he repays the attention with a dazzling repertoire of subtle effects.
Elsa Lanchester characteristically described him as "really better-looking than a lot of good-looking people who are so good-looking you could throw up."
And his associate Paul Gregory recalled that such was his insecurity about his appearance that there were times when he would literally hide himself away, "and yet I've seen him when he was absolutely, radiantly beautiful, and I told him that one time." The disclosure reduced him to tears: "It was just terrible, you know? It was like Niagara Falls because he didn't even cry lightly."
Laughton himself said in a 1935 Picturegoer interview: "Imagine a face like mine photographing so well! My features cut through the screen like a knife through cheese. It's sheer good luck, but who would have believed it?"
And there was a time, once, when a Hollywood producer like Paramount's Jesse Lasky could get wind of this magnetic, ugly man tearing up the stage in London and New York and to see in him potential for movies, a corner for him somewhere in the glamour factory yet, and to give him a Hollywood contract the kind of which many established stars went to bed dreaming (two years, three films a year and choice of roles), and to launch him as a ready-made star. Now, when stars are produced in laboratories and sliced from a big loaf it should be more salutary than ever to recall how Hollywood set about making a star from what to them must have seemed the most perversely unusual clay.

"Movie acting is simple: Feel it in your guts and then let it dribble up through your eyes." - Charles Laughton, 1932
I want to talk here about those films Laughton made in that first wave of Hollywood glory, before the certain star vehicles; before those laps of honour like The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Ruggles of Red Gap, Mutiny on the Bounty or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, back when Paramount knew only that they had inherited an English actor unlike anything they had seen before and set about providing roles to match.
Watching films like Devil and the Deep, White Woman and, of course, De Mille's The Sign of the Cross., it's incredible to think how limited his previous screen experience had been. His triumphs had all been on stage (which suited the still-nervous talking Hollywood fine), but even in that arena he was a new as well as brilliant illumination: still only 33, with only six years of professional acting behind him.
His weight and his unusual appearance made him look older, of course, and he had already shown on stage that he could play virtually any age. But it was more than dexterity and versatility that earned him his ticket across the Atlantic, that was obvious. This was never going to be another George Arliss.
There is an intensity, and an unbridledness, a secretiveness, and yes, an almost voluptuous quality to him at this time, that is as unmistakable as it is hard to pin down, but which gives his performances a real edge of mystery and danger; a glint in his eye that, as he famously said, "they can't censor" (nor quite define).
It was clear from the start that Paramount had him in mind for a very particular kind of pre-Code villainy; morbid eroticists, seducers, decadents, neurotic egotists in thrall to their corrupted passions and pagan appetites, thwarted little men finding stature in madness and monstrousness, wielding the power they have forged for themselves in the distorting flames of defeat.
No other actor quite so thoroughly cornered the market in questioning whether flesh and soul are ever perfectly matched: his triumphant Quasimodo in 1939 was merely symbolic confirmation of what Paramount had spotted from the first: that it was in this misshapen Englishman, not in Paul Muni and certainly not anywhere in Universal's horror factory, that the true screen heir to Lon Chaney had been found.
And his Quasimodo survives the fade-out, what's more, because in Laughton there is not merely the capacity for tragedy and the monstrous, but for redemption also. He is not a monster so much as the potential for monstrosity: his performances plead for greater understanding even as they articulate the consequences of those pleas going unheard.
One of his most significant early stage roles had been in A Man With Red Hair, adapted from Hugh Walpole's novel by Benn W. Levy in 1927. In it Laughton plays the eponymous Mr Crispin, ugly and insignificant and heir to a massive legacy of psychological corruption, or "a very gargoyle of obscene desires" as the Observer put it, taking insane revenge on the world that shunned him. In the climax he addresses his bound and gagged victims:
You who have laughed at me, mocked me, insulted me - you and all the world: now you are mine to do with as I will. An old, fat ugly man, and two fine young ones. I prick you and you shall bleed. I spit on you and you shall bow your heads. I can say 'Crawl' and you will crawl, 'Dance' and you will dance.
That Laughton drew on his own experience in playing such roles goes without saying. Whether as a child he had truly been deemed so ugly by his peers that they jeered and threw stones at him, as he once claimed, is anyone's guess, but there is no reason to think he would have found life easier than any other overweight homosexual aesthete growing up in England in the early twentieth century. It's certainly no surprise that he was unhappy at school, since, as Barry Norman observed, "in the entire history of the world no fat boy has ever been happy at an English public school, and a fat boy who was hopeless at games and interested in art, literature and wild flowers was clearly doomed to years of utter misery."
Then came the war, of which he clearly saw a great deal, though he rarely discussed it, preferring to keep it locked away with everything else. (In her autobiography, Elsa Lanchester recalls how in the Second World War, during which Laughton elected to stay in America and was rather absurdly criticised in the British press as a slacker, he would say privately "I was in the First World War, in the trenches, bayonetting men and getting gassed. I think once in a life is enough.")
Clearly, compared to the average young actor, here was an enormous depth of experience to pile alongside his precocious gifts. Already he had known much and seen much, and thought deeply.
"I was different from them all," Crispin explains in Man With Red Hair, "I was different from my father, different from all the world, and I was glad that I was different. I hugged my difference. Different... Different... Different."
This, with variations, is the Laughton Hollywood wanted and got: here is Nero, here are his tyrants from Island of Lost Souls and White Woman, outcasts from their own society reduced to building their own remote kingdoms in compensation, here even is his blank-faced drudge from If I Had a Million, blowing the most timid yet triumphant of raspberries at his boss when he learns he has inherited a million dollars from a stranger.
That this was how Paramount perceived Laughton is obvious from the first, in the vehicle they tailored especially to serve as his introduction to the American public: Devil and the Deep (1932), written by Benn W. Levy, author of Man With Red Hair.
. To introduce what the opening credits bill as 'the eminent English character actor', Levy wrote his man another monster, and one who again hides behind a veneer of respectability. In private Submarine Commander Charles Sturm's displays of savage, near-murderous sexual jealousy drive his wife (Tallulah Bankhead at her most languid) to the brink of despair, but to his friends and colleagues he maintains an air of affable respectability quite sufficient to fool them into thinking him the wronged party.
First, handsome Lieutenant Cary Grant shows interest and he wrecks his chances of promotion by having him transferred for inefficiency. But when she falls for his replacement (Gary Cooper) he arranges a more ostentatious revenge: to sabotage his own submarine, killing Cooper, Tallulah and everyone on board.
Coop saves the day, and the crew, but Sturm, now axe-wieldingly insane, locks himself in his cabin, where his manic, high-pitched laughter is silenced only as the rising waters fill his mouth.
Laughton's debut was hugely acclaimed, with raves like the following from Photoplay the norm rather than the exception:

This Charles Laughton – what an actor! He will give you a new thrill as you watch him almost steal the picture from Tallulah Bankhead and Gary Cooper. You’ll forgive him for doing it, too, because his portrayal of a jealous, crazed submarine commander who carries his wife and her lover to the bottom of the sea for revenge, is magnificent.
The odd film out in this batch is his second, The Old Dark House (1932), again written by Levy but with an infinitely lighter touch. Actually it was Laughton's first American film, made on loan to Universal when Devil and the Deep was briefly delayed, but only on condition that it be released second. Made for James Whale (who knew Laughton fairly well from England) it fails to conform to the model of Laughton that Paramount had constructed for America; it's a one-off, though another delightful and equally illuminating tour-de-force.
His late entrance is the film's happiest innovation; he looks younger than he ever did at Paramount - about his real age for once - in an expansive but realistic portrayal as a Yorkshire mill-owner seemingly so brash he doesn’t notice anything sinister about the house or any of its occupants, but in reality so insecure he has to pay Lilian Bond to be his travelling companion. (“He doesn’t expect anything – do you know what I mean by anything?” she makes clear towards the end of the film.)
In a brilliantly written and delivered monologue, he defends a perceived slight against his wealth with the story of how his young wife had died, he implies, of depression, after a cotton dress she had worn led to her being snubbed at a society party:
Well, Lucy worries about it. Gets it into her head that she’s going to hold me back… Well you may not believe it, but I know that’s what killed her. That’s what started me making money. I swore I’d smash those fellows and their wives who wouldn’t give my Lucy a kind word. Ha! And I ‘ave smashed ‘em… At least, most of them.
Once you’ve started making money it’s hard to stop. Especially if you’re like me. There isn’t much else you’re good at.

It’s a moment on a par with Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis speech in Jaws: the movie stops for a moment, you admire it separately, then resume. However optimistic he was feeling about his new Hollywood career, Laughton must have seen the sort of things Paramount were lining up for him and felt the direction in which the wind was blowing; he would have known that characters this good-hearted would rarely be his to claim. And so he leaps into the chance to show us that he can be lovable too.
His rapid and completely convincing transition from anger to mockery to warm acceptance on learning that his protégée is ready to swap him for dishy war veteran Melvyn Douglas is a comparably fine moment. "I may not be this and I may not be that," he says at one point, "but you don't catch me pretending to be what I'm not."
Paramount loaned him again, to MGM for Payment Deferred (1932) in a role he had played on stage in London and New York, then cast him in that memorable cameo in If I Had a Million (1932) for Lubitsch, all of which was mere prelude to the most iconic role of this first Hollywood batch: Nero in De Mille's Sign of the Cross (1932).
That Laughton is the most glisteningly perverse constituent of the thing is no small achievement in a film awash in perversity and decadence, especially given his surprisingly limited screen time. If pornography is as much a matter of attitude as degree then surely this is pornography: it is a work of stunning tastelessness filmed with exquisite beauty, descending in its final quarter into voyeuristic sadism that is somehow of a piece with the lurid erotics that precede it.
And these two strands of the film are made flesh in the pudgy body of Laughton's Nero, plucking his lyre as Rome burns, almost sliding off his throne with post-coital languor ("My head's splitting; the wine last night, the music, the delicious debauchery!"), and submitting to the political manipulations of Claudette Colbert's Poppaea in exchange for her kneading his flesh like dough. (This is of course the film in which Colbert takes her famous bath in asses' milk, looking straight at the camera as she strokes the breasts that the surface of the liquid can only barely conceal, and which at times – if you pause, reverse, zoom, frame advance, pause again and sit back contentedly to admire your achievement only to realise that your girlfriend left the room ten minutes ago – it cannot conceal at all.)
The pressbook makes the film's focus more than clear: "Beautiful slave girls... courtesans... harlots... their only purpose to outdo each other in the orgiastic rites loved by a lustful Caesar. A flesh-mad emperor... Nero... painting the ancient city red with the warm blood of his victims... just for a sadistic thrill. Naked women... their helpless beauty pitted against the ferocity of frenzied animals... while Nero licks his lustful lips."
But the full extent of the film's explicitness was forgotten for decades. For years it was available only in a shortened version prepared for reissue in the early forties, with a silly new prologue and epilogue added set in a warplane flying over Rome, and much of the detail removed to conform with the Hays Code.
A far cry from its first run, when Hays himself demanded of De Mille what he was going to do about the film's lesbian dance and seduction scene, and the director replied: "Will, listen carefully because you might want to quote me. Not a damn thing." (His later, more considered explanation - "How are you going to resist temptation if there isn't any?" - is the key that unlocks virtually his entire oeuvre.)
The original, unedited version survived only as single print in his personal vault until its recent restoration. What it revealed is a film like little else prior to Pasolini's Salo in its combination of horror, degeneracy and an all-pervading sense of doom. There is a genuinely apocalyptic feel to the thing. A naked girl is tethered horizontally two feet from the ground as hungry crocodiles scuttle towards her, another is tied to a pole as a gorilla advances, her fate presumably an altogether different one, a battle is staged between gladiators and dwarves, an elephant crushes a man's head beneath its foot, and through it all De Mille cuts to Laughton and the other spectators salivating and laying wagers on the outcome.

From this to the unvarnished charnelry of Island of Lost Souls (1932) is but the daintiest step, yet after Nero it seems almost too easy to have cast Laughton in straight horror, and in so plainly malicious a guise.
Not that his mad jungle experimenter Dr Moreau considers himself wicked, neither are his motives merely the standard mad scientist fallback of all-for-the-good-of-science. Here, too, we sense the voluptuary behind the vivisectionist, the man half obsessed and half aroused by the taboos he is violating. Confronted by the hero in his lab like a hundred other mad doctors, his response is to lounge before his personable young accuser in a pose of mock-seduction on his operating table. ("You're an amazingly unscientific young man!" he says mildly.)
It's the casualness that's different, that is pure Laughton. Even when doing the standard Lugosi tour of the madhouse he inserts a characteristic note of bathos by way of punchline:
Those are some of my less successful experiments. They supply the power to create others, more successful. But with each experiment I improve upon the last. I get nearer and nearer. Mr Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God? I'm talking too much aren't I.
George Zucco's mad scientists would never have spotted or acknowledged that.
They call Laughton a ham; they say he 'over-acts'. Even if I knew quite what that meant, and I confess I don't really, still I say: show me another actor who surprises quite like Laughton, either by going much further than you expect him to, or by going elsewhere. If this is overacting, so be it.

That Island of Lost Souls is able to leave so potent an aftertaste is quite something after the porno-horrors of Sign of the Cross yet it surely does: along with Murders in the Rue Morgue it is pre-Code horror's most unabashed parading of sadism as entertainment. And Murders, at least, had gorillas and frock coats and Bela Lugosi going at it nineteen to the dozen. Here, in modern dress and with little conventional spooky atmosphere, no effort is made to distance the viewer from its atrocities; "it had all of the ingredients but little of the mood required," as William K. Everson put it.
It wallops you with torture, cannibalism and inter-species miscegenation; H. G. Wells, on whose novel it was based, protested loudly and the British censor banned the thing outright.
Yet Laughton would have been wasted were it otherwise. We do have him in outright gothic horror, with Karloff for company, in a 1951 piece called The Strange Door. It's not one of his more interesting performances because there's not much the script allows him to do with it: he can play straightforward horror-villains as well as anyone, better no doubt, but they don't give him the opportunity to do what he does best, which is to offer that curiously modern mixture of fear and revulsion that the more banal kind of monster does.
The gothic costumes and sets allow the audience room to breathe, but Moreau lets Laughton do what he does best: to go beyond the point with which the viewer is comfortable.
The climax, as his high-pitched screams inform us that his hybrid slaves, having rebelled against his rule and carried him into his own 'House of Pain', have now begun vivisecting him to death, is virtually without parallel in thirties horror, as, of course, is the miscegenation subplot. (Though both occur more elliptically in Murders in the Rue Morgue the same year.) Nervous memos from the Studio Relations Committee to Paramount chief B.P. Schulberg advising that that the film be abandoned ("for I am sure you would never be allowed to suggest that sort of thing on screen") were blithely ignored, but the film was turned down flat when the studio applied to the Hays Office to reissue it in 1935.
. White Woman (1933) is the last and in some ways the most interesting product of this initial campaign, though frequently ignored, partly because it was preceded by a return to the London stage and the triumph of Henry VIII, partly because it is usually written off as an ignoble potboiler unworthy of its star, who responds in kind by giving one of his most over the top and unconsidered performances.
The film is an insane mix of Rain, Red Dust and Lost Souls; at once compendium and culmination of his early American work. His character - Horace Prin, king of the river - is an egomaniac sexual sadist with a Zapata moustache and a natty straw boater, whose sense of invincibility is dependent on having complete control of all who come under his purview. Like Dr Moreau he is lawless lord of all he surveys, a tyrant and oppressor (his slaves not animal hybrids but what he calls 'ostile 'eathens; his staff are criminals on the run over whom he can exercise power like his assistant in Lost Souls). There is Nero here too, obviously, not least in the sexual appetites the pre-Code scenario writer need not obscure, yoked to the pathological sexual jealousy of Devil & the Deep's Commander Sturm. We even get a glimpse of a real man behind the performance - which is Prin's performance, not Laughton's - in a moment as unexpected as his speech in The Old Dark House:

You 'avent spent any part of your childhood in the slums have you, your ladyship? Well I have. If it don't take the 'eart out of you I don't know what it does. It makes a blooming king out of you.

Hard to imagine how the character was written, before Laughton got his hands on him, but he opts to play him as music hall cockney, and to deliver every single line of dialogue sarcastically, as here, when a member of his blackmailed staff announces his intention of returning to civilisation, to which Prin has seemingly acquiesced:
Well, pleasant journey to you, Hambly. My compliments to your family. You remember Anderson now, don't you? He 'ad to go 'ome, sudden like, just like yourself. Poor chap; he 'ad a bit of business with the crocodiles on the way down. We all missed 'im, didn't we, fellas? You might look in on 'is family, tell 'em how we missed 'im. When you gets 'ome.
There is all you need here already for grim melodrama, especially at a studio with no qualms about supplying the kind of horror imagery American cinema would henceforth be denied for thirty-five years, as when we see in explicit detail a severed head being thrown through a window and rolling across the floor. But we haven't reckoned on the explosive final ingredient: the white woman herself.
She's Carole Lombard, and white she most assuredly is, like a marble ghost. Dressed alternately in white and black sheath dresses she looks almost unhealthily pale (and preposterously so, given the tropic location); the skin is porcelain, the hair is platinum melted to the contours of her head. Only the dark slash make-up of lips and eyes bring definition to the glowing haze.
Prin's attitude towards her is difficult to work out: dazzled on first appearance and tempted by the prospect of another over whom he can exercise control (her husband committed suicide after discovering her sexual infidelity; she's now a café singer facing extradition) he offers her marriage in exchange for no more harassment from the authorities. She accepts, but by the time we next see them arriving at his river home a wall of disgust has already risen between them.
That Prin wants her principally as a trophy is obvious ("'Ere, you greasy beggars, you 'ave the 'onour of beholding Mrs Prin," he says to his assembled staff; "She's lovely isn't she?") though we are left in no doubt of her responsibilities when he proceeds to order her into the bedroom.
Yet his ardour seems to cool almost immediately; though he threatens murder to the men who instantly flock to her, he does so lazily, as if going through the motions merely, and he makes little effort to deny her the opportunity for romantic encounters. (Charles Bickford's bluff overseer is a particular delight: "You can do a lot worse in this hole than give me a tumble," he tells Lombard; "I've watched those big eyes of yours - and other things!")
Prin's end comes through hubris and that speciality of the actor: the slow, painful, visible slide from extreme mental instability to unequivocal madness. So often his characters are not mad but skirtng the condition's edge, only to fall at the last. Think of Sturm in his submarine or, later, Sir Humphrey Pengallon in Jamaica Inn, leaping to his death from a ship's crow's-nest before first informing the crowd below to tell their children they were present when the great age ended.
Here, trapped in his fortress home with only Bickford for company and death inevitable, the pair opt to play cards, but when Bickford is killed in his chair by a poison dart Prin sees this as just one more betrayal ("You ungrateful 'ound!"), and ends up screaming in his face:
Soft! That's what you was! All of you! Mush! Eh! Can you 'ear me from where you is now, Ballister? If the flames ain't roaring too high maybe you can 'ears me. Eh? I'm Prin, king of the river! I always was king and I'm stayin' king, and you can laugh that off! I'm Prin! King of the river! King of the river and king of everything in it, under it and alongside of it. King! KING!
Whereupon he calmly steps outside to take a fatal spear in the gut. White Woman may not have the sobriety of high art, and Laughton may have taken its lead role on in the spirit of a lark, but it is much more than a mere programmer: it's one of the strangest damned things you ever saw, actually. And Laughton's performance is amazing.
Think where he is at this point: he's been to Hollywood, conquered it, stolen all the notices from under the noses of his co-stars, from De Mille even, went back to England, re-asserted himself on stage and is now poised to wow two continents simultaneously as Henry VIII... confident, I would say is the word. This is an incredibly confident performance.
He's having fun but he's not sending it up; he's turning it into something as unique as he is. Laughton biographer Simon Callow (who, like the few others to have even noticed the film, has little praise for it), at least points out that there is nothing whatever suggestive of Laughton's performance in Prin as scripted: he's a "conventionally cruel river trader". What you see on the screen is all Laughton.
A year later, when Sidney Franklin, director of The Barretts of Wimpole Street, nervously asked his star how he saw his role, Laughton replied impatiently "as a monkey on a stick". In other words: I know exactly what I'm doing, sit down and you shall see me do it.
His apprenticeship served, now he was off and running, and that career, alternately triumphant and frustrating (for too often frustrated), could begin in earnest.
In the films that followed, I've never seen Laughton give a bad performance. I've seen White Woman and Captain Kidd and Jamaica Inn and Salome and Abbott & Costello Meet Captain Kidd, but I've never seen Laughton give a bad performance.
Billy Wilder, who oversaw one of his greatest ones in Witness For The Prosecution, was in no doubt either: "My God, who was there better than Laughton? Nobody. There has never been anybody that even came close."

Monday, April 20, 2009

My Grandfather's Autograph Book

Following on from my previous post, Kate at Silents and Talkies suggested that I publish some of the autographs that my grandfather acquired while working at London Films.
So here they are...

For some reason, the only autograph he seems to have obtained from the set of Things To Come (1936) was this one. The actor is Edward Chapman, better known as Mr Grimsdale in the Norman Wisdom films.
Not many people remember Annabella these days. She was a French actress who made her debut in Gance's Napoléon and went on to appear in Le Million and many other French films (including one enticingly named Trois jeunes filles nues/Three Naked Flappers in 1929) before being courted by Hollywood and Britain in the late thirties. The English-language films she made over the next ten years were mainly undistinguished, however, and she was more famous for marrying Tyrone Power than for any of her movies. The autograph probably dates from the production of Dinner at the Ritz (1937), a New World Pictures production filmed at Denham.
A neat and very attractive signature from one of my favourite actresses, the neat and very attractive Elsa Lanchester. This was while making Rembrandt (1936), directed by Korda himself.
And a grand and eccentric one from Rembrandt's star, Elsa's husband and my favourite actor, the grand and eccentric Mr Charles Laughton.
If you've never seen Men Are Not Gods (1937) I recommend it wholeheartedly: a charming and unusual British comedy drama with lovely period atmsophere, and Miriam Hopkins giving a delightfully relaxed and buoyant performance alongside a very young but already balding Rex Harrison. My grandfather astutely avoided Rex and went straight for Miriam.
My grandmother's favourite: Robert Taylor, on the set of A Yank at Oxford (1938), an MGM film shot at Denham. I would have been happier with Maureen O'Sullivan's autograph myself. Or Vivien Leigh's, Lionel Barrymore's or the great Tully Marshall's, all of whom appeared in the film. Still, that's women for you.

Despite being a chronic asthmatic, Robert Donat managed to write his full name and the date on the set of Knight Without Armour (1937)...

... unlike his more enigmatic co-star!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

When my grandfather met Miriam Hopkins

In his army pay book, when he was ‘released to the reserve’ after the end of the Second World War, my grandfather’s trade is listed as ‘carpenter and joiner’.
It was one that led to various forms of employment through his life. He built coffins for an undertaker’s, worked in a London hotel, ran his own hardware shop, and for a few years in the nineteen-thirties, he worked on the sets of the most important films being made in Britain.
Fernley Arthur William Brock, Arthur to those who knew him, was in his late teens when he applied for work at Alexander Korda’s London Film Studios, by far the most prestigious filmmaking company in Britain, at a time when it was brimming with confidence. It had been a Korda film of 1933, The Private Life of Henry VIII, that had suddenly made Hollywood sit up and take notice of British movies, rewarding it with unprecedented box-office and Oscar success. With the world profits of the film, the ambitious and imaginative Korda constructed Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire, establishing himself as Britain’s only true Hollywood-style movie mogul.
The studios were finished in 1936, and it was the first general call for skilled craftsman that my grandfather successfully answered.
John Aldred, a young man who worked in Denham’s sound department, recalled that as he arrived for work every morning he would pass a long line of carpenters, plasterers, electricians and labourers hoping for casual daily work. Those like my grandfather who had received permanent contracts were therefore fortunate indeed.
These were the golden years for London Films, and Arthur worked on many of the company’s most prestigious productions.
The Denham studios were by far the largest in Britain, with seven separate stages totalling 110,500 square feet. There were fully equipped electricians’ galleries to facilitate state of the art lighting effects and any conceivable camera angle, the most up to date sound equipment, a private water supply and the largest private electric power plant in the country. My grandfather was one of a permanent staff of two thousand technicians and craftsmen.
At the time, he was engaged to my future grandmother and would regularly drive to and from Plymouth where she lived in his Austin Seven. Before motorways this was no small trip; it took about eight hours. On his visits he would tell of the experience of driving through London’s famous pea-soup fogs; so thick that you could only crawl, as the car in front would be literally impossible to make out.
But of far greater interest to my grandmother was the autograph book he kept for her, where, sitting nonchalantly alongside friends and members of the family, were the signatures of many of the biggest names in films at that time.
How many other prospective suitors could bring her Robert Taylor’s autograph?
Looking at it now, the autograph book is especially useful; because it shows us exactly which films my grandfather worked on. The signatures of Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton (the latter helpfully dated 22/8/36) mean that he worked on Rembrandt, the film Korda hoped would equal the success of Henry VIII. Robert Donat and Marlene Dietrich (who signs herself simply ‘Dietrich’) place him on the set of Knight Without Armour (1937).
Men Are Not Gods (1936), a wonderful if largely forgotten comedy drama, must have been his opportunity to approach firebrand Miriam Hopkins.
For some reason the thought of my granddad going up to Miriam Hopkins (more even than Dietrich) and asking for her autograph amuses me no end. If ever two people lived in totally separate universes it is they. Imagine your grandfather blithely plucking up a conversation with Miriam Hopkins, and you may get a sense of some - though I fancy not all - of the comic incongruity of mine doing so.
The art department for which Arthur worked was internationally recognised for its excellence. It was under the control of Korda’s brother Vincent, whose “period as a painter in France,” writer John Halas has noted, “made an imprint on both his personal set designs and those produced under his charge in the studio, while his strongly persuasive character and impatience dominated the work of those around him, from his fellow designers to carpenters and decorators who carried out the finished sets.” A demanding and irascible employer, it was said that in those pre-unionised days he sometimes worked his crews through the night to ensure the work was completed on time, though my grandfather never complained of this himself. The results, however, spoke for themselves: “Even when the film itself failed to gain acceptance, the set design received acclaim.”
One of the most ambitious films to which Arthur contributed was Things To Come (1936), Korda’s adaptation of HG Wells’s futuristic novel. This elaborate production gave him a chance to work not just on sets but also special effects. The film was pioneering in its use of models and false perspective to give the illusion of great size and distance.
He recalled to me the experience of sitting in the audience at the film’s premiere, and noting the excited gasps of the crowd as the film unspooled – an excitement entirely lost on him, because he knew exactly how the sights they found so amazing were achieved.
In particular, a shot of planes flying in perfect formation he knew all too well to be miniatures, the exact formation simply attained by having them all linked together on a metal frame. He told me to look closely if I ever saw this scene, because he swore that, once you knew the trick, the wires were plainly visible. Perhaps on a big screen and luminously clear nitrate film stock they were: but I’ve never spotted them on television.
He also gave me some fascinating behind the scenes photographs of the films being made, appearing here for the first time.
One shows him with the submarine set he helped construct for the film Dark Journey (1937). Clearly visible on its side is a gash from a scene in which the submarine was supposedly breached and flooded, a sequence he watched being filmed.
The effect was simply achieved. A small section of the submarine’s interior wall was cut away and covered with stiff paper. This was then linked to a large tank connected to the studio’s private water supply. On the director’s signal, the water was released and came crashing through the paper, while the actors on the receiving end of this deluge were tossed about like ninepins.
Dark Journey: the submarine completed...

... and still under construction: note the hole in the side to allow for the flooding effect. Arthur is stood in the centre of the back row.
The most interesting of all the pictures are the ones showing the galleon constructed for the Elizabethan seafaring adventure Fire Over England (1937). They reveal that not only did the vessel never go to sea; it was in fact only ever built as a cross-section.
Only one side was ever seen by the cameras, and was beautifully designed and painted - the other was a hollow wall of twentieth century scaffolding. Needless to say, the vessel was entirely stationary, and all the stirring maritime action achieved through studio trickery.
Fire Over England: set construction

The side of the galleon audiences saw...

... and the side they never saw!
I don’t know if it was Arthur’s intention to continue working at Denham, or if he imagined his long-term future as being part of the film industry. In the event, Hitler made the decision for him. He signed up immediately war was declared, eventually joined the 6th Airborne Division and on 6th June, 1944, he landed in Normandy in the first wave of D-Day landings.
But that’s another story…

This poster makes me laugh

Further to my comments here about the pomposity of modern popcorn cinema, here's a poster that never fails to give me a chuckle as I pass it on the way to my local train station.

It's the perfect illustration of the law that the self-regard of any film increases in direct inverse proportion to its ability to justify it. In other words: those with the silliest voices shout the loudest. (This is know as Herzlinger's Law, named after Ivan Herzlinger, whose seminal study Techniques By Which Modern Hollywood Dicks About is available in ten volumes from the University of Frankfurt Press; come after 10.30 and ask for Steve.)
With Herzlinger's law fresh in your minds, look again at this poster.
Look at the two men. Look at Leo, kitted out for action with sunglasses, a light dusting of what in his more fanciful moments he takes for facial hair, and a blurred left hand - he's so fast no camera can do him justice! Look at him pointing his toy gun. If he was holding a feather duster he wouldn't look sillier. In fact he might look less silly.
And does anyone seriously think that either of this pair has earned the right to use their surname only? That anyone - even the guy's biggest fan - has ever once in their lives referred to Russell Crowe as 'Crowe' in any context other than that of a paragraph in which his full name has been mentioned once already? When did you hear someone excitedly announce that there was a new Crowe movie coming out? Send Junior to your parents, honey, Crowe's got a new one playing downtown.
Gable, yes. Karloff, yes. Dietrich, yes. Bogart, yes. Ruggles, yes. Even Brando, yes. But Crowe?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

From Beyond the Belgrave

H V Morton's book In Search of England (1927) contains the following instruction:
Every boy in England should be taken at least once to Plymouth. He should, if small, be torn away from his mother and sent out for a night with the fishing fleet; he should go out in the tenders to meet the Atlantic liners; he should be shown battleships building at Devonport; he should be taken to the Barbican, and told the story of the Mayflower and the birth of New England, and most important of all, his imagination should be kindled by tales of Hawkins and Drake on high, green Plymouth Hoe, the finest promenade in Europe.
And if he's still got an hour or two to kill after that, you can always take him to the pictures.
In its heyday, the city of Plymouth boasted dozens of cinemas. Hitler took out a few, television picked up where he left off, and by the time I was born in 1973 there were only three.
All film fans have what are often referred to as 'guilty pleasures': films of which they are inordinately fond despite being fully aware that they could never in a million years construct a rational artistic defence for them. The reason usually boils down to a nostalgic attachment to the circumstances in which they were first encountered, and it is certainly the case that the majority of my guilty pleasures date from the early to mid-nineteen-eighties, the period when I first began going to the cinema, sometimes unaccompanied, as a habit rather than a treat.
Films like The Monster Club with Vincent Price disco dancing, Jaws 3-D and, God help me, Clockwise with John Cleese are treats which I still have to ration lest their magic wears off. It hasn't yet; any one of the above gives me as much pleasure - no, who am I trying to fool? - much more pleasure than The Maltese Falcon or Psycho or whatever my 'official' favourite film might have been at the time.
I can no longer remember the first film I ever saw, I suspect it was a Disney cartoon; I remember seeing Dumbo at a very young age, and being fascinated by the inside of the whale in Pinocchio.
I certainly saw Star Wars on its first run (but not Superman, which I have still never seen.) The first time I remember being somewhat disappointed by a film was by the The Spaceman and King Arthur; until then the novelty of cinema was enough to make a treat of anything.
Ironically, by the time I became a regular movie-goer, the city’s grandest cinema by no small margin was the Drake (later the Drake-Odeon, then just the Odeon): ironic because it was also the newest. (It opened in 1958; the first attraction was South Pacific.)
Named, of course, after the city’s most famous son, it boasted a splendid replica of his ship the Golden Hind above the entrance. (It’s still there, in fact, looking lost and lonely in a new plastic and metal landscape.)
Of all Plymouth movie houses still standing in my youth, only the Drake hinted at something of that atmosphere one associates with cinemagoing in the golden age.
According to Gordon Chapman’s superb book Devon at the Cinema it was the only cinema in Britain built by 20th Century Fox, though quickly sold to the Rank Organisation. Fortuitously so, since as well as a splendidly spacious entrance hall, high ceiling and mezzanine, it boasted wonderful Rank wallpaper, covered with pictures of Kenneth Williams and Bruce Lee. (Or was it? See photos below.)
Built with only one massive screen it had split into three by the time I first visited, and again into five by the time it closed its doors in 1999. It was the Drake that got the James Bond films, and where I was taken to see Moonraker on two consecutive nights because I fell asleep the first time.
Reproduced on the left is the somewhat uninspiring line-up of the Drake's final week: it's now a casino or something.
Most of the following pictures of the Drake are from this website, which poignantly documents its rise and fall.
Above: Ron Wilson, who worked at the Drake from its opening in 1958, holds up a surviving fragment of the original Twentieth Century Fox carpet the week the cinema closed in 1999.
Below: The collagey wallpaper! According to the website on which I found these pictures, this too was a homemade affair using cut out pictures like the ABC's (see below). But while the ABC's was pasted image by image on to the wall, this must have at least been professionally printed onto wallpaper, as the panels were duplicated. How well I remember Roger Moore as Bond, Bruce Lee and Barbara Windsor. Others too are familiar, though at the time I had no idea what they were, such as Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Sleeper and Michael Craig buried alive in Vault of Horror! But where is a flaring-nostrilled Kenneth Williams? He was definitely there.
Just up the road, the smaller three-screen ABC (later the Cannon and the MGM, now the Reel) still stands.
This is where I was deemed too young for Jaws, saw ET three times, Morons From Outer Space once and, in later years, sat almost alone through afternoon screenings of Bitter Moon, Blame It On The Bellboy and Parting Shots.
The only time I can remember starting a film halfway through and sticking around for the next showing (until ‘where we came in’) was here in 1985; the film was King Solomon’s Mines with (if memory serves) a moment in which a tribe of cannibals put Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone into a big pot with vegetables floating in it.
The ABC was a cosier affair than the Drake, and (as mentioned above) ingeniously made its own wallpaper out of old posters, including one for Kenny Everett’s Bloodbath at the House of Death. Going up the stairs were framed posters for Lugosi's Dracula, the Karloff-Lugosi Black Cat and Chaplin in, I think, The Adventurer.
Built in 1938, and still with many of its original art deco fittings, it survived the blitz and is still valiantly standing fast against the multiplexes, though hellish plans persist to turn it into just another plastic fast film outlet.
The ABC, or ABC-Plaza as it was then known, showing The Demon Doctor. This was the British title of Jesus Franco's Gritos en la noche (1962, aka The Awful Dr. Orloff ). The star was Howard Vernon, though it looks to me as though the ABC's poster, apparently home-made, has re-christened him 'Verson'. The thought of a Jesus Franco movie playing in Plymouth, let alone the same cinema where I went to see ET, seems incredible to me. .
Plymouth's third cinema was the Belgrave. It seems obvious to me today that this was the most cherishable of them all, though my only clear memory of visiting it was to see Abba the Movie.
It was the oldest (built in 1912), the most ramshackle, eccentric and charming. (Here it was that my father laughed so unrestrainedly at Peter Sellers in The Smallest Show on Earth that he kicked a woman in the head.)
To my parents’ generation the ‘Grave was the number one choice for fifties sci-fi and horror, rock and roll films, double-bills and second runs. By the seventies it had been forced into less innocent forms of exploitation; I have a vivid recollection of staring at the little reproductions of garish film posters that accompanied the listings in the local paper, transfixed by the mysterious promise of The Hills Have Eyes and, especially, by what seemed the most enticing double-bill ever: Zombie Flesh Eaters and The Toolbox Murders.
The ‘Grave closed its doors in 1983 before turning itself into a snooker hall. This it remains, the rather splendid old building still standing as it was. For a while I lived in a flat in the same street, but I never dared to look inside and see how much of the interior had been destroyed.
A little later I discovered that the Plymouth Arts Centre had a cinema. This was strictly no-frills but its programmes completed my cinema education: here I saw Battleship Potemkin, Birth of a Nation, Grande Illusion, Nights of Cabiria, The Chelsea Girls and Blue Velvet for the first time.
Designed merely to supplement the output of the main cinemas with more offbeat fare, today it is one of only two cinemas in the entire city (or three if you count the multiplex, but I'm assuming you don't).
Nothing has ever come close to the sense of intoxication engendered by childhood visits to the Drake and the ABC, though I have of course had memorable times in other cinemas since. In London, I lived for a while just around the corner from the ABC, Catford, built in 1913 as the Central Hall Picture House, and another lovely old three-screener which maintained a suicidal programme of films other more impressive cinemas in the area couldn’t be bothered to show.
It was also steeped in that quintessential cinema smell - dust and popcorn and old upholstery - to a degree I have never encountered before or since. Almost overwhelming in its intensity, it hit you like a wet duvet when you entered, and clung to your clothes for hours after. Weeds grew out of its façade.
Here I enjoyed Dracula Dead and Loving It in the company of one old man on a Friday afternoon and Miss Congeniality with rain pouring through the ceiling and spattering on a nearby seat. It closed soon after.
. What shall we see tonight in Catford? Breakfast at Tiffany's?... or Emmanuelle IV in 3-D?The interior was nothing like this when I lived there! The coming attraction on the wall is Gorgo. I'm not sure who the chap in the framed picture is.
The story of British cinemas in the post-war years is, alas, one of constant decline. Death came with many smiling faces, first television, then video, then the multiplex, with several other factors chipping away at the gaps in between.
Doubtless a generation older than mine quite rightly recalls video as an evil fully comparable to those damned multiplexes. It seems obvious now that video was the decisive blow that did for the Belgrave, just as the multiplex unquestionably finished off the Drake.
I am just old enough to have had a silent Super-8 projector at a time when they were not a collector's retro novelty but the only way of watching a film of your choice at a time of your choice at home. I had one-reel versions of House of Frankenstein and Easy Street (and a Laurel and Hardy film in fact called Their Purple Moment but to me forever to be known as Passing the Buck, the title it had been given for home consumption).
I still have them and many more, and now am a devoted aficionado of the unique experience they provide, of the whirring of the projector, of that hot smell made by the film rushing past the bulb. But at the time home movies were dying just like the Belgrave and thanks to the same culprit.
Still, I was too young to resent video. It was the most wonderful thing I had ever encountered: a big silver box in the living room built like a tank with a remote control connected to it by a long lead that actually allowed you to make recordings of Jaws and the Kenny Everett show.
The first film we ever recorded was Love at First Bite, which I certainly feel is excellent for what it is, but again - not quite worthy of the warm place it occupies still in my family's memories of the time. My sister and I watched it so often that we could recite the entire script from beginning to end, and I'll wager we could still make a pretty good stab at it.
I can even remember word for word the way it was introduced by Roger Shaw, the continuity announcer. (This was in the days when ITV, in our region at least, employed announcers we could see as well as hear; they sat in a kind of minimalist mock-up living room, and we were encouraged to get to know them by name and think of them as part of the entertainment. Which they certainly were, especially a chap, now alas deceased, called Ian Stirling.)
This was before the sell-through revolution (when the Video Collection started putting out tapes of the Marx Brothers in Love Happy for £6.99 in Woolworth’s). You could buy some films at about £20 a pop, but who needed to, when just about every newsagents and corner shop had a rack of enticing plastic boxes for rent? And every neighbourhood had its own specialist video rental shop – our favourite was Video Express (in Laira, Plymouth fans) – where whole rooms would be lined with the likes of Who Dares Wins and The Amityville Horror and Zulu Dawn, all smelling beautifully of dust, sunlight and fag smoke.
Video Express had two rooms: a cavernous, overflowing one for VHS, and a sparse little drab one for we Betamax lepers. Here I was reacquainted with those iconic images of the hand rising from the grave from Zombie Flesh Eaters and that scary bald chap from The Hills Have Eyes, along with perhaps the most famous video cover of all, for a film I had never heard of (and in fact have still never seen): Driller Killer.
These films, Driller Killer especially, would soon achieve a degree of celebrity far beyond their worth when they were re-christened ‘video nasties’. For most of my generation, recollection of the titles alone is enough to be instantly transported back to those glorious early days of video tape. But for me, they take me further: to 1979 and those little posters in the newspaper. Video nasties they may have become, but they will always be first and foremost Belgrave movies.