BRITFILM – “49th Parallel”



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49th Parallel is one of the first great World War II movies.  It’s also probably the only one in which the Nazis are, if not the heroes, certainly the protagonists.

American film studios from 1939-41 were wary of making films about the war that was raging in Europe.  The European market was still an extremely lucrative one and, apart from Warner Brothers, most of the studios preferred their product not to allude to a situation in which the United States wouldn’t get involved until near the end of 1941. The best of the handful of exceptions – Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, a 1940 thriller which ends with the hero broadcasting “Hello, America, hang on to your lights: they’re the only lights left in the world!” while the city of London is being bombed around him; and Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1941), which featured the great comedian playing two roles: Hitler and a Jewish barber who looks just like him – were both directed by Englishmen.

In 1940, the British Ministry of Information approached director Michael Powell with the request that he make a propaganda film, primarily for English consumption.  Powell countered with the idea of a propaganda film whose aim was to convince (“scare” was Powell’s word) the United States into entering the war, and he and his frequent collaborator, writer Emeric Pressburger – a Hungarian-born refugee from Germany – devised a plot in which the United States is in imminent danger of being invaded by the Nazis.

A German U-boat off the coast of Canada destroys a Canadian ship and leave the survivors to the mercies of the sea.  A raiding party of six Nazi sailors, led by Lieutenant Hirth (played by Eric Portman), is sent ashore to get supplies just before Canadian bombers destroy the U-boat and everyone aboard it.  The six sailors spend the rest of the film crossing Canada in an attempt to reach the United States, a neutral country.  Along the way, they meet a number of various people (some played by then-famous “guest stars”) and, when not attacking or being attacked by them, engage in debates about the virtues of democracy vs. the tyranny of Nazism.  By the end of the film, there is only one Nazi left, hiding in a train headed toward the United States, and the conclusion involves an exceptionally simple and satisfying plot twist.

One of the most intriguing things about 49th Parallel is the fact that only one of the sailors, Lt. Hirth, is a fanatical Nazi.  The others are basically enlisted men, committed to the cause, but nowhere near as intellectually enslaved by the Hitlerian doctrine.  Each has his own personality – not deeply developed, but enough so that they can be distinguished as individuals.  Most of them aren’t particularly sympathetic – they kill innocent people, after all – but this may be the last time, at least for the war’s duration, that a Nazi character was allowed to be depicted as a human being with human needs and emotions.  Hirth does most of the talking for them when he engages, as he does often throughout the film, in discussions (usually, on his side, harangues) with the people they encounter, some of whom are intellectuals, some not, but all of them comfortably eloquent in their defense of democratic values.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger will, I hope, show up frequently in subsequent installments of this blog.  49th Parallel was the last film they made together under separate billing.  As The Archers, they made an unusually large number of the greatest British films of all time, including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (which I consider the greatest little-known epic film ever made), A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and their most famous film, The Red Shoes.

Much of the film was shot on location in Canada by Frederick Young, later hailed as one of the great cinematographers, especially in the films he shot with director David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter), and it was edited by David Lean, who was already considered one of the great film editors, and who only made one more film in that capacity before becoming, within a few years, one of the great film directors.

Of the “guest stars”, the most famous today is probably Laurence Olivier, and even his reputation has begun to dwindle since his death in 1989.  When 49th Parallel was made, he was one of the biggest film stars in the world; his films in the previous two years had included Wuthering Heights, Rebecca and Pride and Prejudice, and he was married to another of the biggest film stars in the world, Vivien Leigh, forever to be known as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.  Olivier was to remain a major film star until his death, but his real importance in artistic history is probably as a stage actor, director, and the first artistic director of London’s National Theatre.  His performance as a French-Canadian hunter in 49th Parallel is wildly over-the-top, really a caricature, and he delivers all his lines in a bizarre French accent never used by anyone else in recorded history.  The first time I saw the film, I wondered how he got away with it; subsequently, I simply wondered why.

The other superstar in the film is Leslie Howard, who had also co-starred in Gone with the Wind, as well as The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Petrified Forest and Pygmalion.  An English actor who shuttled back and forth between Hollywood and London, Howard was best known during his career as a romantic leading man, often an intellectual and frequently slightly effete.  He fought in World War I and possibly served as a British spy in the early years of World War II, before dying in 1943 at the age of 50 when the airplane he was aboard was shot down by German aircraft over the Bay of Biscay.  His performance in 49th Parallel is the polar opposite of Olivier’s: restrained, amused, he plays a writer living in a tent in the Canadian wilds (furnished with a Matisse and a Picasso) and trying to avoid the outside world until the Nazis confront him with it.

The best performance in the film is probably given by the Austrian actor Anton Walbrook.  As the leader of the Hutterite commune of German refugees into which the Nazis stumble, he delivers a retort to Hirth’s fanatical rant in a powerful, brilliantly delivered speech that may have given director Michael Powell an inspiration when he cast Walbrook a couple of years later in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.

Playing a young German woman whose parents were killed by Nazis, Glynis Johns (the only actor from the film still alive, as of this writing) was eighteen years old but already a fairly well-known actress in England; she would become a star in 1948 in Miranda, playing a mermaid, and again in 1964 as the suffragette mother in Mary Poppins.

The last “guest star” is Raymond Massey, who was a much bigger name in the 1930s and 1940s than he is now; in fact, he was an even bigger star during my childhood, when he co-starred with Richard Chamberlain in the Dr. Kildare television series.  In 49th Parallel he plays a Canadian soldier who’s gone AWOL out of boredom and ends up trapped with the last remaining Nazi in a train heading across the Canadian border at Niagara Falls.  This was apparently the only film in which Massey, born in Toronto, got to play a Canadian.  (The opening of the film, incidentally, is narrated by Massey’s brother Vincent, who was the first governor general of Canada actually to have been born in Canada.)

The film was released in the United States as The Invaders in March, 1942, by which time the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States had entered the war.  Almost 20 minutes were cut out by American censors, sometimes to avoid offending more sensitive American ears (the British were less timid about using such vile obscenities as “damn” or “hell”).  In one scene, Hirth casually refers to “sub-apes like Negroes, only one step above the Jews”; this was cut, not to avoid offending blacks or Jews, but to avoid offending filmgoers in the South, who didn’t like the idea that their own bigotry was shared by Nazis.

One unusual thing about this film is that, whether playing a German or a Canadian or an Englishman, every actor (except Olivier) speaks with his or her own natural accent.  It’s only mildly disconcerting at the first to hear all the Nazis speaking with English accents – the only German accent heard in the film is that of Anton Walbrook, who’s also playing a German, and his accent is probably Austrian anyway – but you get used to it pretty quickly.

This is also, as far as I know, one of the very rare non-musical films to give the composer billing above the title.  That composer was Ralph Vaughan Williams, one of the towering figures of British music throughout the first half of the twentieth century (and one of my all-time favorites), and it was the first of a dozen film scores that he was to compose, the most famous of which being the one he wrote for Scott of the Antarctic in 1948.  His music for 49th Parallel is largely functional, with some interesting use of unusual-sounding instruments, and supports the action without impinging too much on the consciousness.  Except the music underneath the opening and closing credits.  It’s one of his typically long, gorgeously harmonized melodies, broad, yearning, mystical, and possibly the two most beautiful minutes’ worth of music ever written for a film.

One other tidbit of information: When this was first released in the United States, it was assumed (pretty soundly, I would say) that most Americans would have no idea what the 49th parallel is, so the film was renamed The Invaders.   As it happens, the short-lived American title is more accurate than the original, since none of the film actually takes place along the 49th parallel.




BRITFILM – “Scrooge” (1935)


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You have to wonder if Charles Dickens had the slightest idea while writing it that A Christmas Carol (published in 1843) would become, almost certainly, the most frequently adapted novel of all time.  Within a year of its publication there were multiple stage productions, none of them authorized by Dickens, and the author himself gave hundreds of public readings of the book in England and America until his death in 1870.  The first film version came just after the turn of the 20th century, and there have been dozens on the screen and on television (and, during its heyday, on radio) ever since, including multiple musical and even operatic versions.  The role of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge has been played by everyone from Lionel Barrymore to Jim Carrey, from Basil Rathbone to Kathleen Turner, from Yosemite Sam to Barbie.

This article is primarily about the 1935 British film titled Scrooge.  I should say that my favorite versions of the story (and I’ve seen a lot) are the 1951 British film (titled Scrooge in the U.K. and, until very recently, A Christmas Carol in the U.S.) starring the great Scottish character actor Alastair Sim, and the 1962 American television cartoon Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, with voices provided by Jim Backus, Jack Cassidy and Morey Amsterdam.

The Sim version is beautifully atmospheric and has superb performances by pretty much everyone in the cast, particularly Sim, whose tall, gaunt, acerbically witty Scrooge has been my model for the character ever since I first saw the movie as a small child.  It also made an attempt, in a few scenes not in the original book, to explain the motivations behind Scrooge’s personality.  There are a few technical problems in the film, like unconvincing special effects and a technician whose reflection is caught in a mirror while Scrooge is looking in it, but by and large it’s the best film version to be had.

Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol switches the order of two of the ghosts (Present comes before Past here, for some reason), but considering that the lead role is played by a cartoon character famous for his farcical nearsightedness, it’s astonishingly good.  The animation – particularly the background art – is intentionally slightly abstract, the framework of the story (apart from the abovementioned switch) is mostly intact, and the hour-long film has an unusually first-rate score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, who wrote the hit Broadway musical Funny Girl.  Years after seeing it, I could still remember most of the songs, as well as the intense joy and wonder I felt at its first broadcast, when I was seven.

What the 1935 film of Scrooge has going for it is the performance of Sir Seymour Hicks in the title role.  (He was knighted the same year that the film was released, although not specifically for that reason.)  Physically, Hicks is the opposite of Sim:  short, stumpy, with a weathered face that looks as if it’s been through many miserable winters.  He’s also even more misanthropic than Sim, who seems to enjoy a little verbal sparring with his visitors, living or dead.  There’s no fuss about trying to figure out why Scrooge is so mean – he just is.  And he’s quicker to start reforming – in fact, he’s almost eager to go with the ghosts to become a better person, whereas even by the time Sim meets up with the terrifying Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, he’s asking the spectre, “Wouldn’t it be better if I just went home to bed?”

The print I watched of the 1935 film is slightly abridged and a little furry-looking, which adds to its atmosphere of fairly intense gloom.  The film itself has some serious idiosyncrasies, the most important of which (to my eyes) is a long, elaborate, very expensive sequence near the beginning that has no counterpart in the book.  After Scrooge has closed up shop for the night and gone to a nearby chophouse for a cheap dinner, we see a lavish dinner at the Lord Mayor’s house, with the camera pulling slowly back to reveal tables covered with elegant food and drink and silverware, and surrounded by dozens of costumed extras holding up their glasses and singing “God Save the Queen”.  This is intercut with scenes of the cooks toiling away in the gigantic kitchen, and further scenes of poor children hanging outside the windows hoping for a few scraps from the dinner table.  I don’t know this, but I suspect that the set and costumes (and even the performers) for this scene were being used in another film at the same studio at the same time, and the producers of Scrooge decided to take advantage of them.  Whatever the reason, it’s a reminder that this film, like the original book, came out at a time of serious economic and social problems in England.

The other major idiosyncrasy is the treatment of the spirits:  we never actually see Marley’s Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Past is a kind of halo, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a silhouetted hand.  We do see the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is morbidly obese, gluttonous, and grumpy rather than jovial.  The invisibility of Marley’s Ghost means that Scrooge seems (like Clint Eastwood) to be having a long conversation with a chair.  The voice of Marley’s Ghost, although uncredited, is pretty clearly that of Claude Rains, who had become famous a couple of years earlier as The Invisible Man.

This Scrooge also cuts out a lot of important scenes from the book, particularly those introduced by the Ghost of Christmas Past.  Instead, we get a scene of nasty younger Scrooge refusing to give a young couple any more time to pay back their loan (the young husband is Maurice Evans, who went on to become a highly regarded Shakespearean actor in America, as well as Samantha’s father in the series Bewitched).  This is witnessed by Scrooge’s fiancée Belle, who gives him a good talking-to and angrily returns his engagement ring.  (In the Mr. Magoo version, Belle gets to sing the most beautiful song in the show, “Winter Was Warm.”)  Then we see Belle again, looking no older but surrounded by her husband and at least twenty of their children, all of whom seem to be about the same age. It made me think that maybe Scrooge dodged a bullet there.

There are a number of lovely moments in this film, particularly after Scrooge’s reformation, when he visits the nephew he had scolded and “Bah, humbug”-ed earlier in the film and is invited in to dinner.  At one point, Scrooge goes over to look at the Christmas tree and his eyes tear up with regret.  The scene of the housekeepers selling off Scrooge’s belongings after his death is actually very unsettling – the lighting and camera angles are very expressionistic, and the actors all seem to emit a whiff of evil.  (This scene is played a little more for laughs in the Sim film, and entirely for laughs in the Mr. Magoo version, where it’s the occasion for a song titled “We’re Despicable”.)

In general, though, the 1935 Scrooge seems primitive and disjointed in comparison with the others, and primarily notable for the lead performance by Seymour Hicks.

Even if he had never made this film, Seymour Hicks would probably be noted as the actor who had played Ebenezer Scrooge more often than anyone else in theatrical history.  This wasn’t even the first time he’d played the role in a film.  That was in 1913 and, of course, silent.  But he’d begun his Scrooge career in 1901, when he was 30 years old, and played the role literally thousands of times before his death in 1949.

Hicks is largely forgotten today, but he was a major figure in the English theater in the decades around the beginning of the 20th century.  In addition to being an actor, he wrote and produced over sixty farces and musical comedies (generally with lead roles for himself and his wife Ellaline), from whose earnings he built two London theaters that are still in operation:  the Aldwych Theatre in 1905, and the Hicks Theatre (now the Gielgud Theatre) in 1906.

BRITFILM – “The Clairvoyant” (1934)


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Image result for the clairvoyant 1934Claude Rains is one of my favorite actors.  He’s probably most famous for his role as the suavely corrupt police chief in Casablanca, or perhaps for playing an equally corrupt U.S. Senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, both performances nominated for Oscars – he received a total of four nominations in his career and never won once.  Entertainingly dishonest characters were his specialty, like the effeminate Prince John (he practically admitted to imitating Bette Davis in the role) in The Adventures of Robin Hood, or the Nazi businessman married to Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s Notorious.  All four of the films mentioned in this paragraph, by the way, are regularly included on lists of the best films of all time.  Certainly in the first half of his film career, Rains knew how to pick winners, and he was in constant demand by the major film studios.

He was born into an acting family in London in 1889 – well, his father at least was an actor, and not a particularly successful one, it seems, since his mother had to take in boarders to help pay the rent.  Claude (which was his middle name; his first name was William) grew up with a stammer and a heavy Cockney accent, both of which he lost in the course of pursuing an acting career with the help of the renowned actor and producer Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree.  He made his stage debut when he was ten and by the 1920s was a highly-regarded character actor in London’s West End theaters.  He also taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where two of his students were John Gielgud and Charles Laughton.  Peter Ustinov remembered seeing Gielgud on a television interview sometime in the 1960s praising Rains as an actor and a teacher, and adding, “I don’t know whatever happened to him.  I believe he failed and went to America.”

Yes, he did go to America, where sound pictures were now a firmly established phenomenon and the studios were in desperate need of stage-trained actors with good, strong voices.  His first screen test in 1933 was a failure, but it caught the attention of director James Whale, who hired his fellow Englishman for the starring role in The Invisible Man after accidentally hearing the sound of his voice in the neighboring room.  The film was a hit, and Rains’s film career was off and running.

After making a couple more forgettable films in Hollywood, Rains returned to England to star in what could have been another horror film but, in fact, was something a little more interesting than that: The Clairvoyant (also released in the United States as The Evil Mind).

Maximus, King of the Mind-Readers, tours the English music-hall circuit as a clairvoyant, assisted by his wife Rene (Fay Wray).  He seems to have taken over the family business: his mother, who accompanies them, often reminds him dolefully that his late grandfather also had the gift.  The thing is, Max doesn’t really seem to have the gift.  His act consists of standing blindfolded on a stage while Rene goes through the audience, holds up something that an audience member has given her and asks him coded questions (she holds up a watch, for example, and asks, “What am I holding up this time?”).  Even the audiences seem to know that it’s phony, but they’re happy to play along.

Until one night, when Max sees a lovely young woman sitting in the balcony and suddenly tells one of the audience members what’s written in the personal letter that he’s offered to Rene – who doesn’t have a code for this sort of thing.  A few nights later, Max and Rene are on their way to another venue when the lovely young woman (her name is Christine, and she’s played by Jane Baxter) shows up on the same train, and Max foresees that the train is going to crash.  He, Rene and Christine stop the train, get off and walk to the next station.  Within a few minutes, the train crashes, and Max’s life changes.

It turns out he does have the gift – but only when Christine is nearby.  Max’s career skyrockets, especially after he predicts the unlikely winner of the Derby, and with not a little help from Christine’s father, an influential newspaper owner.  Rene, whose on-stage role is no longer necessary, becomes bitterly jealous of Christine; Christine falls in love with Max; and an unwanted prediction about his own mother almost convinces Max to abandon his new-found gift.

It’s about here that the story starts to go awry.  A man whom Max saves from suicide convinces him to use his gift for the good of humanity, as a result of which Max is put on trial for causing a mining disaster that he actually predicted, and he has to use his psychic powers to save himself from the law as well as from an angry mob.

This is a decent little film with a plot that starts out interestingly and then starts to fall apart towards the end.  It’s well-made, though, making good use of a fairly small budget, and most of the acting is quite good (there’s a particularly entertaining performance by Felix Aylmer as the prosecuting attorney).  What makes it particularly interesting is its two leads: Claude Rains and Fay Wray.

Both of them had become major stars the year before The Clairvoyant was released.  Fay Wray, a Canadian-born actress with a few leading roles to her credit, screamed her way to stardom as King Kong’s unwilling love interest.  Her performance as Rene is fine – she and Rains make a plausible married couple – but she was never a particularly exciting or insightful actor, in my opinion, and King Kong was pretty much the height of her career.  After retiring from an active career in 1942, she popped up again in the 1950s and 1960s in supporting roles on screen and on television.  One of her last public appearances came at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1998, when host Billy Crystal introduced her unexpectedly from the audience to a standing ovation.  She died in 2004 at the age of 96.

1933, the year of King Kong, was also the year of The Invisible Man. This was Rains’ first film (apart from a small role in a silent British film thirteen years earlier), and because he was playing the title character, his face actually wasn’t visible until the last few seconds of the film, so he had to act entirely with his voice.  Fortunately, Rains had one of the most memorable and beautiful speaking voices in motion pictures, and he made good use of it for the remaining 30-something years of his career.

He was, in some ways, an unlikely film star (and indeed, although he was always a character actor and frequently a villain, he was unquestionably a name-above-the-title star).  He was short and sturdily built, with an interestingly handsome face and a mass of thick hair that he generally combed as high as he could get away with, to compensate for his lack of physical stature.  His stage experience allowed him to get the maximum effect from the minimum of effort – a raised eyebrow, an amused look, a vocal intonation could tell you more about the character he was playing than any amount of dialogue could.

Rains, like King Henry VIII, was also renowned in his time for his six wives (although Rains’s marriages had less messy conclusions).  He liked women, and they clearly liked him: at one point in his career, the cast for a play in which he was starring included his current wife and two (or possibly three) of his previous wives.  Bette Davis made a couple of films with him and admitted to having a crush on him.  With his daughter and his fourth, fifth and sixth wives (although not concurrently), he spent much of the second half of his life shuttling back and forth between Hollywood and his farm in Pennsylvania.  Apart from a few cheesy science-fiction films, his last roles included a wonderfully cynical English bureaucrat in Lawrence of Arabia and King Herod in The Greatest Story Ever Told.  In his last years, he lived in Sandwich, New Hampshire, and died in nearby Laconia in 1967.

Another great British character actor, Sir Felix Aylmer, plays the prosecuting attorney in the climactic trial scene.  Not unlike Rains, Aylmer was noted for his extremely distinctive voice.  His is melodious – I’d almost call it sing-song – and his diction was almost excessively precise.  Peter Sellers used to do a wonderful imitation of Aylmer on his famous BBC radio program, The Goon Show.  For much of his long acting career (1911-72), Aylmer played authority figures like judges and members of the nobility.  He was a superb Polonius in Laurence Olivier’s film version of Hamlet and, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, he was a familiar figure in epic costume dramas:  Anastasia, Quo Vadis, Ivanhoe, Saint Joan, Exodus, Becket, and, as Merlin, Knights of the Round Table.  Aylmer seems to have been in almost 200 films and television shows, as well as dozens of stage productions.  He was also an expert on the writings of Charles Dickens, and published two books on the subject: Dickens Incognito and The Drood Case.  He died in 1979 at the age of 90.


NOT-QUITE-BRITFILM: “The Old Dark House” (1932)


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It’s the stuff of Gothic fiction:  travelers get caught in a torrential rainstorm in the middle of nowhere; they seek shelter in an isolated house; they soon come to realize that the inhabitants of the house are slightly mad if not downright homicidal.  The story line has been used for centuries.  Rocky Horror Picture Show uses it.  But The Old Dark House is the first to use it in a talking picture, and it certainly competes with Rocky Horror Picture Show as the most over-the-top bizarre horror film of all time.

Here, we begin with three people – a married couple named Waverton (Raymond Massey and Gloria Stuart) and their friend Penderel (Melvyn Douglas) – driving through a remote section of Wales in the midst of a howling storm.  They’re reluctantly allowed into the old dark house of the spectacularly neurotic Femm family: Gladys, a squat, unsmiling religious fanatic (Eva Moore); her gaunt, effeminate brother Horace (Ernest Thesiger); and their mute, alcoholic servant Morgan (Boris Karloff).  As we learn later in the film, there are two other members of the family living there:  Sir Roderick, the bedridden 102-year-old patriarch of the family (John Dudgeon, theoretically); and Saul, the third brother (Brember Wills), who is padlocked and bolted into his bedroom.

In the middle of supper, another stranded couple enter the house:  Sir William Porterhouse, a brash, boastful millionaire with an enormous chip on his shoulder (Charles Laughton) and his female companion, an earthy chorus girl named Gladys (Lillian Bond).

In the course of the night, it’s clear that all is not well in the Femm household.  The storm blows down the power lines; there’s a large lamp on the landing of the first set of stairs, but Horace is terrified of going up there.  The Wavertons discover Sir Roderick in his room at the top of the stairs, where he giggles a lot and warns them about his family.  By the climax of the film, Penderel and Gladys have fallen in love, Morgan has attempted sexual assault on the two younger women, and Saul has been released from his room and is trying to set fire to the house.  And in the last couple of minutes, it’s pretty clear from Horace’s attitude that it was just another night with the Femms.

The amazing thing, apart from the sheer style and speed of the film (it runs about 70 minutes), is how intentionally funny much of it is.  The Femm family is so outrageously odd that it’s impossible really to be frightened by them, although Karloff’s portrayal of Morgan is pretty convincingly bestial.  Mr. and Mrs. Waverton are pretty dull; Penderel is a typically superficial leading man of the time, always ready with a joke; Sir William and Gladys are an incompatible couple, but there’s nothing particularly outstanding about either of them.  Apart from a couple of creepy moments (such as when Mrs. Waverton is standing at an open door and a hand comes slowly from behind her to drag her back into the house) and an action-packed finale, this is basically a comedy of manners, in which a group of civilized strangers are thrown in with a family of lunatics who all loathe one another.

James Whale’s previous film, Frankenstein, was an enormous success and had made a star of Boris Karloff (who, there and in this film, is listed in the credits simply as KARLOFF).  Three years later, he would direct Bride of Frankenstein, which has the same kind of wit and unashamedly gay sensibility as The Old Dark House.  The two films also share three cast members: Karloff, Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, and Elspeth Dudgeon as a gypsy’s mother.

And therein lies a mystery, because John Dudgeon, who was credited as playing Sir Roderick Femm, was, in reality, Elspeth Dudgeon, a London-born actress who appeared, usually uncredited, in many films after settling in Hollywood.  No one seems quite certain why Whale and Universal listed her as “John” in the credits, but, since they showed the credits at the beginning and at the end of the film, it was clearly intentional.

It’s not technically a British film – it was filmed in Hollywood by Universal Pictures, and two of its stars (Douglas and Stuart) are American-born – but that’s only a technicality.  The Old Dark House is based on a novel, Benighted, by the English author J. B. Priestley.  Its screenplay is by the English writer and director Benn Levy.  Most of its actors are British.  And its director, James Whale, was born in England and worked there exclusively until coming to America in 1929, when he was forty years old.  What’s more, although the film was received tepidly in America, it was a major success in Britain.

One of the interesting things about this film is that its cast consisted of an unusually large percentage of actors near the outsets of their film careers who would go on to become major stars.  There’s Boris Karloff, of course, who was already a star thanks to Frankenstein, and whose role is relatively small in The Old Dark House.

Melvyn Douglas started out as a Shakespearean actor, became a busy leading man during the 1930s and 1940s, returned to the stage in the 1950s, and then became a star again in the 1960s and 1970s as a character actor, winning an Oscar as Gene Hackman’s crotchety father in I Never Sang for My Father.

Gloria Stuart (who, I have to admit, is attractive but boring in The Old Dark House) starred in films between 1932 and 1946.  She was brought out of retirement in 1997 to play Old Rose in Titanic, which got her an Oscar nomination, and died in 2010 at the age of 100.

Charles Laughton’s career as a film star began in 1932, the same year as The Old Dark House, when he appeared as Nero in Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Sign of the Cross.  The following year he won an Oscar starring in The Private Life of Henry VIII, and his reputation as a star and a brilliant actor never really faded until his death in 1962 at the age of 63.  (His wife, Elsa Lanchester, played the title role in Bride of Frankenstein.)

Then there’s Raymond Massey, who was a Canadian by birth but whose early film and stage career was primarily based in England.  He specialized in historical figures, such as Cardinal Richelieu in Under the Red Robe and King Philip II of Spain in Fire Over England, and become renowned in the U.S. for playing (and becoming somewhat typecast as) Abraham Lincoln on stage and in films.  The playwright George S. Kaufman once said, “Massey won’t be satisfied until he’s assassinated.”  Massey’s children, Daniel and Anna, both became highly respected actors in England.

But my favorite of the cast might be Ernest Thesiger.  Born in London in 1879, he had intended to be a painter but ended up in the theater (although he remained friends with many of his fellow artists, and there’s a drawing of him by John Singer Sargent below).  He fought and was wounded in World War I – apparently he originally hoped to join a Scottish regiment so that he could wear a kilt – and, when asked about the war, he said, “My dear, the noise!  And the people!”  He was an internationally renowned expert in embroidery, about which he published a book entitled Adventures in Embroidery.  His cousin Frederic was Viceroy of England from 1916-21.

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Like his friend James Whale, Thesiger was openly gay at a time when that was illegal in England, although he was also married (apparently happily) to a woman for over forty years.  (The same was true of Charles Laughton, who was more discreet about his sexual orientation.)  Thesiger appeared in over sixty films.  Most of them were made in England, but he’s most famous for his remarkable performance as Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein.  That role is not a million miles from Horace Femm: both characters are haughty, prim, fussy, sarcastic, malicious – the epitome of what the English would call “camp”.

I liked him as a child, although I knew nothing about him, because he was in two of my favorite films:  Bride of Frankenstein and the 1951 Alastair Sim version of Scrooge, in which he played the undertaker.  By that stage of his life, he was modeling his appearance and mannerisms on those of his good friend Queen Mary of England.

As for director James Whale, he directed some of the most famous films of the 1930s:  Journey’s End, Frankenstein, The Old Dark House, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, Show Boat, The Man in the Iron Mask.  He retired from directing in 1941 after a couple of major flops and committed suicide in 1957.  His life became the subject of a very good film starring Ian McKellen, Gods and Monsters.

After its first showing in 1932, The Old Dark House was considered lost until the horror-film director Curtis Harrington rediscovered it in 1968.  There’s another film called The Old Dark House, filmed in 1963 in England with a mostly English cast.  It’s a spoof, and it’s awful.

BRITFILM – “The Wrong Box” (1966)


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I won’t even pretend to be objective about The Wrong Box.  I saw it (on television, with numerous commercials) a few years after its theatrical release and fell instantly in love with everything about it: its cast (which is a pretty spectacular one), its plot, its dialogue, its style.  To an American teenager it seemed the epitome of British black comedy, and I’m still not certain whether it formed my sense of humor or simply reflected it.

What I probably didn’t realize about it at the time was that, despite almost everything else about the film being very British, the brilliant screenplay was written by two Americans: Larry Gelbart, from Chicago, and Burt Shevelove, from Newark.  The two of them had collaborated a few years earlier on Stephen Sondheim’s hit musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.  Both of them had come from early television, Shevelove mostly as a producer and director, Gelbart as a writer.  Gelbart is the more famous of the two: he went on to write Tootsie, Oh, God! and the television series M*A*S*H.

Their script for Forum, set in ancient Rome, is stuffed with sight gags and one-liners and has a very contemporary feel (well, for 1962).  The Wrong Box has just as many sight gags and one-liners, but the setting is Victorian England, and their use of language captures the formality of the era while still aiming right at the funnybone.  The humor is also – and this is what I find it very difficult to explain – very British, filled with non sequiturs and absurdity that aren’t often found in American comedy.  (One character explains that she’s an orphan: “My father was a missionary. He was eaten by his Bible class.”  Queen Victoria, in the process of knighting someone, lets the sword drop too quickly; as we hear a body part drop to the ground, she mutters, “Oh. . . . We are frightfully sorry, Sir Robert.”  And a romantic scene is prefaced with a subtitle: “Alone with her at last . . . in a room full of eggs.”  If none of these makes you smile, you probably won’t understand the appeal of much of this film.)

The plot, based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne, centers on a tontine, which one of the characters describes as a “lottery.”  The parents of a number of boys, all classmates at the same school, have chipped in and invested one thousand pounds in the tontine.  Whichever of the boys is the last to die will inherit the money, including the accumulated interest.

As it happens, the last two classmates left alive are two brothers, Masterman and Joseph Finbury, played by John Mills and Ralph Richardson.  Masterman, who detests his brother, summons Joseph to his townhouse in London under the pretence that he’s dying, but with the secret intention of killing Joseph and getting the money.  Masterman also lives with his grandson Michael (played by Michael Caine), a not-terribly-bright medical student; in the house next door, along with Joseph’s grandsons Morris and John (played by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore) lives Joseph’s ward Julia (Nanette Newman), whom Michael has worshiped from afar.

Joseph and his grandsons head to London on a train which, unknown to anyone, also contains the Bournemouth Strangler, who is killed when the train collides with another one heading in the opposite direction.  Morris and John mistakenly believe that the Strangler’s mutilated body is that of Joseph and ship the body in a barrel to their home in London, but the barrel is mistakenly sent to Masterman’s house instead.  (I hope you’re following this, because it doesn’t get any simpler as it goes on.)

Masterman and Joseph have a quarrel during which Joseph is oblivious to the fact that Masterman is trying, albeit ineffectually, to kill him.  Michael finds the Strangler’s body and, hearing of the argument from Masterman’s butler (Wilfrid Lawson), assumes that his grandfather has murdered Joseph.

And it goes on from there.  There are two brilliant little scenes with Peter Sellers as an unscrupulous and hopelessly drunken doctor in a roomful of cats who agrees to provide Morris with a dubious death certificate.  The scenes with Sellers, lasting maybe five minutes in total, are worth the price of admission, and he has some of the best lines in the film.  My favorite comes in response to Morris telling him that he collects eggs. “Oh, I enjoy an egg myself, yes.  They don’t make good pets, though.  You can never get them in at night.”

In addition to the stars, there are dozens of little character roles played by expert British character actors, most of whose names are unknown except to fans of British films: Leonard Rossiter, Graham Stark, John Le Mesurier, Cicely Courtneidge, Gerald Sim, Irene Handl, and many others.  Even John Mills’ daughter Juliet (sister to Hayley) has a small role.

The director is Bryan Forbes, who began his film career as an actor and moved into directing in the early 1960s, when he directed some of the best films of the British film renaissance: Whistle Down the Wind, The L-Shaped Room, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, The Whisperers.  His wife, Nanette Newman, appeared in a number of his later films – she’s probably the least interesting member of the cast of The Wrong Box, although she’s perfectly competent and quite beautiful.

When Michael Caine made this film, he was just on the verge of becoming a major star.  The Ipcress File had been released the previous year, and Alfie was just about to come out, earning him the first of his six Oscar nominations.  The three roles are very different from one another, offering an early example of his range and versatility.  And nowhere in The Wrong Box is his Cockney accent detectable.

The opening and closing theme music of The Wrong Box has stuck in my head ever since I first saw the film.  It’s by John Barry, one of the great film composers (Dr. No, Goldfinger, The Lion in Winter, Born Free, Out of Africa), and it’s a lovely, wistful little waltz that seems to have nothing to do with the murderous farce it embraces and yet, somehow, sets the mood perfectly.  Similarly, the opening credits, all paisley in every color combination imaginable, seems somehow very Victorian and very 60s Carnaby Street.

BRITFILM – “Florence Foster Jenkins” (2016)


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There was a lot of singing at my friends’ wedding reception a couple of weeks ago.  The older of the grooms sings with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, of which at least half of the guests were members.  Some of them, as well as a few of the rest of us, he had asked to sing solos.  I chose “All the Things You Are” by Jerome Kern – it’s a beautiful song, it sits well in my voice and I’ve sung it a few times before.

It came off well.  Many people told me that it was one of their favorite songs, and I received compliments for the way I sang it.  After a performance, I usually have a good sense of how it went, and particularly where it didn’t go as I would have preferred.  But comments from other singers, whether good or bad, are always useful.  These days especially, when (apart from the wedding) I haven’t sung publicly for a year, I’m very aware of the qualities I can bring to a performance and those that I can’t (and all too often don’t).  Mine is a medium-sized voice, clear, fairly well controlled, suitable for vocal recitals, musicals and operettas, too small for opera.  I don’t think I have any serious delusions about my own singing.

Which brings me to Florence Foster Jenkins, the new film about a real-life socialite and patron of the arts in the early half of the twentieth century.  (By the way, although Florence and most of the other characters in the film are American and the entire film is set in or about New York City, Florence Foster Jenkins is a British film.  The screenwriter, the director and the majority of the cast, apart from Meryl Streep, Simon Helberg and Nina Arianda, are all British, and the role of New York City is played by Liverpool and Glasgow, with a little assistance from CGI.)

When we first see Florence in the film, it’s at a performance at the Verdi Club, an arts appreciation organization of which she is the founder.  She’s being lowered into a tableau vivant (which consists of a group of people standing motionless while representing a scene from mythology or history) dressed as an angel and introduced to an appreciative audience by her “husband” St. Clair Bayfield, the second-rate English actor with whom she’s been living for many years.

Illness ended her youthful hopes for a career as a concert pianist, but her love of music has led her to take singing lessons and inevitably she decides to give a solo recital at her Verdi Club.  She hires an ambitious young pianist named Cosmé McMoon to be her accompanist and, with the assistance of her money and St. Clair’s determination never to let Florence realize just how terribly she sings, the recital is enough of a success that she proceeds to make some recordings, which become surprisingly popular.

This success convinces Florence to book Carnegie Hall for a one-night performance and to give away a thousand tickets to soldiers (it’s 1944) who she feels need something uplifting to cheer them up.

All this is based more or less loosely on fact.  Classical singers have known and laughed at her recordings for decades – I discovered them at chorus parties during the 1970’s.  What most of us didn’t know until fairly recently was her backstory.  Florence Foster had been something of a childhood prodigy at the piano, giving a recital at the White House before she was a teenager.  She also eloped with a man from whom she contracted syphilis on their wedding night; less than a year later, she left him but kept his last name.  Because of her illness, her relationship with St. Clair Bayfield, depicted in the film as loving, was also sexless; he kept a mistress in another apartment.

A few reviews have criticized the film for ridiculing mental illness, which seems to me to miss the point in a number of ways.  Some syphilitics do lose their sanity; others become Keats and Schubert.  The film never claims that she was mentally ill, just eccentric, which is a very different thing.  She was also wealthy, which allowed her to cocoon herself (or at least to be cocooned) from the reality of her aspirations.  In the early part of the film, her voice teacher showers Florence with words of encouragement even as it’s obvious that she’s a hopeless case and he’s simply taking the money.

In addition – and this is one of the things that makes Florence Foster Jenkins such a wonderful film – where it could simply have spent two hours ridiculing a rich woman with an exceptionally awful voice, the film chooses to celebrate her.  It’s not unlike Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, another wonderful film based on a real-life character, this one a movie director with no talent but boundless optimism and a determined belief in himself.  Florence may be delusional about her abilities, but thousands of people are (some find their fifteen minutes of infamy on television shows like America’s Got Talent, others run for President).  She wants to bring pleasure into other people’s lives, and she believes she can, and somehow the film makes us see her point.  If she hadn’t been rich enough to deflect contradiction, if St. Clair hadn’t bribed vocal coaches and newspaper reviewers to praise her, she might have been less delusional.  And more unhappy.

It has to be admitted that newspaper critics are not treated well in this film.  Most of them are easily and cheerily bribable, and the closest there is to a villain is the self-important music critic of the New York Post, who insists on reviewing Florence as if she represented an assault upon the virtue of Art.

Meryl Streep portrays Florence Foster Jenkins, and it’s become almost impossible to say anything new or, for that matter, anything sufficient about Streep’s acting.  Her impersonation of Florence’s singing is perfect, and the moment at the end of the film where she sings in her own voice lets us hear how Florence heard herself.

Streep’s performance is no surprise; Hugh Grant’s is.  He began as a pretty young actor with a certain amount of talent and a lot of promise, and then for much of his career, while he stayed pretty, the talent was dribbled away in terrible films where he sank into his charmingly bumbling Hugh Grant persona and gained nothing but contempt and bad reviews.  He was brought out of semi-retirement by the opportunity to play with Meryl Streep, and suddenly all his youthful promise seems to have been fulfilled.  His portrayal of St. Clair Bayfield is easily the best thing he’s ever done – complex, deep, thoroughly convincing.  Streep will probably, and rightly, get her annual Oscar nomination; there’s no question in my mind that Grant deserves one.

There are two other superb performances here: one is by Simon Helberg as Cosmé McMoon.  Helberg is very good as one of the stars of The Big Bang Theory, one of the few television series I make it a point to watch, but his performance in Florence Foster Jenkins is on another level.  The scene after his first rehearsal with Florence, where he’s in a crowded elevator trying desperately not to burst out laughing, is brilliantly handled.  More importantly, his character grows to love Florence as we in the audience do.

The other standout performance is by Nina Arianda, a Broadway actress who won a Tony Award a few years ago but hasn’t made many films.  Here she’s a loudmouth blonde who starts out laughing so hard at Florence’s performance that she falls out of her seat and has to crawl out of the auditorium.  Her big moment during Florence’s Carnegie Hall debut provides one of those scenes that can make your eyes water with happiness.

BRITFILM – “The Day the Earth Caught Fire” (1961)


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Most of the United States is enduring record high temperatures this summer, and even England in the last couple of weeks has seen the thermometer rise above 90°F.  What better time, then, to watch a great old British science fiction film in which the earth is sent hurtling towards the sun?

I’m pretty sure my Dad took me to see The Day the Earth Caught Fire when it came to the Lincoln Theatre.  He loved science fiction, and I had inherited that love from him, along with a number of books he had bought when he was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club in the mid-1950s.  It’s an impressive film, and it certainly impressed me, but I probably didn’t see it again until watching it on DVD a few nights ago.

If you missed the first couple of minutes of The Day the Earth Caught Fire, it might take you quite a while, maybe a half hour, before you realized what kind of film it actually is.  Most of the characters work at the London Daily Express newspaper.  The principal character, Peter Stenning, is a reporter whose career is on a downward slide, helped along by alcoholism and a nasty divorce.  News that the United States has been carrying out nuclear bomb tests at one of the earth’s poles sends Stenning to the British national weather service to get some statistics; there he meets and eventually falls in love with an attractive young woman named Jeannie.

For a while we follow Stenning and the others at the Express, including his best friend Bill Maguire, going about their daily duties, gathering data and writing articles and putting out a newspaper every day.  And dealing with the heat – England is going through an unexpected heat spell, with temperatures up around 90 degrees.  (Sound familiar?)

Then another bit of information comes in: the Russians exploded some nuclear bombs at the same time as the USA, at the opposite pole.  Maguire realizes that these explosions have altered the earth’s rotation by 11 degrees, causing drastic climate changes around the world.

And then things get worse.  In one quietly terrifying scene, the editor of the newspaper calls the staff into his office and explains to them what he has learned from a governmental scientist: it’s not just the earth’s rotation that has been affected.  Our planet is heading towards the sun.

All of this is done with the minimum of special effects, although those are generally extremely well done (especially a sudden, shocking view of a dried-up River Thames).  The script, by Wolf Mankowitz and director Val Guest, is first-rate, with intelligent, sophisticated dialogue and three-dimensional characters.  It won a BAFTA award (the British equivalent of both the Oscar and the Emmy).

The opening and closing minutes of the film are set after the world’s governments have decided, as a last-ditch effort, to detonate thermonuclear bombs in Siberia in hopes of rocking the earth back into its proper orbit.  The rest of the film is in black-and-white; these sequences are tinted orange, partly to encourage the illusion that the temperature in London is well over 100 degrees.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire is a prime example of British, as opposed to American, science fiction.   British sf, for me, is exemplified by H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, published in 1898.  Earth is invaded by creatures from Mars, and neither scientific know-how nor superior firepower can conquer them (as they would in typical American sf).  The story is told from the point of view, not of those trying to defeat the threat, but of those simply trying to survive it – another difference from American sf.  In the end, the aliens are destroyed by a passive weapon: the common cold.  There are no heroes.

The acting is uniformly excellent.  This was the first starring role for Edward Judd, who plays Peter Stenning; he’s good enough to make one wonder why his subsequent career was limited mostly to second-rate horror films.  He quit the business in 1990 and became a credit officer at a bank; he died in 2009.  Janet Munro, who plays Jeannie, starred in a few Disney films (including one of my favorites, Darby O’Gill and the Little People) before this.  She died of a heart attack at the age of 38 in 1972.

The role of the editor of the Daily Express was played by Arthur Christiansen, who was not a professional actor.  Until shortly before making the film, he had been the real editor of the real Daily Express, and some of the film was shot in the newspaper’s building on Fleet Street.

Almost the only reasonably well-known actor in The Day the Earth Caught Fire is Leo McKern, a short, stout actor with a deep, loud speaking voice who found television fame as Horace Rumpole in the British series Rumpole of the Bailey.  He also played the chief villain in the Beatles’s second film, Help!, and Thomas Cromwell in A Man for All Seasons, and he was Patrick McGoohan’s antagonist in the legendary final two episodes of The Prisoner.  (I saw him about 20 years ago on the London stage as the lead in Hobson’s Choice.)

About ten minutes before the film ends, Peter Stenning has a short conversation with a lanky blonde policeman.  The policeman has a very distinctive Cockney voice, and it takes only a few seconds to realize that we’re watching one of the early film roles of Michael Caine.

The film has no musical score; the only music we hear is casual background music, usually coming from someone’s radio.  It is, however, the only film I can think of which has a separate credit for “Beatnik Music”.


BRITFILM – “Hot Millions” (1968)


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This is the plot:  A con man is released from prison and, posing as a computer programmer named Caesar Smith, manages to finagle his way into the British branch of an American corporation named Ta-Can-Co.  Once he’s figured out (by accident, as it happens) how to hack into the computer system running the corporation’s finances, Smith proceeds to send checks to a number of small companies located throughout Europe, all of which are fronts for himself.  Eventually, the scheme has to fall apart, and Smith’s downfall – and his redemption – come in the shape of Patty Terwilliger, his neighbor in the apartment building where he lives and, for a while, his incompetent secretary.

Hot Millions was apparently one of the sleeper hits of 1968, although I didn’t see it for the first time until it appeared on television three or four years later.  It’s been largely forgotten since then, and it’s not prominent on the resumes of anyone involved in its making.  I’ve only seen it three times, at most.  And yet, if anyone over the last 45 years had asked me for the name of one of my favorite little-known comedy films, Hot Millions would be high on the list.

The cast has a lot to do with it.  The two Americans in the film, Karl Malden (as the ambitious Vice President who hires Caesar Smith in the first place) and Bob Newhart (as his right-hand man, whose suspicion and jealousy of Smith are evident from the beginning) are superb.  Both characters have motivations that are endangered by Smith’s presence: Malden’s wants to slide into the seat of the company’s President when the latter has shuffled off this mortal coil, and Newhart’s is trying to get somewhere with Patty Terwilliger, who is obviously more attracted to Smith.  They both give strong performances.

Two actors have cameo roles: Robert Morley is the real Caesar Smith, a gentleman looking for the slightest excuse to chuck his high-stress computer job and cultivate moths; and Cesar Romero has a frankly meaningless little role as a customs agent in Brazil.

It was this film that introduced me to Maggie Smith.  As Patty Terwilliger, the 34-year-old Smith is a walking disaster area.  She speaks in a nasal whine, she can’t keep a job for more than a few days, she’s completely devoid of self-confidence; the one thing she can do pretty well is play the flute.  She can invite one man to dinner in order to avoid another man’s attentions and then forget entirely about the invitation when the first man comes knocking on her door.  One scene lodged in my mind for years afterward: she’s been assigned to Caesar Smith as his secretary, and one day he opens the door to his office to find her standing in her underwear, festooned with typewriter ribbon.  (She took off her dress because she didn’t want to get ink on it.)  From that moment, I was in love with Maggie Smith, an unrequited love that has lasted to this day.  And for her next film, The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie, she would receive the first of her two Academy Awards.

Most importantly, though, there is Peter Ustinov.  I have no idea how well he’s remembered these days (he died in 2004 at the age of 82), but in the 1960’s he was a huge (in every possible way) international star, and one of my idols.  This was a man whose first appearance on the professional stage, when he was 17, captivated most of the London critics; whose first two plays appeared simultaneously in London’s West End theaters shortly after he turned 21; who wrote a screenplay (The Way Ahead) for David Niven while both of them were in the British Army during World War II and Private Ustinov was serving as personal assistant to Lieutenant-Colonel Niven.  He was a prolific writer: well over a dozen plays, a handful of novels, two volumes of short stories, a wonderfully entertaining autobiography.  He was a brilliant character actor, winner of two Academy Awards (for Spartacus and Topkapi) and a gifted director.  He spoke five or six languages fluently, he was an effortless mimic of people and things, and one of his tours de force consisted of his impersonating all the instruments of the orchestra playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Ustinov was also considered the greatest raconteur in (at least) the English language, and it was in this capacity that I first came to admire him when I was a kid.  He appeared on a lot of television talk shows, he spoke in perfect sentences and he was always highly intelligent and reliably funny.  The English television host David Frost had a nightly prime-time talk show in New York, and one night his only guest, for ninety minutes, was Peter Ustinov.  It was a virtuoso performance, and an easy paycheck for Frost, who really only had to say, “Good evening, Peter, how are you?” and then sit back and keep his mouth shut.

Peter Ustinov was one of the few celebrities I ever really wanted to meet for dinner, partly because he was so consistently entertaining, and partly (although I wouldn’t have said so at the time) because he seemed like a perfect role model for me: multi-talented, urbane, witty, literary.  In fact, we probably had more in common than I thought.  I was always talented at a number of things – writing, singing, performing – but never good enough, or at least assiduous enough, at any one thing to concentrate on it.  Especially as a teenager and young man, I was intellectually arrogant but emotionally inarticulate.  And, as it happens, and as I learned much later, Ustinov had all these qualities as well.

He never did write the one great play or novel or give the one great performance that everyone (particularly himself) had expected from him.  Something held him back.  One of his obituaries noted that he was always uncomfortable expressing passion.  As an actor, he could do witty, he could do angry, he could do self-deprecating, but, perhaps because his bulk and lack of physical attractiveness limited him so much to character roles, he really couldn’t do love.  (For what it’s worth, he was married three times.)

Which is why Hot Millions is such an oddity in his career, and why it means so much to me.  It’s the only film of his, as far as I know, in which he’s the romantic leading man, although in this case I used the word “romantic” in a highly specific way.  He’s still large and baggy-looking, he uses a droning “suburban” voice, I don’t recall that he ever uses the word “love” in the film, but Caesar Smith’s almost accidental wooing and winning of Patty Terwilliger constitutes one of the great low-key romances in film history.

There’s another scene in the film, about halfway through, that I’ve always remembered.  Smith tells Patty that if she draws the queen of hearts from a pack of cards, he’ll marry her.  What follows, in a scene that probably runs less than a minute, I won’t describe, but it manages to be sad, frustrating and, by its end, incredibly exhilarating.  It’s beautifully done, because it brings two lonely people together in a most original and moving way.

Ustinov and Smith give flawless performances, both individually and together.  They appeared together in a couple of other films later on, in both of which Ustinov played the detective Hercule Poirot, and both were knighted in 1990.

Hot Millions was directed by Eric Till, an English director who worked mostly in television.  If the anonymity of his other films is any indication of his talent, this is by far his best work.

The screenplay, which was nominated for an Academy Award, is attributed to Ira Wallach and Peter Ustinov.  I can’t find out much about Wallach; he was an American writer with about four screenplays to his name, none of them particularly memorable.  This is only a hunch, but I suspect that Wallach created the skeleton of the script and Ustinov fleshed it out.  The characters are all slightly off-kilter, the humor is sly and understated – this is a very English film.

And I think it’s the film in which, before pulling back to do what he was most comfortable doing, Peter Ustinov showed us what he might have done.

BRITFILM – “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963)


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My father took me to see Jason and the Argonauts when it came to the movie theaters.  I asked my younger brother recently if he had gone with us (I couldn’t remember), and he said yes – in fact, he seemed to think it was the first movie he’d ever seen in a theater (he would have been five years old when it appeared).  It seems likely that Tom Hanks saw it around the same time as well.  I’ll tell you later how I know.

Jason and the Argonauts is set in the world of Greek mythology.  Jason, the only surviving member of the family of King Aristo, is encouraged to seek the legendary Golden Fleece at the other end of the world by the man whose life he has saved from drowning, not knowing that the latter is King Pelias, who is responsible for killing Jason’s family.  With the aid of the goddess Hera, Jason commissions a ship (the Argo) and assembles a crew of the bravest men in Greece (the Argonauts), among whom are Hercules and Pelias’s devious son Acastus.  They encounter many dangerous creatures on their voyage, including a gigantic statue that comes to life in order to destroy them, the Clashing Rocks, which destroy all the ships that try to pass between them, the seven-headed Hydra guarding the Golden Fleece, and, most spectacularly, a small army of animated skeletons.

In many ways, the movie looks and feels like a comic book – the characters are larger than life and their motivations are uncomplicated, the sets are large and brightly colored, the action is swift and violent without ever being explicit.  And best of all, it has Ray Harryhausen’s special effects.

Ray Harryhausen may be the only special effects designer whose name has become a kind of brand name that defines a genre.  This sort of thing is common with iconic directors: phrases like “a Hitchcock film” or “a Steven Spielberg movie” indicate a certain style, a specific quality – they give the audience a good idea about what to expect.  No one (as far as I know) refers to “Willis O’Brien’s King Kong” or even “George Pal’s The War of the Worlds”.  But talk about “a Ray Harryhausen film”, and people who love films will probably know what you’re talking about.

Harryhausen was the grand master of stop-motion animation.  Basically, he was creating cartoons, except with flexible models rather than flat drawings.  The work was extremely painstaking: he would move the model slightly, expose a frame of film, then move it again, expose another frame, and on and on until he had finished a scene.  (The scene with the animated skeletons lasts about three minutes in the film; it took him four months to complete.)  Then the bits of the film that he shot were integrated into the live action being shot on a set somewhere.

Jason and the Argonauts has plenty of amazing effects (he considered it his masterpiece, and he was right).  The moment when the enormous statue of Talos turns his head can still send a shiver down your spine, and Jason’s fight with the seven-headed Hydra is a minor masterpiece of stop-motion artistry.  But the one scene that makes this film a classic is the short, climactic battle between Jason and his men and a dozen or so warrior skeletons who sprout up from the ground armed with swords and shields.  For me, it’s up there with King Kong climbing the Empire State Building or Cary Grant being chased through a cornfield by a crop duster – it’s one of those scenes that every film lover has to know.  All by its surrealistic self, it’s worth the price of admission.

The movie ends abruptly.  The last few lines of dialogue, between Zeus and Hera, do everything but come out and say that there would be a sequel in which Jason would return and deal with the evil king who murdered his family.  But Harryhausen decided to devote his efforts to a series of films featuring Sinbad the Sailor, and the promised sequel never materialized.  Or rather, there was a sequel, in 1981, but it had nothing to do with Jason.  It was called Clash of the Titans, and it had a bigger budget, a much more stellar cast (Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Clair Bloom, Harry Hamlin, Ursula Andress) the same director, one of the same writers (Beverley Cross) and some terrific Ray Harryhausen effects.  Unfortunately, in the intervening years, Star Wars had appeared, ushering in a new world of computer-generated special effects, and Harryhausen’s animated models seemed comparatively arthritic.  It was his last film; he died in 2013 at the age of 92.

Don Chaffey’s direction is efficient; although he’s not working with a cast of thousands, he creates an epic look, helped by a lot of location shooting off the Italian coast.  Chaffey became an extremely prolific director for television, first in England and later in America, and his name is on many episodes of some of my favorite shows of the 1960s: Secret Agent, The Avengers, The Prisoner.  The screenplay, with dialogue that is formal but never stilted, and frequently witty, is by Beverley Cross and Jan Read, both of whom, despite their first names, were men.  (In fact, Cross was Maggie Smith’s second husband.)

The score is by Bernard Herrmann, whose name ranks at least as highly among film-lovers as Ray Harryhausen’s.  He began his career with Citizen Kane, he finished it with Taxi Driver, and in between he wrote the music for many of Hitchcock’s greatest films – including Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest.  Herrmann limits his orchestra to winds and percussion, giving the film a suitably “barbaric”, slightly primitive feel.

The actors, none of them major stars, are all more than adequate for their roles:  the good guys attractively stolid, the villains over-the-top, the gods amusedly aloof.  Todd Armstrong began his career in 1961 as a co-star on a television series called Manhunt.  Two years later he was cast in the title role of Jason and the Argonauts.  Apart from a handful of film and television appearances, his career was essentially over in 1983, and he committed suicide nine years later after learning that he had contracted AIDS.  Apparently, he was also embittered by the fact that all his dialogue in Jason was dubbed by an English actor because his own accent sounded too American in a predominantly British cast.

Although she’s listed second in the credits, Nancy Kovack (Medea) doesn’t actually come into the film until it’s almost two-thirds over, and she really doesn’t make much impression (apart from being glassily beautiful).  Her American voice was also dubbed by an English actress.  A few years after making the film, she married conductor Zubin Mehta and settled into life as a socialite after he was appointed Music Director of the New York Philharmonic in the 1970s-80s.

The other cast member worth a mention is Honor Blackman (Hera), who starred in The Avengers for a couple of years before becoming Pussy Galore in the James Bond film Goldfinger.

Before presenting Ray Harryhausen with a Lifetime Achievement award at the 1992 Academy Awards ceremony, Tom Hanks (who was born about a year after me and about a year before my brother) said, “Some people say Casablanca or Citizen Kane. I say Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film ever made.”  Well, no, it’s not, really.  But for people of a certain age who were kids when it first came out, it provided a vision of what films could offer – stranger worlds, weirder creatures, bolder adventures.  For what it is, and for what it set out to be, it’s pretty near perfect.

BRITFILM – “The Holly and the Ivy” (1952)


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In one of my other lives, I’m the administrator of a playwriting competition.  Every year, anywhere between 200 and 300 scripts are submitted.  Of these, I would estimate (since I don’t actually read all the plays myself – I parcel them out among a dozen or so readers) that at least 30% have the same basic plot line: A group of people, frequently members of the same family, are brought together for some occasion – a wedding, a funeral, a holiday, something plausible – and, in the course of their gathering, long-held secrets and grievances are finally aired and brought to some sort of conclusion.

The Holly and the Ivy by Wynyard Browne was such a play.  It was produced in London’s West End in 1950 and proved to be successful enough that two years later it was turned into a film with some fairly big-name British stars in the leading roles.  It’s not a particularly imaginative film, cinematically speaking; aside from a handful of short scenes inserted at the beginning to provide a little background to the characters, this is a fairly straightforward filming of the play, set entirely on the ground floor of a Norfolk parsonage.  It could have been made for television.  As it happens, this places all the focus on the script (which is a good one) and the performances (which are excellent).

The occasion here is Christmas.  The head of the family is an amiable, disorganized parson, the Rev. Martin Gregory (played by Ralph Richardson), and it’s the first Christmas since the death of his wife the previous spring.  His slightly dowdy daughter Jenny (Celia Johnson) has put off her engagement to a young Scotsman (John Gregson) in order to take care of her father and the parsonage.  Another daughter, glamorous Margaret (Margaret Leighton), has been working in London as a fashion journalist; she has a couple of secrets, including a drinking problem and a wartime love affair that produced a child.  There’s also a son, Michael (Denholm Elliott), a high-spirited and slightly bitter young man serving (not very competently) in the British Army.  They’re all at the parsonage for the holiday, along with two elderly aunts and a middle-aged cousin.

Margaret and Michael announce that they’re abandoning the family on Christmas Eve to go to the movies but actually head to the pub for some heavy drinking.  Upon his return, Michael drunkenly informs his father that nobody can tell him the truth because he’s a parson (and presumably too unworldly to understand the problems of his family); and soon thereafter, all the grievances begin to spill out.

The Holly and the Ivy is superbly acted in the stiff-upper-lip style that was prevalent in British films at the time and that would seem hopelessly outdated about ten years later.  Ralph Richardson was fairly unique as a leading man – pudgy, homely, with a gift for playing apparently ordinary people who live at a slight angle to the rest of the world.  Here he offers a kind, unintellectual man who loves to serve his parishioners while doubting that they even pay much attention to him.  Every performance I’ve ever seen by Celia Johnson (including Brief Encounter, In Which We Serve, The Captain’s Paradise and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) has been extraordinarily impressive – she could do more with her eyes than most actors could do with their whole bodies – and here, although she’s about 15 years too old for her role (and looks it), she conveys the pain of a woman who is sacrificing her future happiness for the sake of her father.  Along with the rest of an extremely fine cast, they make what could have been a soggy, cliché-ridden soap opera into a gripping piece of entertainment.