Produced at the RKO Studio and scripted and directed by Orson Welles; this film is a flawed classic, missing about forty minutes of the original version. It is screening on BBC 4 this coming Thursday [May 19th] as one of the titles accompanying the six part documentary, The RKO Story Tales from Hollywood’ [Hollywood the Golden Years: The RKO Story]. This is a six part series, each episode an hour long, originally produced and transmitted in 1987. It makes a welcome return to terrestrial television and is accompanied by a number of classic titles from the RKO Studio. The series was jointly produced by the BBC and RKO Pictures. The RKO studio closed in 1957 but had a reinvention in the 1980s as RKO Pictures Inc. This company controlled the archive of studio records and titles. These offer a wealth of information on RKO presented by Edward Asner. But what makes the series stands out are the interviews with surviving stars and production personnel from the studio era. This provides an impressive and fascinating account of the studio; something that is rarely offered in contemporary cinema programmes.
On Thursday May 19th part four of the series deals with the period in which Orson Welles worked at RKO. Following the seminal Citizen Kane Welles then made an adaptation of the novel ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ [Ambersons] by Booth Tarkington. Not that well known now in the early decades of the C20th Tarkington was a popular and highly respected writer; he won Pulitzer Prizes for two of his novels, ‘Ambersons’ and Alice Adams. The latter was filmed at RKO in 1935. In fact both ‘Ambersons’ and ‘Alice Adams’ were also filmed in silent versions in the 1920s.
Tarkington was the chronicler of ‘mid-western USA’; in another sense that central cultural artefact in US Americana, ‘small-town America’. As well as the two award-winning novels Tarkington also wrote a series of ‘Penrod’ stories; following young boys growing up in a Midwestern town. Welles read these and other Tarkington works in his youth. He remained an admirer. Welles himself and his biographers frequently drew attention to the parallels between his childhood and characters and settings in the Tarkington novels. Simon Callow, in his biopic of the years leading up to Welles’ Hollywood ventures , ‘Orson Welles The Road to Xanadu’. quotes a description of a mansion in ‘Ambersons’ which was very similar to Welles’ first home.
In fact, Welles adapted the novel in his long-running series of radio adaptations; in October 1939 in the Campbell Playhouse on CBS. In this version Welles played the key protagonist, George Amberson Minafer. However, when it came to a film, with a character seen and heard, Welles settled for the narrative voice. In one of those innovations of which Welles was so fond, even the credits were voiced by Welles as narrator.
The story in the novel and the film follows the declining fortunes of the Amberson clan.
Major Amberson had “made a fortune” in 1878, when other people were losing fortunes, and the magnificence of the Ambersons began then. Magnificence, like the size of a fortune, is always comparative, as even Magnificent Lorenzo may now perceive, if he has happened to haunt New York in 1916; and the Ambersons were magnificent in their day and place. Their splendour lasted throughout all the years that saw their Midland town spread and darken into a city, but reached its topmost during the period when every prosperous family with children kept a Newfoundland dog.
Times moved on and the family fortunes declined as new social movements and new technologies arose. The Ambersons’ decline was symbolised in both novel and film by the arrival and rise of the motor car. The Major’s daughter Isabel was courted by a host of ‘ineligible’ young men. Finally she chose and married Wilbur Minafer,
a steady young man and a good churchgoer . . .
The marriage dashed the hopes of another young romantic, Eugene Morgan, who left town. The Minafer marriage was passionless and Isabel devoted her love and attention to the child George Amberson Minafer. He was bought up a spoilt and arrogant child and young man; one whose behaviours caused many townspeople to wait for his ‘comeuppance’. Meanwhile Eugene returned to town, a widower and with a daughter. He became a pioneer in the new motor-car business and grew wealthy. Young George disliked Eugene and his business but found Eugene’s daughter Lucy very attractive. Minafer suffered from bad investments and died. Eugene renewed his romantic interest in Isabel but George prevented the potential union. Later Lucy turned down George’s proposal of marriage, partly because of his behaviour, partly because of his arrogance.
After Isabel’s death it was discovered that family fortune has evaporated. The great Amberson mansion was sold. George and his Aunt Fanny, who for years has carried a passion for Eugene, were forced into lowly lodgings. George, for the first time in his life, was forced to work in manual labour at Eugene’s factory; ‘comeuppance!’. Then George was injured in an accident and in both versions he is visited in hospital by Eugene, but there are different resolutions in the situation of the characters.
The film of Ambersons was shot at the RKO Studio and around Los Angeles. When production finished Welles had directed a rough cut of approximately 132 minutes. Welles, in characteristic fashion, was already involved in a new film, It’s All True; to be shot in Latin America, mainly Brazil, and a film supporting the US war effort and its ‘Good Neighbour policy’ in Latin America. Welles accepted the full-length Ambersons needed cuts and entrusted this to the editor Robert Wise. After some editing and two previews the film was seen as a likely box office failure. Welles, who had the unusual option of a ‘final cut’ on Citizen Kane, had lost this option after changes in his contract. RKO bosses took over and Wise’s editing finally produced a version running only 88 minutes. There were reshot and additional scenes, [some by Wise, some by Fred Fleck]; moreover the finale of the film was reshot to produce a clear resolution.
Welles was appalled by the cuts and changes in the release version. Film critics and later audiences have tended to see the result as an example of Hollywood ‘commercial butchery’. What remains and what is known of Welles’ original version suggest a film that would have offered an equivalence to Citizen Kane though with a very different tone and some rather different stylistic achievements. The Studio later destroyed the original negatives so that a ‘director’s cut’ was not possible. In the 1970s Welles toyed with the idea of completing the film in some way but nothing came of this. There was a rough cut with sound sent for inspection by Welles as he worked in Brazil. This has never been found, though fresh searches are regularly organised, it remains a lost ‘holy grail’ rather like Erich von Stroheim’s earlier butchered masterpiece, Greed (1924).
Welles wrote a number of letters and memos suggesting ways of reducing the film’s length; these were mainly ignored. Peter Bogdanovich in ‘This is Orson Welles’ (1993, a series of interviews and supporting materials) provides a lot of detail and extracts. At one point Welles suggested a ‘happy ending’ which differs from that imposed on the film. Bogdanovich also includes records from the preview screenings and it is apparent that the audience responses were not as bad as suggested; a minority of comments were positive. However, there was new studio management, and as with Von Stroheim and M-G-M, there seems to have been a basic antagonism to Welles and his project.
Yet the surviving film is still a fine example of Welles’ film-making. The overall elegiac tone of the film is maintained until the changed ending; Welles reckoned the first sixty minutes were a reasonable approximation of his intent.. Cinematically it has many bravura qualities reminiscent of Citizen Kane. There are great set pieces like a sleigh ride in the snow: an Amberson grandiose entertainment in the impressive mansion: the gloom of the decline as family members die and the fortune melts away: and the settings in the changed circumstances of George and Fanny. As with Kane the sets that Welles required to be designed and constructed are really impressive and innovatory; some of the ceiling effects late in the film are impressive. Many of the craft people are not credited in the film version. This includes the production design by Albert S. Agostino. Mark Lee Kirk gets a credit as Set Designer, which presumably included the Amberson mansion built with moveable walls to allow long tracking shots in the interiors. The cinematography by Stanley Cortez is excellent, there are Welles typical use of chiaroscuro and long takes: fine tracking shots: and the use of blocking and reflections in windows and mirrors. But Welles found him too slow compared with Gregg Toland who filmed Citizen Kane and he was dismissed before the end of principal cinematography; a couple of personnel worked on late shots uncredited. The sound team are likewise only partially credited though their work is as impressive as the cinematography; both contributing to the powerful ambience created in the Amberson mansion and the later lodging house. Wise’s editing is good, allowing for the studio imposed cuts: but the latter replaced a lengthy camera movement for the ball sequence with a number of cuts: and there was some more uncredited editing work. There is no music credit though the surviving music is fine: the score was by Bernard Hermann but his music was also cut down by the studio and replaced in places so he had his name removed from the credits.
The cast are very good. Dolores del Rio really achieves Isabel and Tim Holt makes an excellent George. Richard Bennett is the Major and patriarch. Both Joseph Cotten as Eugene and Anne Baxter as Lucy make fine contributions. And there is an outstanding performance from Agnes Moorehead as Fanny; her late scene after the family collapse is memorable. Another Welles regular, Ray Collins, as Isabel’s brother Jack, brings a slightly caustic note in the decline. But dominating the whole film is the narration of Orson Welles. Unseen but with one of the memorable voices in Hollywood cinema, much of the tone of the film is down to this audio aspect.
The parallels between Welles himself and the Tarkington character are found in his childhood and subsequently as an adult film-maker. Ambersons seemed to many a ‘comeuppance’ for this young, thrusting and egoistical artist; this was especially true in the Hollywood studios. Welles never again enjoyed the control he exercised on Citizen Kane or during the actual production of Ambersons. In the 1970s Welles appeared in a lengthy interview on BBC television. At one point he commented,
I always liked Hollywood but they never reciprocated.
One can see this, not just in Ambersons, but in later projects made in Hollywood studios. The best of these was Touch of Evil (1957) but that film was re-cut and changed. Welles produced a long letter setting out how he had envisaged and filmed the original. In 1998 this was the basis for a restored version which approximates to the vision of Welles. But to date material for a likewise restoration of Ambersons is wanting. Charles Higham in his biography comments finally,
some streak of anti commercialism drove him . . .
I t is true that Welles was more interested in art than in commerce but recognising him as an iconoclast [as does Bogdanovich] is better. He was iconoclastic about the studios: about theatre: many features of genre movies: styles of management: and the dominant political discourse. Successful directors in Hollywood needed to love, or at least fit in with, the box-office, Alfred Hitchcock is a prime example. The ironies in the making of Ambersons in many ways parallel the ironies in the Tarkington original novel and in the film itself.
Higham also recognises Welles artistic talents, his biography is sub-titled ‘The rise and fall of an American Genius’; more accurate would be a ‘US genius’, but Welles achievement in theatre, radio and film do stand out in these arts. But he was a wayward genius. His ego interfered with his work with supporting artists. He often did not give due credit where due credit was due. Stanley Cortez was taken off Ambersons because Welles found his work to slow. But the many of the replacement shots after his exit were poorly executed.
And Welles was overly ambitious. He was always juggling a number of artistic projects; often too many even for his talent Thus in the later stages of the Amberson production Welles was involved in producing, scripting and acting in Journey into Fear (1943): He was producing an unfinished segment [Bonito the Bull] for a planned film It’s All True: preparing for his trip to South America for what was eventually the proposed but unfinished film, It’s All True: a CBS radio series The Lady Esther Show: and politically, with the Pacific war beginning, involved with the Roosevelt government in ideas for the war effort and in addition a campaign to save Soviet diplomats in danger from the Nazis. This also was typical of Welles’ career.
Even so, Welles’ career, and this particular film, stand out in the world of film, radio and theatre. The story of the vicissitudes of The Magnificent Ambersons, told many times in various biographies and studies, is a depressing one. Yet the film that remains is still a fine experience and well worth watching many times. It is some years since I saw a screening on 35mm, its original format. However, the digital facsimiles on the BBC should be of good video quality. And the impressive soundtrack of the movie will be good. A flawed Orson Welles film is still a greater experience than much of the alternative product produced in Hollywood.
The RKO Story: Tales from Hollywood is available on the BBC I-Player for a short period; in a slighty different order from the transmission.
- Birth of a Titan
The founding of the Studio as sound arrived and its early days and films: only available until May 22nd
- Let’s Face the Music and Dance
The 1930s musicals, mainly Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
- A Woman’s Lot
The woman stars, Lucille Ball, Katherine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers
- It’s All True
RKO and Orson Welles
- Dark Victory
RKO and film noir [including HUAC] and Robert Mitchum
- Howard’s Way
Howard Hughes and the studio; and its demise.
Each episode has two classic RKO title accompanying it.
Episode 1 King Kong (1933) and The Thing From Another World (1951)
Episode 2 Bringing Up Baby (19380 and My Favourite Wife (1940)
Episode 3 Top Hat (1935) and The Gay Divorcee (1934)
Episode 4 Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Episode 5 Suspicion (1941) and Angel Face (1953)
Episode 6 Not yet listed but the BBC already screened Hughes’ The Outlaw (1943) between episodes.
‘This Is Orson Welles Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich’ (1993) has a detailed breakdown by the editor Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Welles original Ambersons and what remained of this in the studio version.
From early in my film-going career I was a fan of Charles Laughton. So I was very pleased to be offered a review of this new volume. David Redfern’s earlier book was ‘A Letter of Introduction: The Life and Films of James Stephenson’ (BearManor Media, 2013), the British born performer who worked in Hollywood and even won an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in The Letter (1940). Now Redfern turns to the even more famous British actor who worked here and in Hollywood. Laughton, in life and on screen, was a larger than life character. He was a fine actor on stage and screen though in the latter case he could (as is noted in this book) perform over the top. The study provides a brief résumé of his life and career but it mainly details and discusses the fifty four films in which he was involved.
This has required long and extensive research. Even as a fan I have not seen all his screen appearances. Some of his earliest ones are believed lost: some are only available in film archives: a number that do survive are rarely seen in the cinema: whilst the most popular do tend to be available on 35 mm and in digital facsimiles. The author has viewed all the possible titles and researched those that are lost.
The films are set out chronologically. Each title has full production details including the craft and actors uncredited. He also includes information on the available versions of the film. There is a full synopsis and then a production commentary. The latter includes contemporary comments and extracts from reviews. With the sound films he has included ‘taglines’ taken from studio publicity and contemporary reviews There is also selected dialogue from many of the films; sadly Laughton’s films were not always served with the most literate dialogue. He includes details of the career of Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s long time partner and fellow actor who appeared on stage and on screen with him in numerous occasions.
I have seen the three titles in which Laughton appeared in supporting roles to Elsa Lanchester, directed by Ivor Montage: Blue Bottles (1928): Day Dreams (1928): The Tonic (1928). We only get glimpses of Laughton but these short films, really part of an avant-garde cinema, are worth seeing, though such opportunities are rare. Ivor Montagu remains a fascinating figure from the silent era; his relationship with other progressive filmmakers, like Sergei Eisenstein, is an important but marginalized space in British cinema. Some lost or rare British commercial titles bought Laughton to the attention of Hollywood and Paramount Pictures. The Devil and the Deep (1932) has an early appearance for Cary Grant: a powerful but really too forceful performance by Laughton: and an incredibly complicated and implausible plot.
The 1933 The Private of Henry VIII was a key title in developing Laughton’s film career winning him an Academy Award. There are details of the director’s, Alexander Korda, thoughts on working with Laughton.
“Although he later complained, “Charles needs a midwife, not a director”, he and Laughton hit it off, at least initially.”
As with many colleagues Laughton was seen as a talented but demanding associate.
The other outstanding characterizations of the 1930s must include Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1936), with a tagline “The flaming pages of history record the grandest adventure of all time”: Javert in Les Misérables (1935), for which “Laughton trudged through slime and mud fo9r shots representing the Parisian sewers”: as Rembrandt (1936), who receives the line “Vanity of vanities. All in Vanity”: and a personal favourite as the title character in The Hunchback of the Notre Dame (1939), tagline “Magnificent Beyond Compare”. There is a quote of the famous line,
“Quasimodo :”Why was I not made of stone like thee?””
addressed to the cathedral gargoyles in the outstanding closing shot.
There is also director, William Dieterle with his comments on Laughton;
“Charles |Laughton is the most eccentric person I have ever met.”
There were British films in this period, including St. Martin’s Lane (1938), a portrait of London Buskers: and the less satisfactory Hitchcock production Jamaica Inn (1939). Also less outstanding would be as Captain Kidd (1945) or the repeat Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952). But then there is Hobson’s Choice (1954) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957); both films which lit up my film going in the 1950s. Both enjoyed direction by major artists, David Lean and Billy Wilder.
I only caught The Night of the Hunter (1955) in the 1960s: a masterwork which sadly was Laughton’s only foray as director; though as the author notes, along with fellow co-stars, he had directorial inputs on The Man in the Eiffel Tower (1949). But the 1955 masterwork is of a different order;
“steeped in images that are memorable and striking. And yet at the same time, the hypnotic nature of these images is often complex and difficult to fathom.”
He notes the importance of the artifacts, including out-takes, bequeathed by Elsa Lanchester to the American Film Institute.
With all of these the author offers an extended commentary drawing out the virtues of Laughton’s performance and interesting detail on the course of the productions. He ends, as did Laughton’s career, with the very fine Advise and Consent (1962). The author notes the studio poster publicity which asked;
“Are the men and women of Washington really like this?”
A question that would be unnecessary today.
The study reminds one just how varied was Laughton’s career as well as the way that it went up and down, both in the quality of the performances and in the success or otherwise of the releases. The individual assessments are clear though. I did not agree with all of them; I remember liking They Knew What They Wanted (1940) and liking Laughton’s performance. But the comments made me want to revisit the film and reappraise it.
The appendices are thorough and useful We find the ‘short’, ‘unreleased’ and ‘re-edited’ films with ‘unfulfilled projects’. There are lists of both amateur and professional stage appearances. And a selection of Laughton’s work on radio, television and recordings. Then we have three Appendix on films listed by studio, performance and cinematographers; the last is very interesting. Finally we have the Chapter Notes: a Bibliography: and a General Index. There are a number of illustrative stills and photographs, usually about a column wide [two columns a page] and the definition of these is good.
I was happy to read a comprehensive and detailed study of Laughton’s film work. Some of the titles I have seen in recent years, notably The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Witness for the Prosecution; they stand up really well. And the book is encouraging me to seek out more of his other titles. He remains a key and iconic character from the days of studio production.
Charles Laughton A Filmography, 1928 – 1962
David A. Redfern. McFarland & Company, Inc. 2021
2013 pages with illustrations.
Available in print and as an ebook.
‘Queen & Country’ as a title is a reference to British military ideologies about patriotism and ‘service’ to the monarchy and the establishment. Written and directed by John Boorman the film is the belated sequel to Boorman’s 1987 film Hope and Glory that proved to be both a commercial and critical hit. Twenty-seven years is a long gap between the titles with a whole generation of new cinemagoers probably unaware of the earlier film. Both films are autobiographical to a certain extent. In Hope and Glory the central character, like Boorman himself in 1942, is nine years old. In the sequel he is eighteen and about to be called up for National Service in 1951. I’ve written about National Service in some detail in a recent post on The Bofors Gun (1968). Queen & Country was initially welcomed as probably the last film to be released by John Boorman and he duly gave interviews to festival reporters and critics. However the film didn’t fully live up to expectations at the box office and later commentators took against the film. I wonder if the setting of the story and in particular the unique cultural context of Britain in the early 1950s was just not understood by audiences, especially outside the UK? But actually the UK/Irish market was not even its strongest box office territory in Europe where the French market prevailed. Part of this failure might have been because the film screened at Cannes and was acquired by Artificial Eye in the UK, best known as an arthouse distributor. I enjoyed the film very much but I can see that it presented problems to distributors.
John Boorman has had a long and eventful career. He made an initial breakthrough in UK television before directing his first feature film, the pop vehicle Catch Us If You Can featuring the then very successful singles band the Dave Clark Five. The film worked well enough to enable Boorman to move to Hollywood where he made three features that catapulted him into an international standing as a brave and innovative director: Point Blank (1967), Hell in the Pacific (1968) and Deliverance (1972). Meanwhile, he had bought a house in Ireland where he has been based ever since. From his new Irish base in County Wicklow he made Zardoz (1974) and Excalibur in 1981. In between he returned to Hollywood to make Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), a film which seems to have offended many and didn’t make money as far as I’m aware. Boorman remained a director capable of raising finance for several further features, including the successful Irish crime film The General in 1998 with Brendan Gleeson and Adrian Dunbar. He also wrote about film. Before he became a filmmaker he had been a reviewer and in 1992 he became the co-founder and editor of Faber & Faber’s long-running series Projections: Film-makers on Film-making. Hope and Glory had been by then a rare British-based production as Boorman preferred making films in what he saw as exotic and interesting locations. The London location of Hope and Glory was personal for Boorman, broadly nostalgic for some audiences and an accessible child’s perspective on the ‘war at home’ for others. Queen & Country had by June 2015 (when the film was released in the UK) become more of a historical drama, looking back at a time less remembered/well-known.
In late 1951 Boorman’s alter ego, Bill (Callum Turner) is called up for his National Service and immediately bonds with another new conscript Percy (Caleb Landry Jones). Together they will have an eventful time over the next two years, despite never leaving Southern England. Bill is a bright lad, more than capable of coping with the Army’s procedures without losing his sense of independent thought. Percy is more of a tearaway. Both young men represent a challenge to the Army’s procedures designed to train young men to take orders without question. The narrative weaves together separate strands involving Bill’s pursuit of the beautiful but mysterious young woman (played by Tamsin Egerton) he has seen across the river from his house each morning and Bill and Percy’s ongoing battle with Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewlis). The social context for these stories is Bill’s family life in their house on an island in the Thames near Shepperton and the national events of the Korean War, the death of King George VI and the televised Coronation of Elizabeth II. The national context is crucial and Boorman himself has spoken about it in various interviews (especially in Sight & Sound July 2015) and in his memoir Adventures of a Suburban Boy (2003). In 1951 The post-war Labour government lost an election in which it still won the popular vote but the Conservatives won most seats. The new Government under the wartime leader Winston Churchill faced the prospect of fighting three separate wars in Korea as part of a United Nations force and in colonial conflicts in Malaya and Kenya. In each of these conflicts it would be necessary to use National Service conscripts like Bill.
Boorman has spoken about the generational differences that became apparent in the UK at this time and how they were crystallised in the National Service experience. The generation who had fought the war were still prepared to try to hold on to the Empire which was already crumbling. In Aldershot the conflict is between Bill and Percy as National Service youths and Sergeant Major Bradley (David Thewliss). After Basic Training, Bill and Percy are selected as Instructors and promoted to Sergeant (presumably instructors had to be at least sergeants). They are supposed to teach the new conscripts how to type but Bill in particular attempts to subvert the Army’s ideology with the remarks he makes to his ‘students’. This does not go down well with Bradley. Bill and Percy also become involved with Private Redmond, a ‘skiver’ who has avoided posting abroad by feigning various medical conditions. Redmond is a generic character in many military narratives involving conscription and is here played by the Irish comic actor Pat Shortt, a popular figure in Irish film and TV. In his Sight & Sound review (July 2015), Philip Kemp suggests that Queen & Country is something of an ‘episodic clutter’ reminiscent of ‘an army sitcom series’. In one sense I agree and the ongoing battle between Redmond and Bradley is a reminder of Granada’s The Army Game which ran on ITV between 1957 and 1961 and which is part of the National Service cycle of films. Meanwhile at home and with both the mystery woman and the two nurses that Bill and Percy meet, the generation gap is explored in different ways. Bill is not very enthusiastic when his father buys a TV set to watch the Coronation in June 1953.
Queen & Country is mostly comedic in terms of the ‘army sit-com’, more like a romantic comedy drama/sexual awakening involving the mystery woman and the two nurses and a family melodrama back on Bill’s island home. However, it becomes much darker towards the end of the narrative, suggesting perhaps that Bill learns a great deal from his National Service experiences. The film worked very well for me, but then it should. It’s difficult to to work out what audiences without the historical background might make of it. At times the comedy is almost farcical, but it is carried through with conviction. Note the name of the regiment in the image above, the RARF, the Royal Agincourt Regiment of Foot. (A name which made me think of Carry On . . . Up the Khyber (1968).) But perhaps the the biggest mistake is the casting of Caleb Landry Jones as Percy. The Texan is now a significant actor in Hollywood, but I don’t think he was in 2014. He looks like he could be English but his accent in the film is all over the place and in the image above where he and Callum Turner are meant to be standing ‘at ease’ in the CO’s office, everything about his stance is wrong. As a generic character in comedy about young men, he is fine but as a significant figure in Boorman’s complex presentation of time and place he is ‘out of place’.
But despite this problem, Boorman displays his skill in many scenes and he works his cinephilia into the narrative which starts and ends with a filming sequence by the Thames at Shepperton. Later Bill will take his date to see Kurosawa’s Rashomon. I thought Callum Turner was excellent as the Boorman alter ego and Tamsin Egerton and David Thewlis should also be singled out. Vanessa Kirby makes the most of the small part of Bill’s sister returning from Canada. Queen & Country is widely available. I watched it on BFI Player but it is on many other streamers to rent or buy as well. John Boorman is one of the best British directors of the last 50 years and I must now re-watch some of the earlier films. Here’s the US trailer:
Menelik was a pioneer in the emerging ‘Black British’ cinema in the 1970s. My introduction to his work was of his first feature Burning an Illusion (1981). This was only the second British feature by a Black director and writer, following on from Horace Ové’s Pressure (1975).
Burning an Illusion follows the relationship between Pat Williams (Cassie McFarlane) and Del Bennett (Victor Romero Evans). Pat has imbibed the dominant values of British society regarding work and order; Del is laid-back and rebellious, though not in an obvious political sense. Over the course of their relationship their attitudes evolve and change, very much due to the racism of British Society and central institutions such as the police. The resolution of the film offered both a critical but positive stage in their lives.
I was really impressed; in fact I saw it twice over in a year. Since then I have followed Menelik’s work. In fact he had already made two shorter documentaries and in the 1980s was a key member of both Kuumba Productions and the Ceddo Film and Video Workshop. He also made several documentaries including for Channel 4 and the BBC.
The major title at Ceddo was Time and Judgement (1988) which Menelik described as a ‘sci-fi / documentary. This was a avant-garde film constructed with a sophisticated montage [Soviet style] of film footage from both Britain and from Africa and presenting a variety of political standpoints on fighting racism. The film had a strong interest in Rastafaria, an abiding theme in Menelik work. It gave a powerful testimony of experience and resistance. The film was not easy to see; I caught it years later at the Hyde Park Picture House in essentially an archive screening. Rather like the experimental films of the Black Audio Film Collective this does not seem to have impacted on more recent Black British film-making.
Menelik has scripted several of his features and has also worked as a producer. Despite the critical success of Burning an Illusion Menelik has found it difficult to obtain funding for his work. Both the more recent documentaries, The Story of Lover’s Rock (2011)and Looking for Love (2015), were produced independently with Menelik also organising the distribution of the titles.
I saw The Story of Lovers Rock at Bradford’s Media Museum, presented by Menelik himself. The genre ‘Lovers’ Rock’ was new to me but the film, and indeed the audience, made it a memorable event. I caught Looking for Love at Seven; a small community venue in North Leeds. This was also presented by Menelik, working not just as a filmmaker but as publicist and distributor for his work.
Most recently I saw his last release, Pharaohs Unveiled (2019) which is a documentary setting forth a Rastafaria history of the roots of African culture. Given to a Marxist perspective I did not really get to grips with the film; it was done with Menelik’s usual skill. However, whilst some of Menelik politics are way removed from mine I have found his uncompromising recording of the Black experience and Black resistance powerfully relevant whilst his drawing together of pan-African and British movements is stimulating.
Menelik was a a tireless activist as well as filmmaker. He founded and edited for a number of years a journal bfm / black filmmaker magazine with its own festival, celebrating Black filmmaking here and abroad. The Magazine continues on line from the USA. He also was involved in education and production work. I met him when he was a participant in student film production workshops at the Bradford International Film Festival. And I was able to record an extensive interview with him.
Menelik had his own Web Pages which his family are maintaining. There is also a link to a Vimeo site with information on and trailers for his films. This is helpful because the other sites I checked [like IMDB and Wikipedia] only showed selected titles. There are trailers for his main features and a number of the shorter documentaries, many complete for viewing. There is his first film Step Forward Youth: Blood Ah Goh Run which addressed the New Cross Fire massacre of January 1981, but also relating it to State, Police and Media racism and Black Resistance leading to the uprisings in the same year: and Breaking Point: the SUS Law Controversy, an issue especially in the 1970s.
Menelik was a key pioneer in a Black British Cinema. The S&S latest ‘Weekly Film Bulletin’ carried a short tribute and his Burning an Illusion is currently available on the BFI Player. I think that his contribution does not currently enjoy the resonance it deserves. Roy has written on the BBC ‘Small Axe’ series. These dramas built on earlier films like those of Menelik Shabazz but the publicity and material surrounding the series did not really give the pioneers the attention they deserve. For most of his filmmaking career Menelik had to work outside the dominant film and television industries. The films’ overt critical political standpoint could not find a space there. But his films remain worth watching and his political commentaries are still relevant today.
Stage Fright is an unusual film in several ways and seems to have been dismissed as ‘lesser Hitchcock’, partly because the director himself later spoke about it as a failure. It was the first of the films Hitchcock made for Warner Bros. after his attempts to make features for his own company Transatlantic Pictures. The two Transatlantic films were distributed by Warner Bros. so it wasn’t a big shift in industry terms. Stage Fright seems in some ways a reversion to ‘English Hitchcock’ and in this respect rather different to The Paradine Case (1947) made for Selznick in London. The latter title perhaps has an ‘international’ feel with Louis Jordan and Alida Valli in important roles and several leading American character actors supporting Gregory Peck as the star. Jane Wyman still fresh from her Oscar success in Johnny Belinda (1948) leads the cast of Stage Fright and is convincing for me as a young Englishwoman. Marlene Dietrich is a star singer but the rest of the cast is stuffed with well known British faces. The film is also one of Hitchcock’s more successful comedy hybrids with a winning performance from Alastair Sim (though Hitchcock perhaps found Sim ‘too much’ at times).
Adapted from Selwyn Jepson’s novel Man Running by Whitfield Cook and Hitchcock’s wife and fellow filmmaker Alma Reville, the novel’s title alone suggests a Hitchcock film. The change of title for the adaptation then points to a narrative in which a range of ‘performances’ by different ‘actors’ become central to the narrative. The opening credits appear over a theatre safety curtain which then rises to reveal the streets around St Paul’s with wartime bomb damage still visible in the open plots where buildings have been demolished. The film will end with the safety curtain coming down.
Driving past St Paul’s is Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) in her open two-seater with Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd). Almost immediately Cooper begins to explain why he has asked Eve to drive him out of town. He begins a long flashback which will reveal details of how he has helped the singer Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) escape from a murder scene in which her husband has been killed. But in doing so, Jonathan has incriminated himself. Eve must be infatuated with Jonathan since she appears to accept his story and the implication that he is besotted with Charlotte. She takes Jonathan to the coast and he hides out in her father’s house while Eve returns to London to try to find out more about Charlotte and how she might discover how to prove Jonathan is innocent. It is this opening with its flashback that has proved controversial about the film. Today it perhaps doesn’t cause the same problems. See what you think when you’ve watched the film.
At this point the narrative appears familiar but also altered from the ‘romance thriller’ structure that Hitchcock had been developing since the mid-1930s. Jonathan effectively disappears from the narrative for the entire central section of the film. He is ‘replaced’ by Inspector Smith (Michael Wilding) who is in charge of the murder enquiry. Eve is a drama student enrolled at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and she hopes to use her performance skills to get close to Charlotte. She approaches the Inspector in the hope of learning something but there is clearly already an attraction between them and she christens him ‘Ordinary’ Smith. ‘Ordinary’ has replaced Jonathan as the active agent in the narrative. The investigation will play out in a typically Hitchcockian manner with misunderstandings aplenty. Eve’s parents live separately but in the circumstances are re-united to help Eve. Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike make a suitable ‘odd couple’ who might help or hinder. The other significant character is Charlotte’s maid played entertainingly by Kay Walsh in a rather sour Cockney role. Walsh had been a lead player in the 1930s and 1940s and this is one of her early ‘character roles’, the kind of roles female lead players were often expected to take as they got older.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot details, so I’ll just work on some of the interesting angles re Hitchcock’s approach. The reason I re-watched Stage Fright, which I had seen many years ago but largely forgotten, was because one of the paper’s in last weekend’s Hitchcock Symposium on Performance was by Melanie Williams on ‘Richard Todd suffers Stage Fright: neurotic postwar British masculinity’. Todd is fourth-billed in Stage Fright, but as Melanie pointed out, in 1950 he was ‘hot’ having been highly praised for his role as a badly-wounded soldier in The Hasty Heart (UK 1949) in which he played opposite Patricia Neal and Ronald Reagan. That film was, like Stage Fright, a Warner Bros. picture made in the UK, but in this case in partnership with Associated British (ABPC). Though he was an English public school product (Shrewsbury), Todd was actually Irish and his father was a physician in the British Army. He himself went to Sandhurst and was a Captain in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and then the Parachute Regiment with a distinguished war record. He was also a trained actor from the Italia Conti Academy. He had all the right credentials but not the persona of one of Hitchcock’s ‘gentlemen’. Melanie Williams’ attribution of ‘neurotic masculinity’ in his role as Jonathan Cooper is apt. Note in the image above that he is convincing with his furrowed brow. But he seems a very different kind of character than any of those played by Cary Grant, Ray Milland or Sean Connery – all ironically less suited to be like an English gentleman but pulling it off all the same. Todd’s other problem was that he was playing opposite Michael Wilding who didn’t have the Hollywood prestige of The Hasty Heart but was one of the top British box-office stars, mainly because of his films with Anna Neagle. My personal feeling is that I’m not particularly taken with either Todd or Wilding as male stars but I can see the logic in their casting here.
Wilding as ‘Ordinary’ Smith is charming and witty and at the same time slightly vulnerable to Eve’s allure. There is a kind of ‘pairing’ structure in the film, so Eve and ‘Ordinary’ are matched by Jonathan and Charlotte. Perhaps it is a stretch to extend this to Eve’s parents who don’t really act together, but the Alastair Sim character as her father is active in supporting Eve’s ‘performances’. The fourth key player is Marlene Dietrich as Charlotte. It’s interesting that she plays a singer rather than an actor. Her performance (on stage) of the Cole Porter number ‘The Laziest Gal in Town’ is one of the highlights of the film and I’ve been trying to think of other singing performances in Hitchcock films and so far I’ve only come up with Doris Day in the re-make of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), a great performance but used a little differently by Hitchcock. There must be more in Hitchcock’s early career but I’m much less familiar with films such as Waltzes from Vienna (1934) and The Pleasure Garden (UK-Germany 1925). Charles Barr makes the point in his book English Hitchcock (Cameron and Hollis, 1999) that Hitchcock has always been interested in the role of music in dramas. But another way to look at it is in terms of ‘stage performance’ (or its equivalent). In The 39 Steps (UK 1935), the music hall stage with the ‘Memory Man’ is the setting for the climax and in The Man Who Knew Too Much it is the Albert Hall during a concert. In Stage Fright Hitchcock made use of the stage at RADA (where his daughter Patricia was a student at the time).
Hitchcock and Dietrich were roughly the same age and they had both experienced the German film industry in the 1920s. By all accounts they ‘got on’ well together and he probably didn’t treat her like he did some of his other female leads. Dietrich had learned a great deal about how to be photographed to look her best from Joseph von Sternberg and his camera crews. Hitchcock amazed his own crew by allowing her to dictate lighting and angles for her set-ups. But from the four leads I would pick out Jane Wyman as the revelation. She was in her early thirties when she made the film but I found her convincing as a younger woman. I was also impressed with her performance in All That Heaven Allows in 1955, in which she plays the ‘middle-aged’ widow who falls for Rock Hudson in Douglas Sirk’s melodrama. I realised that I have seen very few of her films and that apart from marrying Ronald Reagan she didn’t make a great impression in her early Hollywood career, often playing second lead in in routine comedies and musicals. It wasn’t until 1946 when Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend was released that she really made a splash. Perhaps it was the early experience of comedy which helped her to get the most out of Stage Fright‘s script?
Because the archives of Sight & Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin are now easily accessible (free to S&S Subscribers) I decided to see what they thought of Stage Fright. Sight & Sound (July 1950) ran an article by Simon Harcourt-Smith in which he argues that Hitchcock is wasting his talent making films that belong in the “peculiar antiseptic dream-world of the bookstall magazine”. He suggests that if he had been lured by “the comparative ‘sophistication’ of Continental studios”, things might have turned out differently. Having dismissed Hitchcock’s Hollywood work more generally, Harcourt-Smith then turns on Stage Fright. He dismisses the central plotline between Eve, Jonathan and ‘Ordinary’ and finds the only amusement in Sim and Dietrich. He suggests that it isn’t a film at all but merely a collection of turns at a theatrical garden party – a critic’s joke since the theatrical garden party in Stage Fright is perhaps not the best of Hitchcock’s ‘set pieces’. It is this kind of criticism that made Robin Wood despair and write his 1965 book on a selection of Hitchcock’s Films. The MFB review by ‘GL’ was probably written by Gavin Lambert. He makes a similar complaint about how Hitchcock could have made the film more lively if he had not only shot it in London but also re-discovered the style of his 1930s English period. But ‘GL’ does this by arguing each point cogently. The review picks out Jane Wyman as the only one of the leads who succeeds in giving an ‘expert performance’. Dietrich “looks magnificent, sings an entertaining Cole Porter song, but fails almost completely in the dramatic scenes . . .” The highest praise is reserved for the smaller parts.
What to make of all this? I think that Stage Fright is a less successful picture but it isn’t the ‘failure’ that it is so often taken to be. I surprised myself by enjoying the film and by becoming interested in the production. It is clear to me that looking back across the whole of Hitchcock’s career, it is possible to place each of the films in context and appreciate them for what they are rather than what we want them to be. In this case, Hitchcock had got a deal with Warner Bros. which gave him some security after the commercial failure of Transatlantic Pictures, but he knew that he must turn a profit on his first venture for the studio. As far as I can see, the film was popular at the box office and it made a profit. He was able to go on and complete his four film contract with Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953) and Dial M for Murder (1954). They were each successful with critics and from this point he was able to make deals with major studios which allowed him sufficient leeway to make films in the way that he wanted (most of the time at least). He was free from his Selznick deal from the early 1940s and able to base himself on major studio lots. In 1955 he began his long stint as the showman of Alfred Hitchcock Presents . . . He wouldn’t return to the UK to make a film until Frenzy in 1972.
This online event took place on Friday 11th and Saturday 12th June. It was organised by Adrian Garvey of Birkbeck, London University and Vicky Lowe of the University of Manchester. The event comprised four main sessions plus ‘Speakers’ Roundtables’, a discussion about music and performance featuring Neil Brand and Stephen Horne and a video essay presentation from Catherine Grant. Online events like this offer anyone interested in the subject the opportunity to join part or all of the sessions as a spectator. The sessions were accessible through Zoom but the only chance of interaction was via the ‘chat’ function which allowed questions to be put to panellists. (Questions were only visible to the panellists.) Being able to access what was in this case quite a ‘starry’ selection of film scholars was very welcome. I was able to follow only parts of three of the main sessions on what was otherwise a busy weekend so my apologies to contributors to the other presentations I wasn’t able to see.
I’m sure that we have all experienced a wide variety of online events over the past 15 months and as someone who has been on both ends of Zoom technology in events I’m all too aware of what can go wrong and how difficult it is to construct a presentation and deliver it by sharing your screen. I congratulate Adrian and Vicky for getting the show together and co-ordinating contributions from various sources so effectively. This was an impressively ‘collegiate’ event and when the inevitable glitches occurred, everybody was patient as they waited for problems to be dealt with. There is nothing like physically being at a conference/symposium, but online events do have a future I think.
The conference blurb opened with this passage:
Hitchcock’s professed disdain for actors is belied by the extraordinary range and depth of performances featured in his films. It might even be argued that many stars gave their richest and most complex performances in his work. Hitchcock’s films are also imbued with the theme of performance, as when his fugitive men and errant women assume fragile new identities and move between roles. Actors and other performers also often feature as characters.
Hitchcock scholarship has been extensive and the multi-layered concepts of stardom, acting and the exploration of ‘performances’ in Hitchcock’s films suggested a potentially fascinating mix of ideas. The second session on Friday afternoon saw Charles Barr open his paper with a surprising comparison of Julia Robert’s face and the face of her dog, which one of the Monty Python team had suggested could be read in much the same way. Hitchcock was very fond of dogs and many appear in his films. But he knew that you could usually easily tell a dog’s feelings from its face but that actors could present expressionless faces that could provoke very different readings depending on how they were shown in relation to other images as demonstrated by the Pudovkin/Kuleshov Effect. Charles explored Hitchcock’s ideas and how he used the effect before discussing the two Hitchcock shorts that he made in 1944 in London on behalf of the French Résistance. I’d never seen these before or thought about Hitchcock’s use of long takes after the war, partly linked to wanting to avoid the artifice of cinema when he worked on a concentration camp documentary. This was a fascinating presentation with a great deal crammed into 30 minutes. It was followed by Adrian Garvey on Claude Rains as a character actor in a leading role in Notorious, focusing on his ‘underplaying’ and his voice qualities. Alex Glancy followed this by looking at the working relationships between Hitchcock and Cary Grant, both men holding firm convictions about their work as director and star respectively. Alex’s discussion of Grant’s approach made an interesting comparison with the presentation on Claude Rains.
The programme was organised chronologically in terms of Hitchcock’s films so I had missed the silent period and ‘English Hitchcock’ on early Friday afternoon. The third session began on Saturday with Melanie Williams explaining how ‘Richard Todd suffers Stage Fright: neurotic postwar British masculinity’. I was particularly interested in Stage Fright (1950) which I managed to watch again before the Symposium. Melanie’s approach as a British Cinema scholar seemed germane to me since I feel strongly that this is a ‘British’ film, partly because of the range of British character actors featured. Richard Todd is a strange British actor for me. His sudden rise to stardom with The Hasty Heart (UK-US 1949) and his slow decline after The Dambusters (UK 1955) structured a career covering the period of ‘postwar British masculinity’ that has been worked on for a while but still offers new findings I think. Todd has never appealed to me but I learned plenty from the presentation to get me interested in looking at more of his work.
Strangers on a Train (1951) followed Stage Fright and we were offered some ideas about casting and performance by Alex Clayton. I was pleased to see this being tackled as I think casting is one of the least researched aspects of film studies. The background to this second Hitchcock film for Warner Bros. is fairly well known with the difficulty of developing a script from Hitchcock’s ideas about adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel being matched by similar difficulties in getting all the actors Hitchcock wanted. He did get Robert Walker from MGM, a casting often referred to as a ‘casting against type’, an idea which Alex explored in his presentation. But Hitchcock failed to get William Holden as the Guy Haines character and instead went back to Farley Granger who he had used in Rope. Finally, Ruth Roman was forced on him by Jack Warner to play the Senator’s daughter. It’s not difficult to see why Alex chose this film for his research. He questioned ideas about ‘miscasting’ and as in some of the other presentations, briefly discussed the idea of the commutation test first suggested by John O. Thompson. It’s difficult now to imagine William Holden playing Guy. Hitchcock perhaps got some of his casting ideas ‘wrong’ first time round but he was certainly successful in casting Walker – or should we instead state simply that it would have been a different film with Holden? Alex explained that his research has been restricted by the pandemic in the last year since he has not been able to access Hollywood archives or to shadow a casting agent which would, he hopes, give him another perspective. I look forward to what might eventually emerge from the project.
The third paper in the session took us in a slightly different direction when Tamar Jeffers McDonald explored the singing performances of Doris Day as Jo Conway in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Tamar offered both a detailed look at some of the nuances of Day’s singing and her emotional renderings of songs associated with the abduction of her son. She also explored Day’s dual persona of a singer who acts and an actor who can (really) sing. This was a very interesting paper and I wish I had seen the film more recently to have better appreciated some of Tamar’s analysis. I managed two papers in the fourth session. The first by David Greven offered ‘When the Villain Winces: Ray Milland and Villainous Empathy in Dial M for Murder (1954)’. In a way this seemed slightly out of place because the film preceded the Doris Day film. But then again it could also have followed the two papers dealing with Claude Rains and Cary Grant. I think this shows how interconnected these papers were. David did offer us some thoughts about how the comparison with Grant and the different performances of villainy from Rains, or in Grant’s case in Notorious at least ‘unsympathetic’ men, could be productive. I’m afraid I lost some of this presentation because I became distracted from my screen but I can see that there is something here. It would be interesting to include Stage Fright in which the usual suave Englishman type preferred by Hitchcock is played by Michael Wilding and the ‘villain’ is Richard Todd, a rather different type altogether.
Finally, I caught Lucy Bolton’s paper ‘Polished to perfection: the role of neatness and grooming in the performances of Tippi Hedren’. I had been looking forward to this as Marnie is possibly my favourite Hitchcock film and I’ve always thought Tippi Hedren has been misrepresented as a performer. I wasn’t disappointed and I enjoyed learning things about Hedren that I didn’t know before or perhaps had forgotten. Lucy spoke about Hedren’s long career as a model and her professionalism on photo shoots and, as the title of her paper suggests, the way in which she could not only wear the clothes so effortlessly but also know how to use clothes and accessories to create meanings. I think I know almost every line of dialogue and every image of Marnie but now I’m determined to look at Hedren’s performance in The Birds again.
I enjoyed all the parts of the symposium that I was able to watch and I would like to thank Adrian Garvey and Vicky Lowe for putting it all together and all the panellists for their contributions which should prove useful and productive for all of us in the online audience.