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Fifty Classic British Films
1932â"1982: A Pictorial Record
By Anthony Slide
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1985 Anthony Slide
All rights reserved.
Produced by Michael Balcon for Gaumont-British. Released 1932, Gaumont-British (U.K.); 1933, Universal Pictures (U.S.). 94 minutes (U.K.); 85 minutes (U.S.). Black and white.
Director: Walter Forde. Screenplay: Sidney Gilliat (based on the story "Twentieth Century Limited" by Clifford Grey). Dialogue: Frank Vosper, Ralph Stock. Cinematography: Gunther Krampf. Special Effects: Jack Whitehead. Art Direction: Andrew Mazzei. Costumes: Gordon Conway. Film Editing: Frederick Y. Smith, Ian Dalrymple.
CAST: Conrad Veidt (Zurta); Harold Huth (George Grant); Gordon Harker (Tom Bishop); Donald Calthrop (Poole); Joan Barry (Mrs. Maxted); Esther Ralston (Asta Marvelle); Cedric Hardwicke (Alastair McBane); Frank Vosper (Inspector Jolif); Hugh Williams (Tony); Muriel Aked (spinster); Finlay Currie (Sam); Eliot Makeham (Mills).
SYNOPSIS: The action takes place on board the Paris-Rome express, among whose passengers are an American film star, Asta Marvelle; Grant, a businessman eloping with his partner's wife, Mrs. Maxted; Bishop, a boring English busybody; and McBane, a wealthy art collector traveling with his male secretary, Mills. Also on board are Poole, who is carrying a stolen Van Dyck painting, and his associates, Zurta and Tony, from whom he is at present trying to escape. During a poker game, Mills accidentally takes Poole's case, which resembles his own, and in which is the Van Dyck; McBane later opens the case, finds the painting, and hides it behind a mirror in his compartment. Meanwhile, Zurta demands the Van Dyck from Poole, and when Poole protests that his case is missing, Zurta does not believe him and stabs him to death. With Grant and Mrs. Maxted under suspicion after Poole's body is found in Grant's compartment, Inspector Jolif of the French Sûreté, by chance on the train all along, begins to investigate. Zurta ransacks McBane's compartment, trying to find the painting. When he is discovered and draws a gun, Mills shuts Zurta's wrists in a sliding door, the gun goes off and shatters the mirror, revealing the painting. (Fearing that Tony, with whom she was involved some years before in a jewel robbery, will be implicated in Poole's death, Asta Marvelle, meanwhile, tries to throw Jolif off the trail by telling him she spent the night with Zurta.) McBane outwits Mills's clumsy attempt at blackmail after the latter has discovered the painting, and goes to Jolif. Zurta is at last exposed as the villain—but he jumps from the train and is killed. In Rome, Mrs. Maxted decides to return to her husband as Asta and Tony go off together.
COMMENTARY:Rome Express, the first British sound feature to receive widespread release and enthusiastic critical comment in the United States, was directed by a shy former silent-film and music-hall comedian named Walter Forde (1897-1984). During the thirties and forties, Forde was one of Britain's best genre directors, equally at ease with comedies such as The Ghost Train (1931) and Charley's Big-Hearted Aunt (1940), musicals such as Chu Chin Chow (1934) and Land Without Music (1936), and dramas such as Forever England (1935) and The Four Just Men (1939).
Rome Express was the first feature to be shot at the new Gaumont-British studios at Shepherd's Bush, and because it was considered a prestige production by the studio head, Michael Balcon, Forde was allowed almost unlimited time to work on the film and supplied with an all-star cast, including the German Conrad Veidt, the American Esther Ralston, and some of Britain's best character performers, such as Cedric Hardwicke, Donald Calthrop, Eliot Makeham, and Gordon Harker. "If this is the sort of production the new Gaumont-British studios are going to turn out," commented Basil Wright in Cinema Quarterly (Winter 1932), "we can look happily forward to a new era of technical brilliance, clever observation, and good entertainment."
Walter Forde had initially wished to film the production with each character speaking his own language, and with subtitles, but Balcon opposed the idea. Forde did, however, introduce something quite revolutionary in the production: giving the feeling of the constant movement of the train. He remembered for me: "Even if there wasn't a scene through the window, I'd still have the back projection going, because it would throw shadows on the wall and all the stuff. There was always a tag hanging from a piece of luggage; there were always beads on the little table lamps, so that you got movement all the time." As Time (March 6, 1933) noted, Forde gives one the feeling of being on a train through the simplest and yet most skillful of touches, unlike Josef von Sternberg, who, in Shanghai Express had to introduce two reels of atmospheric shots.
The time and money spent on Rome Express were certainly justified. Rome Express has stood the test of time better than any other similar production. The story may owe something to Grand Hotel, but it is far lighter and less pretentious than Vicki Baum's story. It looks infinitely superior today to such recent entries in the field as Murder on the Orient Express.
"Rome Express marks a new era in British production, and may be regarded as comparable to the best talkies yet seen from any other country in the world," reported the Daily Film Renter (November 17, 1932). As witness its importance, the film was given a special midnight matinee at the New Victoria Theatre (prior to its opening at the Tivoli), attended by members of the royal family. C. A. Lejeune declared in The Era (December 30, 1932) that it was the 1932 film that gave her the most individual pleasure.
American critics were equally taken with Rome Express. In the New York Herald Tribune (February 25, 1933), Richard Watts, Jr., wrote, "Rome Express is so admirably directed and so expertly acted by an international cast that it becomes not only a sort of milestone in English film production but one of the most entertaining shows of the season."
Walter Forde never made another film with such international appeal (although many of his films did receive U.S. release). He did, however, continue to produce films displaying the same craftsmanship and the same care in casting. He is, unquestionably, the most underrated, underappreciated British director of the thirties and after.CHAPTER 2
THE GOOD COMPANIONS
Produced by T. A. Welsh and George Pearson for Gaumont-Welsh-Pearson. Released 1933, Gaumont-British (U.K.); 1933, Fox Film Corporation (U.S.). 110 minutes (U.K.); 90 minutes (U.S.). Black and white.
Director: Victor Saville. Screenplay: W. P. Lipscomb, Angus MacPhail, Ian Dalrymple (based on the novel and play by J. B. Priestley). Music: George Posford. Lyrics: Douglas Furber. Cinematography: Bernard Knowles. Art Direction: Alfred Junge. Film Editing: Frederick Y. Smith.
CAST: Jessie Matthews (Susie Dean); Edmund Gwenn (Jess Oakroyd); John Gielgud (Inigo Jollifant); Mary Glynne (Miss Trant); Percy Parsons(Morton Mitcham); A. W. Baskcomb (Jimmy Nunn); Dennis Hoey (Joe Brundit); Viola Compton (Mrs. Brundit); Richard Dolman (Jerry Jerningham); Margery Binner (Elsie); D. A. Clarke-Smith (Ridvers); Florence Gregson (Mrs. Oakroyd); Frank Pettingell (Sam Oglethorpe); Alex Fraser (Dr. MacFarlane); Finlay Currie (Monte Mortimer); Max Miller (Milbrau); Ivor Barnard (Eric Tipstead); Olive Sloane (Effie); J. Fisher White (vicar); Muriel Aked (vicar's wife); Jack Hawkins (Albert); Cyril Smith (Leonard Oakroyd); Lawrence Hanray (Mr. Tarvin); Annie Esmond (Mrs. Tarvin); Ben Field (Mr. Droke); George Zucco (Fauntley); Arnold Riches (Hilary); Wally Patch (driver); Barbara Gott (Big Annie); Margaret Yarde (Mrs. Mounder); Hugh E. Wright (librarian); Pollie Emery (Miss Tbong); Henry Ainley (narrator).
SYNOPSIS: In the North of England, unemployed Jess Oakroyd quarrels with his nagging wife and leaves home; in the West Miss Trant, finding herself with only a meagre income after her father's death, decides to take the money in a lump sum and leave her village; in the East Inigo Jollifant, an amateur composer, quits his dreary position as a music teacher at a public school. The three meet at Rawsley, where a concert party called the Dinky Doos is stranded. Miss Trant agrees to bankroll the show for ten weeks and rechristens the company "the Good Companions." Oakroyd is taken on as a general assistant and Inigo hired as resident pianist. Unseasonably hot weather keeps audiences away from the show until a sudden rainstorm, just as the company is considering disbanding, brings in the crowds and the Good Companions are a success, particularly singer-dancer Susie Dean, with whom Inigo has fallen in love. Susie engineers a meeting between Miss Trant and the lady's one-time boyfriend, Dr. MacFarlane, while Inigo goes to London and sells his songs to an entrepreneur, Monte Mortimer, on the understanding that Mortimer will come and hear Susie sing. The night Mortimer arrives is the night of Susie's benefit, but a rival entertainer contrives a violent disturbance in the theatre. A tearful Susie is called back to the stage by the audience, led by Mortimer. As she sings the scene changes to the London Hippodrome, where Susie is starring and Inigo is leading the orchestra. With her new success (and wealth), Susie is able to send Miss Trant and Dr. MacFarlane on a honeymoon cruise and to pay for Oakroyd to emigrate to a new life in Canada.
COMMENTARY: A bestselling novel by J. B. Priestley, The Good Companions was adapted into a hit London musical, which opened at His Majesty's Theatre on May 14, 1931, and ran for 331 performances. The film version took its story more from the original novel than from the stage play, substituted Jessie Matthews for the theatre's Adele Dixon, retained John Gielgud as leading man, and, unfortunately, dropped the Richard Addinsell score. (Listening to the unmemorable songs in the film, one longs to hear Miss Matthews tackle Addinsell's delightful "I'm Coming Home" or "Slippin' 'Round the Corner.")
The story of The Good Companions offers considerable charm and innocence, captured in Victor Saville's direction. There is a simplicity to Saville's use of camera more naive than crude. Saville uses the most rudimentary visual techniques—a a superimposed neon sign to indicate Susie Dean's rise from concert-party performer to West End star—yet there is sophistication in his handling of the plot. If there is criticism to be leveled at the structure of the film, it is that all the songs are relegated to the second half, as is Miss Matthews herself.
"Working in The Good Companions was rather like being back in the theatre," wrote Jessie Matthews in her autobiography. "We developed the same team spirit. We knew the film would be good. It had to be for we loved our parts." The film is certainly notable for its ensemble playing, not only by the principals, but also by many of the minor performers. For example, music-hall comedian Max Miller shines in his one brief scene-stealing sequence as a song plugger; Finlay Currie puts on his typical pseudo-American act; and Mary Glynne plays Miss Trant with a curiously affecting combination of optimism and pathos. Only John Gielgud, in his first leading screen role, fails to impress.
As Susie Dean, Jessie Matthews (1907-1981) introduces herself as "the star of tomorrow—or the day after." The Good Companions features all of the traits one has come to associate with Miss Matthews: she is decidedly English in behavior, refusing to make love to Gielgud with the comment, "It's not the kind of girl I am—especially before tea"; she performs an unsurpassed high-kick dance; she sings with a quivering mouth and an almost nonexistent quivering chin. And one of the songs she performs is "Happiness Is Just Success," which might well have been her theme song during the thirties, as she starred in Evergreen (1934), First a Girl (1935), It's Love Again (1936), Gangway (1937), and Sailing Along (1938), among others.
The Good Companions opened at New York's Mayfair Theatre on October 9, 1933, only three days before The Private Life of Henry VIII opened at Radio City Music Hall, and, interestingly, the two films received equal space and equally favorable reviews from Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times. The film had premiered in London in February 1933 and became the first feature a British monarch—King George V—saw at a public screening. Both George V and Queen Mary liked the production, but Miss Matthews, a divorcee, could not be introduced to them.CHAPTER 3
I WAS A SPY
Produced by Michael Balcon for Gaumont-British. Released 1933, Woolf & Freedman Film Service (U.K.); 1934, Fox Film Corporation (U.S.). 89 minutes (U.K.); 83 minutes (U.S.). Black and white.
Director: Victor Saville. Screenplay: W. P. Lipscomb (based on the autobiography of Marthe Cnockhaert McKenna). Additional Dialogue: Ian Hay. Cinematography: Charles Van Enger. Art Direction: Alfred Junge.Costumes: Gordon Conway. Film Editing: Frederick Y. Smith.
CAST: Madeleine Carroll (Marthe Cnockhaert); Conrad Veidt (Commandant Oberaetz); Herbert Marshall (Stephan); Gerald du Maurier (doctor); Edmund Gwenn (burgomaster); Donald Calthrop (Cnockhaert); Eva Moore (Canteen Ma); Nigel Bruce (Scottie); May Agate (Madame Cnockhaert); Martita Hunt (Aunt Lucille); George Merritt (Captain Reichmann); Anthony Bushell (Otto).
SYNOPSIS: During the First World War a young Belgian girl, Marthe Cnockhaert, is ordered by a German doctor to serve as a nurse in a German troop hospital. She uses her position in the hospital to provide information to the Belgian resistance and the Allies, working with a hospital orderly, Stephan. After passing word that there is to be a large gathering of German troops at an open-air church service, she is horrified when ordered by Commandant Oberaetz to take the convalescent patients to the service, and must watch as they are killed by Allied bombing. She spends the night with the commandant in order to gain information on the Kaiser's movements, but when his visit is canceled and an Allied raid takes place, suspicion falls on her. Marthe is offered her life in return for informing on her colleagues and refuses, but Stephan confesses; he is shot and she spends the rest of the war in prison.
COMMENTARY: In 1933 Victor Saville (1895-1979) directed arguably his three finest British films: The Good Companions, Friday the Thirteenth, and I Was a Spy. They demonstrate that Saville was not only one of Britain's most commercial filmmakers, but one of the most sophisticated. As early as 1928 he made Tesha, remarkable for its mature subject matter, the story of a married woman who has a child by her husband's best friend. In a country noted for insular films, Victor Saville's work is singularly international in appeal, despite the very English nature of so many of his features. Evensong (1934), The Iron Duke (1935), Storm in a Teacup (1937), and South Riding (1938) are all geared very much toward the international film market, and it is little wonder that M-G-M selected Saville to produce its first two major British features, The Citadel (1938) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). Those films launched Victor Saville on a Hollywood career (chiefly in producing) as a filmmaker of taste—one with literary interest, and one, unfortunately, slightly dull and all too obviously studio-bound.
Excerpted from Fifty Classic British Films by Anthony Slide. Copyright © 1985 Anthony Slide. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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