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‘Lease of Life’ (1954) review

18 Feb

We are delighted to welcome a guest post from Dr Keith M Johnston, Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia and Ealing Studios expert.

In a 1954 press release promoting their forthcoming production slate, Ealing Studios heralded ‘the production of large-scale subjects, the majority of which will be in colour’.[1] This year would turn out to be the height of Ealing’s colour film production, an eclectic mix of four films including horse-racing drama The Rainbow Jacket (1954), African adventure sequel West of Zanzibar (1954), Hollywood satire The Love Lottery (1954) and Lease of Life, the Robert Donat-starring drama about a small village reverend who reassesses his life when he learns he only has a year to live. The film has particular resonance for being Donat’s penultimate film, and the only one he would make for Ealing: but it also has strong ties to the other films either side of it, most notably the reliance on a recognisable male star (Donat here, David Niven in The Love Lottery; Anthony Steel in West of Zanzibar), and the use of extensive location shooting (Epsom for The Rainbow Jacket; Lake Como for The Love Lottery; Kenya and Zanzibar for West of Zanzibar; the East Riding of Yorkshire for Lease of Life).

For modern viewers more used to the association of Ealing Studios with their succession of comedies from the late 1940s and early 1950s (the likes of The Lavender Hill Mob, 1949, or The Man in the White Suit, 1951), Lease of Life can be a challenging film: often slow-moving, episodic, and with a late narrative event that can feel out of keeping with the characters that have been built up throughout. Of course, only a third of Ealing’s output was ever purely comedic, but that is the picture of the studio that tends to dominate: alongside ideas of it as being cosy, whimsical and restrained. A safe piece of British cinema history, then: not rebellious like Gainsborough Studios, or the fantasies of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Yet as Lease of Life proves, Ealing was more than capable of offering its own ‘mild revolutions’ (to use Michael Balcon’s phrase), its own small rebellions.

Robert Donat

Adrienne Corri and Kay Walsh

At the heart of Lease of Life is a simple story, and a simple man: Reverend William Thorne (Donat) is safe and predictable, a dull but loveable figure who bores the children in his small village church of Hinton St John and barely has money to support himself, his wife Vera (Kay Walsh) and daughter Susan (Adrienne Corri). Thorne is moral, abstemious and restrained, and Donat plays him with a world-weariness that is visible in his every action, but particularly in his lined and expressive face (while it is tempting to link Donat’s appearance here to his illness, as I did in an earlier blog post, Gill has pointed out that he was made-up for the role). Unbeknown to Thorne, he is being considered for a post at Gilchester Cathedral (he is invited to give a sermon to assess his potential) and, as his doctor soon reveals, he has around a year to live. The combination of those two events leads to the clash at the heart of the film, around the role of religion in an individual’s life (it is one of few Ealing films to directly engage with the religious) and the need to be honest, that life cannot be lived in the belief that simply sticking to the rules will make you a good person: “the important thing is not just to be good, but to be good human beings.”

This sermon is the big dramatic moment in the film, occurring around the halfway point, and marking Thorne’s move towards doing the ‘right thing’. Donat makes the most of the sermon, showing Thorne’s uncertainty as he chooses to ditch his safe and prepared speech and speak from the heart instead. It is a potentially showy moment for an actor, but Donat pitches it well, understanding Thorne is not grand-standing, but being open, honest, heartfelt. The film counterpoints the performance with some comic moments of editing: one of the schoolboys in the audience is shown hiding a copy of Alias the Saint inside his hymnbook, before he becomes more interested in Thorne’s words; equally, the shocked expressions on the senior members of the Cathedral and school, and the resigned quality of Vera’s face, are a useful balance to Thorne’s eloquence.

Thorne’s revolution then has to be seen as mild: from being a pushover, he now tells one of his parishioners off for being a spoilsport when she complains about the grave digger being drunk, and then agrees to look after money for Mr Sproatley (Beckett Bould) so it is away from the gold-digging hands of the much-younger Mrs Sproatley (Vida Hope). These are hardly world-shaking rebellions, but compared to Thorne’s normal behaviour, and taking into account the small village society, they are seen (and played) as major shocks to the safe, traditional world Thorne existed at the centre of. Yet the villagers also seem satisfied that Thorne has woken up in this way: we see several parishioners pleased to see energy and passion in their reverend, not the more standard cheerful resignation.

Yet while Thorne might struggle with his rebellion (he becomes the centre of attention for newspaper reports and scandal), the film ultimately supports his belief. The attitude of the scriptwriter (Eric Ambler) and director (Charles Frend) towards female rebellion is more complex: Mrs Sproatley has taken up with a young, handsome farmhand while her husband is dying, which is obviously not the ‘right thing’; Susan Thorne wins a piano scholarship to the London School of Music and threatens to run away if her parents don’t support her, yet the film cannot decide whether to make her strong, supportive or stroppy, often combining all three characteristics in one scene; while Vera Thorne is the calm, loving mother and wife who, in the third act, steals £100 of Sproatley’s money to pay for Susan’s new life. This has the potential to be the most shocking rebellion of all, yet the film struggles to justify or explain it: Vera is stressed and worried through the film, particularly after Thorne’s sermon and Susan’s news about London, but we don’t see her snap, or really understand the reasons for her out-of-character actions. Perhaps this is because the film tries to play it as a mystery – who could have taken the £100? – but there are no real suspects or tension here. Instead, it is left to Kay Walsh’s performance to try and make the fractured character beats coherent when Vera breaks down in front of Thorne, claiming she was practising what he had preached, aiming to do the right thing to give Susan the life she deserved. Unfortunately, the film backs away from the hysteria and rebellious nature of her actions to allow Thorne to prove himself as the stronger character, and act as a male provider for both the women in his life.

His solution is a curious one and, again, links the film to wider concerns in Ealing’s other films. Thorne chooses to abandon his principles around the hyperbolic media coverage of his ‘shocking’ sermon (which, to a modern audience, doesn’t feel shocking at all) and accept a commission from a national newspaper to write opinion pieces for them. This is a very different perspective on the media industries expressed in Ealing’s Meet Mr Lucifer (1953), which mocks the television industry and the spate of 3-D filming, or The Love Lottery, where David Niven is coerced and blackmailed by shadowy corporations (with fingers in many pies, but most of them include media). Thorne’s rebellion actually pulls him further into traditional ideologies of the mass media, and it is a decision he makes not because it is ‘right’ but because otherwise he will have to reveal his wife’s criminal action.

So, the film is a complex mess of morals and actions, not all of them coherent. Visually, it can be impressive, with bursts of colour throughout (although the Eastman Colour print has not aged well, with some noticeable fading of brighter hues throughout) – the blue skies of the East Riding dominate many of the scenes, the red book cover of Alias the Saint is a beacon amid the grey stone of the cathedral, and Adrienne Corri’s auburn hair and bright clothing often place her at the centre of this colour film (there is also a nice scene where she and Kay Walsh wear the same colours, although in different clothing styles: it is a brief visual reference to the maternal bond that will, later, lead Vera to steal the money).

Lease of Life is unlikely to challenge most people’s perceptions of what an Ealing Studios film can be, although it does point to many lesser-known dramatic films within their back catalogue. It is flawed and problematic (not least in its depiction of supposedly strong women) but fascinating and rich, particularly around the collision of religion, mass media and manufactured scandal. And at its heart lie committed performances from Donat, Walsh and Corri that struggle with the material, but provide the coherence that the film might otherwise lack.


[1] ‘Ealing Studios’ Production Plans for 1954,’ Ealing Studios Cuttings File, BFI collections.

© Keith M. Johnston, all rights reserved.

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Sadly, ‘Lease of Life’ is not currently available on DVD, but we hope this situation will change, and that the BFI will consider showing it as part of their Ealing retrospective later this year.

Poetic Christmas wishes from us to you …

29 Dec

Jenny and I would like to thank everyone who has visited our fledgling site so far. We’ve been really encouraged by the all the lovely things you’ve said, and you’ll be delighted to hear we have many exciting plans for the New Year.

In the meantime, here is Robert reading one of the Christmas poems from the posthumously released album Robert Donat Reads His Favourite Poetry: When Icicles Hang from Love’s Labour’s Lost. Settle yourself in a warm and comfortable place, have a glass of something fortifying to hand, and enjoy …

More on Robert’s beautiful poetry readings very soon …

Merry Christmas and a Very Happy New Year.

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness

4 Dec

When David Cairns asked if I would write about The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958, Mark Robson, 20th Century-Fox) as part of his Shadowplay blog’s Late Films Blogathon, I mentally braced myself. It’s fair to say I’ve been avoiding this film, but yesterday I made myself  sit down and watch. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since.

I need to tell you I can make no claims for objectivity in this piece: it’s impossible to be a fan of Robert Donat’s work without developing a deep affection for the man. He was that kind of actor (and, no doubt, that kind of man). And this, after all, is his website. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness was Robert’s final film, made when he was gravely ill. Just a few short weeks after completing his work on it, he died. Robert’s remaining strength, I think it’s true to say, he gave to this film.

Gladys Aylward

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is based on the story of real-life missionary Gladys Aylward (from Alan Burgess’ biography The Small Woman). It’s a huge CinemaScope epic of a film in three acts and like its distant musical cousin The Sound of Music, it feels rather too long. Or perhaps I lack stamina? Put it down to exhaustion from weeping …

Gladys Aylward believed God had called her to be a missionary in China, but her background as a domestic servant meant she was unqualified to go through the official channels. So, she saved her wages and went at her own expense, arriving at Yang Cheng to work with experienced elderly missionary Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler) and her servant Yang (Peter Chong) at the Inn of the Sixth Happiness. The Inn takes in passing travellers, feeds them, gives them a bed for the night, and tells them Bible stories in Chinese. After Mrs Lawson’s death, and lacking money to continue her work, Gladys accepts the position of ‘foot inspector’ for the local Mandarin (Robert Donat) so she can keep the Inn open. She travels the local villages persuading the people not to bind the feet of their women and girls and becomes an advocate for the Chinese people involving herself in other disputes on their behalf. Through her work she wins their respect and affection, and that of the Mandarin and Captain Lin (Curd Jürgens). She becomes a Chinese citizen and is given the name Jen-ai, ‘the one who loves people’. When the Japanese attack Yang Cheng, Jen-ai takes 100 orphan children, (accompanied by a very young Bert Kwouk, in his first film) over the mountains to safety.

Robert Donat, Curd Jürgens and Ingrid Bergman

The real Gladys Aylward was furious, I believe, with some of the liberties taken with her life story and her association with ‘that wicked woman’ Ingrid Bergman. We are asked to accept Bergman as an English woman, Robert Donat as a Chinese man, Curd Jürgens as a Eurasian who supposedly looks more Chinese than white, and Snowdonia as China. I lived in North Wales for a time and it was rather distracting trying to location-spot, though in the end I had to concede that, probably, one mountain looks pretty much like another, and the Chinese-style sets create the atmosphere appropriately. Ingrid Bergman doesn’t even attempt to sound English, but she manages to make a character who could appear insufferably saintly very likeable and human, and her scenes with Robert, in particular, are extremely touching. Curd Jürgens is a rather uncharismatic love interest, he and Bergman are necessarily chaste, and there is little chemistry between them, but blazing passion would have been all wrong.

Seen through unforgiving modern eyes, maybe there are things one would change about The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, but I like to be a time traveller. There are many who think Ingrid Bergman should have had an Oscar for her performance, and it’s certainly true that she makes a far more appealing saintly heroine than Julie Andrews. The final act, the journey across the mountains, is perhaps less successful than the rest of the film, but there is a satisfying prickle of tears to be had when the children arrive at their destination singing ‘This Old Man’. There is another scene in the film where you will cry much more …

Robert Donat, Curd Jürgens and Ingrid Bergman

And so to Robert as the Mandarin. He doesn’t look Chinese, despite the costumes and make-up, but it doesn’t matter and nor, really, do all the other inaccuracies (though there are endless reviews online where people grind on and on about them). He is the Mandarin, remote and forbidding at the beginning (dubbed into Chinese in some early scenes) who grows to love Jen-ai, whereon he’s actually a little mischievous and exudes the Donat warmth and charm in abundance.

Throughout the 1950’s, Robert’s health had been in steep decline. He made The Magic Box in 1951 and then was unable to work again until 1954 (Lease of Life, and on stage as Becket, giving perhaps his finest performance at The Old Vic in Murder in the Cathedral). By 1958, Robert’s breathing difficulties and asthma attacks were extremely debilitating. However, that was not the only battle he was fighting. It was found, when he died, that he had a large brain tumour.

‘Although we knew he was not in the best of health, none of us on the unit suspected that he was desperately ill. He didn’t allow us to know … There was one day when I really thought he had hit rock bottom – but the next day he turned up at the studio and went on by sheer will-power.’

Mark Robson, interviewed in 1958 (from Kenneth Barrow’s biography of Robert Donat*).

Robert Donat as the Mandarin of Yang Cheng

My late father was of that generation. He fought in the Second World War, then quietly filed it away and never spoke of it again (until his later years and even then, only snippets). Of course there are courageous people today, but there was a remarkable fortitude, an almost unimaginable bravery and dedication embedded in the people of that time that we can find difficult to understand today. Gladys Aylward seems to have had it, and so did Robert Donat. You see that immense bravery and Robert’s absolute dedication to his craft so clearly in this film. He is obviously not well. In some scenes, his speech is thick, and his once magnificent voice can no longer perform with its old power. He walks hesitantly. Robert was only 53 (not much older than I am), and to see this fine, fine man brought so low is devastating. And yet, his performance as the Mandarin is never pitiful: the truth of the character and the truth of the story are there in his portrayal, his presence fills his scenes as it always did but now with added poignancy, and his final scene with Ingrid Bergman, where the Mandarin tells Jen-ai he has become a Christian and bids her farewell, is perhaps the most genuinely moving you will see on screen. Because it is the most real. It’s all perfectly in character, but we are watching a great actor saying his final goodbye to his audience. He knew it and so did Bergman.

‘It is time to go, old friends. Stay here … for a little. It will comfort me as I leave to know it. We shall not see each other again, I think. Farewell Jen-ai.’

Robert Donat's final scene

Ingrid Bergman's genuine anguish

The great actor leaves the stage

‘I think that not having worked for five years and having been an actor all his life, he was very happy that he had this film and that he was with people he knew loved him and with his own crowd again, that his last days were working days.’

Ingrid Bergman, interviewed in 1958 (from Kenneth Barrow’s biography of Robert Donat*).

© Gill Fraser Lee, all rights reserved.

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*Mr Chips, The Life of Robert Donat, Kenneth Barrow