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

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo inspired by The Magic Box

2 Dec

Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese is in the UK at the moment promoting his latest film, Hugo, which, it was announced today, has been named best film by the National Board of Review in the US. We’ve been delighted to see that Mr Scorsese has referenced the inspiration he took from Robert Donat’s 1951 film, The Magic Box, in his interviews.

The Magic Box, produced and directed by John Boulting, is a biopic telling the story of British cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene. It was the film industry’s contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain. The great honour of starring as William Friese-Greene was offered to Robert, who accepted and gave film audiences their first sight of him in Technicolor (shot by Jack Cardiff). Many of the leading British actors and actresses of the time filled the film’s minor roles, including Laurence Olivier, Margaret Rutherford, Richard Attenborough and Eric Portman. The screenplay was by Eric Ambler from Ray Allister’s biography.

Check our new Where to buy page to source your copy.

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Indie London‘s Rob Carnevale has very kindly allowed us to reproduce his recent interview with Martin Scorsese.

Hugo – Martin Scorsese interview

Interview by Rob Carnevale
Hugo, Martin Scorsese

MARTIN Scorsese talks about some of the inspirations behind his new movie Hugo including the films that first captured his imagination as a child going to the cinema.

He also talks about working in 3D for the first time and why he feels he would like to do it again and where he sees the future of cinema as well as its history.

Q. This is about the power of movies to inspire people. Can you remember the first time you sat in the cinema and were really inspired by a film?
Martin Scorsese: I think for me movies, for a long period of time, were a refuge, in a way… I have to say that because of having asthma I was not allowed to do… it was 1944-45 and I wasn’t able to do anything sporty or with animals. So, I was pretty much taken to the movie theatre very often and I saw many films in the ‘40s and became in amid of the Western genre because what I couldn’t go near, or be near, there it was on the screen. And I started making my own little drawings… almost like a comic strip. But the film that I think created the biggest impression on me about film and about filmmaking – the one that prompted me to say ‘maybe you could do this yourself’ – was The Magic Box.

My father took me to see that in ’52 when I was nine or 10-years-old. The thing about that film was not just the moving image but it was the obsession and the passion of the people at that time. It told the story of [the inventor of the first movie camera] William Friese-Greene, played by Robert Donat, who invested a lot of sweetness in the character and yet he was a man who was so obsessed that his life was destroyed by it. There was something about that film, the love, the passion, that he had for the potential of this new machinery… coming at a time, too, pre-World War I, at a time when the whole world was experiencing major change up until 1914 or so. It was going to be such a different society – HG Wells, Jules Verne, you know – and so cinema… something happened when I saw that picture. And it has that wonderful scene in it, too, with Lumiere’s the train coming through the station. So, that was the first time and at home I started drawing more pictures… pictures that moved. But there was something about the beauty of his obsession with the potential of the mechanism itself, the creation of celluloid… of course it’s all different now with digital but it’s still about telling stories with a moving image.

Q. The film comes across as a love letter to silent movies and to that embryonic period. How important is it to you that today’s generation recognises where movies came from? And how important is it that film as an entity is preserved?
Martin Scorsese: Well, I think that the problem isn’t so much with this generation, it’s the same with every generation, which is the obligation of the one before to inform and to expose the next generation to the great art of the past… great, good, possibly good, maybe not very good! But to a certain extent that goes with everything. I think there are many painters who study the old masters in museums, as well as theatre, language and, of course, literature. I guess there might be a school of thought that we don’t have to see anything of the past to express yourself artistically… to write a novel, to write a play, to make films.

But I think if we make it available, one studies or one becomes aware of the older work that came before, of the Old Masters… It’s easy if you want to reject it… that’s part of the process, to be angry and say ‘well, that’s not good at all’ or ‘this is wonderful here’… and then come back to realising that maybe you were a little too harsh 20 years later, or 30 years later, that you were too harsh on certain people when you were younger. But the reality is that it’s exciting to do that with children and a younger generation. It’s very exciting. And you never know how young people perceive what they see on the stage, or particularly from cinema. I don’t know what the cinema screen is going to become…

Hugo

Or rather, I do know… I think if things run their course it’s going to be something that’s not going to stay on the stage – I should say on the wall – but something that’s going to be moved out to the audience in many different ways. And that could be a very low budget independent film or it could be a film that cost a great deal of money. But I do think it’s important to make younger people aware of what came before in every aspect of every art form. And it’s exciting too because as you do that, very often as you’re working with young people or students mentoring them, the ideas you get from them… I get a lot out of them… whether I’ve expressed it correctly or not I don’t know. But I do get a kind of regeneration of that… to see that excitement sometimes. I mean we showed Asa and Chloe The Magic Box and we gave Asa Yojimbo.

Q. With this and The Artist coming out as well there does seem to be a resurgence of interest in silent cinema…
Martin Scorsese: You know, I have no idea about The Artist. I mean, I understand it’s a silent film in black and white. But again, a lot of this has to do with timing I think. I don’t know what’s going on in California. I live in Manhattan. So, I had no idea these films would be coming out at the same time. The thing about the silent cinema, you have to understand, is that while there was a great response to it, that was one kind of cinema… but when cinema started, everybody wanted sound immediately and depth. The Lumiere brothers made several films in 3D. And they’ve been restored. I saw them. They were made in the ‘20s. Eisenstein was working on 3D when he had his heart attack… can you imagine Eisenstein films in 3D? Can you imagine what they would have done? Can you imagine the mind of someone like that? Orson Welles created something in 3D.

So, for me… look, more than 90% of silent films have gone anyway… they’re gone and continue to go. Nobody cares about them. If you really see a silent film in its original form, like the restorations that Kevin Brownlow did of Rex Ingram’s pictures… if you look at The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at the proper speed. I mean, it’s another language completely. At times the acting is extremely modern, too. But one has to get into that mindset to see it. I think I saw a few silent films as a kid but they were always scratched up and they were jumping around. I didn’t understand what the attraction was aside from the moving image itself. I don’t think there’s anybody around now who really experienced that era of silent cinema. But I wonder if, as you say, the possibility of several films being released at the same time is maybe an appreciation and getting back to the roots of how this all began.

Hugo

Q. Did you adjust any of your work ethic to direct in 3D? And is it something you’d like to take into your future films?
Martin Scorsese: Yes it is something that I’d like to take into my future films. I just happen to be a great admirer of it because when I first saw those new masters, as I said earlier, I was taken into another space as a child and tapping into that imagination of a child is the same thing that I depend on and look for whenever I make a film. It has to be there every day… that thrill and the imagination. Somehow seeing those first stereoscopic images has that… and maybe my last connection to childhood imagination is that feeling and so I’ve been fascinated by 3D all my life. If it’s used appropriately for the story, then why not? [It’s] the same as colour or sound or a big screen. As I’ve always pointed out, for a long period of time colour was something really special. At first, everybody complained about it until 1935 when they got it right, with Technicolor. Then by 1970 it was announced that every film would be made in colour and we were all appalled because what about some of the great films that came out of England in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that were made in black and white?

This is what we were aspiring to. And so somehow colour became, through the demand of the audience and through a generation that grew up not on black and white films, just became natural. It became part of the story and part of life. But yes I would like to deal with 3D as an element in the future. The equipment is getting much more flexible, and they’re working on ideas to get rid of the glasses, so why not?

© Rob Carnevale, Indie London, all rights reserved.

This interview and the image of Martin Scorsese may not be reproduced without permission.

For more on Hugo, we recommend the Self-styled Siren’s excellent review.

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Lions in the Scottish Highlands

29 Nov

Thank you to David Cairns for letting us reproduce this post about ‘The 39 Steps’ from his wonderful film blog, Shadowplay. (It helps if you know that David is based in Scotland!)

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THE 39 STEPS, we all agree, is where Hitchcock’s thrillers really catch fire. He’d been making films since 1922, scoring considerable success, and many people, including Hitch himself, may have thought he had already shown what he could do — but this film raises the bar still further. It pleases me inanely that this is Hitchcock’s Scottish film, with Scottish settings, characters, and a source novel by Scotsman John Buchan (pronounced “buckin”). In Hitchcock’s movie, as in Buchan’s book, man of action Richard Hannay must follow the trail of a spy ring from London to the Highlands.

Hitch and collaborator Charles Bennett (who shares Hitch’s cameo in this one, a unique honour) famously abandoned or greatly altered large parts of the source novel, so that even the title became something of an irrelevance, to be explained away as brusquely as possible, but if you read the book (I did, years ago) it’s fun to see how elements are reconfigured: a throwaway line about a trip to the music hall is expanded by Hitchcock into a hilarious opening sequence, introducing hero Hannay, Mr. Memory the mnemonic genius, and a female spy calling herself Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), whose murder sets things in motion.

Inspired by a surge of national spirit, I hopped on the train to retrace Hannay’s steps, but since I’m perennially cash-strapped, I only went from Edinburgh’s to the Forth Bridge. Hannay, fleeing the scene of a murder for which he’s automatically blamed, boards the Flying Scotsman locomotive, sharing a compartment with a traveller in ladies’ undergarments and another loudmouth, who seem to keep up a non-stop barrage of double entendres and man-of-the-world smut for the entire journey.

The train pulls into Waverley Station, Edinburgh, and one of the men flags down a news vendor. “Speak-a da English?” he asks. I wouldn’t try this in Scotland if I were you. The newspaper purchased carries news of Hannay’s pursuit, and the suspense is ramped up.

I don’t see any newsboys in the station when I’m there, but they have an entire newsagents shop, and a Burger King, which I feel gives me the edge on old Hannay. I hop in the train, with a ticket for North Queensferry, which means I’m crossing the bridge but no more. As Hannay is evading capture in his train, I’m snapping pictures out the window of mine. No knicker salesman, no compartment, no steam engine, no Madeleine Carroll…

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There are actually two bridges now, the Road Bridge and the Rail Bridge, but the Road, a common suspension job, is regarded with contempt by locals, so when we say “the Forth Bridge” it’s always certain which we mean. A massive Victorian construction, it’s constantly being painted with a special paint, known as Forth Bridge Red. The Victorian engineers who constructed it said that as long as you kept painting it, the bridge would last forever. They start at one end, work there way to the other, then start again. It’s become the perfect metaphor for any unending, Sisyphean task.

Of course, when the bridge was privatized, the management idiots announced that they would no longer paint the bridge, since it was “too costly and dangerous,” which is an amazing bit of half-wittedness. MORE costly and dangerous than allowing it to rust? Sure enough, soon bits of corroded bridge were dropping onto North and South Queensferry, and a lot of money had to be spent repairing the structure. Painting has resumed.

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The Forth Bridge, by Cairns.

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The Forth Bridge, by Hitchcock.

One of the things that’s so outrageous about THE 39 STEPS is the use of narrative ellipsis to get around tricky plot problems. The first major cheat is near the start, when a woman is killed in Hannay’s flat, knifed to death, without any explanation of how the killers got in, or why they didn’t then kill Hannay. Hitchcock at this point apparently had little fear of those annoying folks he called “the plausiblists” — although the list of Hannay’s neighbours includes a “Porlock”, suggesting that he was aware of the various ways in which ordinary persons can hinder the artist at work.

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The second massive cheat comes after Hannay eludes his pursuers on the bridge — we not only don’t see how he gets down from the bridge, the next time we see him he’s strolling through Glen Coe, about a hundred miles away. Hitch gets away with this kind of barefaced cheek in part because he’s so good at transitions. A cut from a screaming woman, discovering a corpse, to a train blowing its whistle, is a particular classic. But the movie abounds with inventiveness in sound design — when the female spy is murdered in his flat, Hannay remembers her words, and we hear them, as if filtered through a long-distance telephone connection.

Then there’s the famous crofter scene, a touching and atmospheric vignette, featuring John Laurie (previously seen playing Irish in JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK) and Peggy Ashcroft, which deliberately slows the pace and alters the tone: Hitch was fond of tonal shifts and his movie really unfolds like a piece of music. A terrible shame that the mesmerising Peggy didn’t make more films — we otherwise see her mainly in old lady stuff like A PASSAGE TO INDIA. Laurie was a real-life crofter’s son, although in the lowlands rather than the highlands. The accents all through the Scottish section are wildly variable — the bad guy’s maid is hilarious, although she gives it her best shot.

Such is Hitch’s verve and cheek that he can get away with things that really make no sense — Hannay travels to Scotland in search of the fiendish master-spy with the missing finger. Once in the right neighbourhood, he asks around about newcomers, and determines that there’s only one. Visiting the fellow, he finds him hosting a party, and is lulled into a state of relaxation. And soon he is shocked — shocked! — to discover that this is none other than the man he has been looking for. Well, duh — and yet it’s an effective shock moment, don’t ask me how.

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(Note the bad guy’s bespectacled daughter, named as Patricia, just like Hitch and Alma’s only child. It’s not our Pat, though, since she was only a little nipper at the time.)

Another great trick, when Hannay survives being shot at close range due to a hymn book in his pocket, its presence established afterwards in an impudent cutaway back to the crofter, whose coat Hannay has taken.

This being a typical Hitchcock nightmare, the police are useless and don’t believe our hero, so now he’s on the run again, and worse still, he has no clues left to follow. Never passing up the chance to take the mickey out of public speakers and large gatherings, Hitch bundles Hannay onto the stand at a political rally, where he bungles the candidates name, so that McCorquindale becomes McCrocodile, but otherwise scores a rousing success with an extemporised speech which not only serves as a potted story-so-far autobiography, but sets out the film’s woolly but sincere vision for the world’s future, after the current threats to peace and freedom have been eliminated. But this grants Hannay only a temporary respite, and he’s soon in the hands of the police — or are they? — again.

Fate throws him a blonde, Madeleine Carroll, and soon the two are famously handcuffed together. Up to now I’ve been calling him Hannay, because up until now he’s been more of a plot function than a character, but Robert Donat gets to do some proper acting once the girl is in the picture, and she’s very good too — Hitchcock called her the first proper Hitchcock blonde.

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Hitchcock and Hannay treat her rather harshly, seemingly as punishment for her giving him up to the police on the Flying Scotsman (quite reasonably, under the circumstances). Ivor Montagu recalled that the writing team quite deliberately invented as many miseries as possible for the character — this seems to have been the beginning of Hitch’s odd reputation as a misogynist (I can understand it, totally, in FRENZY, but not earlier), and Hitch added to the theme by inflicting constant practical jokes on poor Madeleine Carroll — more on this in another post.

It struck me in the past that Carroll enters the story rather late, after her earlier appearance on the train. This time, it seemed perfect. Hannay begins as a nobody, his flat undecorated, his face unglimpsed until long into his first scene, and we are able to accept him as our substitute because, although he’s vague and unformed as a piece of writing, he’s embodied by the appealing Donat. Only halfway through the story does Hannay really start to dominate his own story, and he does it by dominating Carroll, though he, like his audience, can’t help but admire her pluck. In obstreperously resisting everything Hannay does and says, Carroll becomes a useful foil, and also a winning character — she confounds cliche more thoroughly than previous Hitchcock heroines.

(In NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Hitch completely reverses the blonde’s introduction, to further avoid cliche: when Eva Marie Saint recognises Cary Grant, on another train, as another wanted murderer, she not only doesn’t give him up to the cops, she blatantly comes on to him.)

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An overheard phone call, implausible but not wildly so, enables our protags to make it to the climax, back at the music hall where the film began — in another of Hitchcock’s musical MacGuffins, Hannay recognises a tune that’s been running through his head as the one from Mr. Memory’s act, and the entertainer becomes the key figure in the whole plot. I’m not sure if Memory’s punchline — answering a question asked during his act, even though it gets him shot — is totally clear. Bennett and Hitch were proud of the idea that Mr. Memory cannot bear to let a question go unanswered: it’s a matter of professional pride. But the idea isn’t, perhaps, as fully expressed as it could be. But his death scene is properly moving and absurd (the secret formula he’s memorized is sheerest crap – a MacGuffin of a MacGuffin) and we’re also graced by a cameo by a positively nubile Miles Malleson. And what do we say when we see Miles Malleson, remembering his scene as the dirty-books buyer in PEEPING TOM?

Altogether now — “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight!”

© David Cairns, all rights reserved.

Love The 39 Steps?

24 Nov

Robert Donat with Madeleine Carroll, The 39 Steps

If you love Alfred Hitchcock’s masterly and enduring 1935 film, which starred Robert Donat, not only are you in possession of excellent taste, but you are also in good company. In today’s Guardian, Saptarshi Ray writes about his favourite film:

The 39 Steps was my first Hitchcock film. I saw it when I was about 13, with a movie-buff uncle on a battered old black-and-white TV set, on a trip to India. Sitting in the clammy heat and darkness that night, praying there wouldn’t be a power cut as we were transported from West Bengal to the Scottish moors, it was the first time I grasped the full extent of cinema’s escapist power …

… Then, of course, there’s the chemistry between the leads. According to Donat’s biography, Hitchcock “accidentally” lost the key after handcuffing him to Carroll at their first rehearsal. After a few hours, during which the director was said to have become mawkishly obsessed with how the pair would deal with bathroom visits, Hitchcock “found” the key. As a result, the leads became more relaxed in each other’s presence. Their heat may not quite match Bogie and Bacall, but they’re a fine pair on-screen, and so engaging that they are doomed to fall in love.

Watching The 39 Steps is a bit like entering a vintage jewel-encrusted lift once built for a maharajah: what will you admire first? The ornate ivory buttons, the solid gold doors edged with marble, the engineering that makes it capable of such speed – or will you simply enjoy the ride? For every breathless plot twist there’s a camera shot or angle to appreciate. Just like the Forth Bridge and its dramatic Scottish surroundings, this film proves ingenuity and beauty can make easy bedfellows – whether handcuffed together or not.

To read the full article, click here.

And if you happen to be spending Hogmanay (aka New Year) in Edinburgh this year, The 39 Steps is included in the Filmhouse Cinema’s An Edinburgh New Year season, and is showing on Friday 30 and Saturday 31 December. Tickets can be booked online or by calling 0131 228 2688, and discounts are available (if you see any three (or more) films in this season, get 15% off . See all six films in this season and get 25% off ).

The Count of Monte Cristo is digitally re-mastered for 2012

15 Nov

Robert Donat chose to make only one film in Hollywood, The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), adapted from Alexandre Dumas’ novel, and directed by Rowland V. Lee.

Robert, of course, starred as the eponymous Count, Edmond Dantes, with Elissa Landi playing his love interest, Mercedes. Although necessarily simplified to suit the length of a feature film, this version of Dumas’ enduring classic is still arguably the best, courtesy of Robert’s fine performance as a wronged man intent on revenge, and is famously referenced in the 2005 film V for Vendetta.

We were delighted to discover that a digitally re-mastered DVD will be released on 7 February 2012, from Hen’s Tooth Video, and available via Amazon and other leading DVD retailers. It is currently available to pre-order at Movies Unlimited.

Once we have seen the DVD, we will be able to update you on how the quality of picture and sound has benefited from the digital re-mastering process, but we are hopeful it will be a considerable improvement on the currently available print.

Click to enlarge

The Dashing Mr. Donat

17 Oct

The great actor, Robert Donat, who died too young in 1958, made only 20 films in his lifetime because of his chronic asthma. But what films! Speaking of his need for variety in his work, he said ‘I like my pickles mixed’ and they certainly were.  They include: The Ghost Goes West, as a Scottish laird and a ghost (1936), The Inn of the Sixth Happiness as a Mandarin (1958 – his last film, in which he spoke the prophetic lines, ‘It is time to go, old friends. We shall not see each other again, I think.’), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) as Thomas Culpepper, sophisticated Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps (1935), Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), Sir Robert Morton in The Winslow Boy (1948), a Scottish doctor in The Citadel (1938), for which he was Oscar nominated, and the eponymous teacher in  Goodbye, Mr Chips, playing him both as a young man and as an 83 year old, and stealing the 1939 Oscar from Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (which had taken all the other awards that year!).

Robert Donat in 'Goodbye, Mr. Chips' (1939)

John Donat, Robert’s son, told me his father’s favourite story from the making of this film:

‘Robert appeared on the set as the Old Chips for the first time and was practising his shuffling walk. Korda (the producer) came on set and asked the camera-man (the great Freddie Young): “Who’s that old fart ?”

Robert regarded that as the finest assessment of his acting career.’

I approached John Donat (who sadly died in 2004) because I was researching for my first book, Acting for Film: Truth 24 Times a Second. In spite of Robert Donat’s enthusiastic defence of cinema in his excellent article, Film Acting, for Footnotes to the Film – his son (who had not read this article before) summed up his father’s attitude thus:

‘My version of his career is that he greatly preferred the stage to the screen – but made money in the Cinema to lose it in the Theatre.   A process repeated many times through his career…”

Robert Donat certainly suffered, not only ill health that prevented him going to Hollywood, but also such a conscientious attitude to work that he often feared he would not be the right casting for the character. He turned down the title role in Captain Blood (1935) as he felt the swashbuckling part was wrong for him, and the role was eventually taken by Errol Flynn. Donat reported that,

‘The chief thing in my mind was that I must appear dashing. I distinctly remember in The Count of Monte Cristo pulling my shoulders back and trying to look handsome.’

And handsome and dashing was what he was. He was the favourite actor amongst many of his peers, including Peter Sellers, Judy Garland and Charles Laughton. His stage performances were legendary and included the first performance, playing Thomas Becket, of T.S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. (This is still available as an audio version via Amazon.) Having originally started acting in order to cure a stammer, he found it to be his vocation. He took great pride, not only in his own success but also in the success of others, and his son shared with me his father’s favourite quartet from a show:

Cambridge Festival Theatre, 1928.

An unknown young actor: called Robert Donat.

An unknown young actress: called Flora Robson.

An unknown young director: called Tyrone Guthrie.

being reviewed (either in the Manchester Guardian or Granta) by

An unknown undergraduate: called Alistair Cooke!!!

In spite of Robert Donat’s initial ambivalence to working on film – a view shared by many actors of his generation who saw cinema as a way of making big bucks, but theatre as art – he soon came to understand the perceptive power of the lens. He said of these actors that,

‘Too late, they discover that they have not gone quite the right way about it. Instead of acting “a little bit less”, they find out that they need to act a little bit better.’

Strangely enough, the stage actor’s slight contempt for screen acting has persisted in this country to the present time. Jeremy Irons, who kindly did the foreword for my book/DVD, A Screen Acting Workshop, expressed much the same assessment of this view as Robert Donat, and agreed with him that:

‘Film acting can give you real insight into acting in the theatre, because you can’t lie on film whereas you can get away with lying in theatre. In other words the camera will see you if you are pretending. You have to be.’

Donat came to have great respect for screen acting and echoes the same thought:

‘Of this I am quite certain. I am a better actor for my film experience. Two qualities – concentration and sincerity – are even more necessary on the screen than on the stage, and one’s work cannot fail to be the richer for their exercise.’

The camera really sees you think, sees that sincerity, but the minute you step in and try to show us what you’re thinking, decide how to appear or how to say the line, or feel yourself ‘being sincere’, you are lost. The lens will reveal your lack of truth and depth. To quote Robert Donat again:

‘There is no such thing as Facial Expression, but there is such a thing as an expressive face…the face and eyes will light up, not with a ‘suitable expression’ but with the only suitable expression – the real thing.’

Hitchcock, who directed him in The 39 Steps, says something similar in his own inimitable way:

‘I would almost say that the best screen actor is the man who can do nothing extremely well.’ (Alfred Hitchcock – Footnotes to the Film).

Well, Robert Donat certainly does it extremely well, but it’s a sleight of hand worthy of Hitchcock. It is not ‘nothing’ – it is the surface calm of a man who is seething underneath with thoughts and needs. Directors often do not have a great understanding of the acting process and, in a desire to stop an actor ‘showing’ and thereby ‘overacting’, they ask them to ‘do less’, misunderstanding that it is not about doing less but about being real. The ‘doing nothing’ is what happens – like life – in the moment. (When we don’t want others to read our thoughts or can convey what we want by merely a glance or, because our thoughts are driving underneath, we allow words to simply ‘fall out’ of our mouths, our faces give little away.)  But this seemingly effortless work – like the propulsion of a swan’s webbed feet beneath the surface of the water while it glides elegantly above – involves a deep preparation beforehand. In his article Film Acting in Footnotes to the Film, Robert Donat takes as an example a single moment of surprise, and lists what the actor needs to imagine: a) the mental state b) the emotional state of the character at the moment of the surprise c) the nature of the surprise d) the degree of mental and emotional state and e) thinking backwards and forwards in continuity to ‘place’ the acting in proper sequence, size and shape.

These are all conscious decisions (‘though very nearly instinctive in a good actor’) but, in the moment of putting this work onto screen, Donat says it must be ‘unconscious’ – in other words, as the actor places himself into the moment – it will be ‘the real thing’.

Donat is the master of the cool exterior whilst his mind races with possibilities.  Watch the interrogation scene from The Winslow Boy (1948).

Here, we see the man’s humanity and warmth in his eyes, even whilst he is fiercely grilling the young suspect. But he never gives away what he thinks until the end of the interview, surprising the other characters – and us. The grilling starts gently, to win the boy’s confidence. (Notice the difference in energy and strength between his remarks to the boy and to the father’s interruptions.) As he becomes more sure of the boy’s innocence, he becomes harsher and harder to test him, and to simulate the cross-examination he knows his young client will have to endure, until he reduces him to tears.

During this section, his eyes never leave the child’s face, searching out the truth, and yet we see in them, wry amusement at some of the answers. Donat’s eyes (unlike the child who is good but always ‘on text’) are fully alive and he really listens, really watches.

Look at his use of props. Donat plays with his glove but becomes very still when he needs to know an answer. His cane becomes both a symbol of his position and a means to provide a physical anchor for the scene.

He is centred, upright, taking all the power from his centre. His face is relaxed even at the strongest moments. Nothing is pushed or forced.

Donat’s role, Sir Robert, is accused by the boy’s sister of never letting anyone know the truth about him and of being ashamed of his emotions. Sir Robert says that in his profession he needs ‘cold, hard logic’. So when, in the film, emotion does erupt, it is in spite of himself. Donat never indulges his feelings but plays the man who has spent a lifetime concealing them and his affections, which are never revealed until the last line of the movie. Only watch this clip, with its marvellous last moment, if you’ve already seen the film, as you should watch it all!

In Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939), we see the reverse reasons for this hiding of the emotions. The shy, sensitive Mr. Chipping wants so much to say what he feels but cannot because of his insecurity, until it is wrenched out of him by the emotion of parting with his loved one.

See how different his physicality is from the last clip, the sternum slightly collapsed, hands in pockets, the rolling walk. He makes his place in the world smaller. Whereas Sir Robert in The Winslow Boy expanded to fill the room and become the central pivot of it, Mr. Chips tries to fade into the background and avoid becoming the centre of anyone’s attention.

As he sees the love of his life off on her train, he hardly looks at her, not daring to meet her eyes or say the secret that is in his heart – dying to speak his feelings, but unable to give voice to them. At the last moment he tries, but his courage fails when the whistle blows and interrupts him, and he cannot sustain his bravery to push the moment through.

She kisses him and instantly releases him from the self-consciousness that binds him. He runs in a burst of energy and bravery and crumples again as the train leaves and panic sets in. His friend resolves it and fills him with a joy that is hard for him to comprehend.

We understand all these complex feelings that are bubbling underneath the surface of the character in a couple of minutes of screen time. We understand it through the actor’s body. It is so clear here that Robert Donat is totally connected, body and mind. He is a very physical actor whose whole self is immersed in his role’s life, thought-patterns and needs.

As Mr. Chips is released from his self-doubt by love and marriage, he is at last able to show his emotions. And the ending, as the old Mr Chips (Donat playing 83 at aged 34!), is a classic, genuine tear-jerker. In his last moments of the film, the elderly retired schoolmaster makes friends with the homesick new boy at the school and soon afterwards dies, thinking of his thousands of ‘children’. It would be so easy to fall into sentimentality here, but Donat is always firm and true. With his strength faltering as he slips into death, he speaks, with warmth and love in his eyes, practically, truthfully and in a major key, without a trace of self-pity.

The 39 Steps (1935) is well worth watching in full, as it’s a cracking yarn. And if you can’t watch it on film, there’s a youtube version:

Donat is superb as the worldly – and dashing – Richard Hannay, who gets caught up in espionage due to a case of mistaken identity and has to use skill and ingenuity to outwit his wicked opponents. With his jaunty moustache and well-cut suits, he exudes urbane intelligence and charm and there is real chemistry between him and Madeleine Carroll. At around 1.02.00 you will find the night in the country inn where they are handcuffed together. This is a very funny scene, with Donat convincing the romantic-natured landlady that they are, ‘so terribly in love’. It also has a potentially sexually charged moment, made physically amusing by the situation of the handcuffs, when Donat helps Carroll to remove her stockings. Yet again, beneath all the teasing, tough talk and tall tales, we see Donat’s eyes twinkling and his generosity as an actor.  He is always playing the scene with her, not indulging himself, but watching and responding to every nuance of the moment.

In the earlier scene at 29.10 between him and the luminous young Peggy Ashcroft as the crofter’s wife (a rare moment of her on screen), we see real moments of tenderness from him as she protects him from her bullying husband.

Again, Donat’s whole physicality is used to the utmost, and often to comic effect, in this action-packed film in which he is always self-assured, but never pompous. And, as always, the teamwork with his fellow actors is perfect.

Robert Donat never short-changes us. He is the master of sub-text and of hiding his feelings beneath the surface. They are allowed to bubble up only when it is truthful for them to do so. The work is spare and genuine, never embroidered for effect – and timeless. As riveting to watch now as when the films were first made. Styles of filmmaking may change, accents may move on, world-views alter, but the truth of great acting doesn’t change.  As Donat puts it:

‘ When that relentless eye goggles at us in close-up we may be sure of one thing – we must deliver up to it the finest work of which we are capable; nothing but the truth will do.’

His advice is as absolute a truth now as ever it was. And I end with one last quote from him:

‘…The film actor’s most important asset is the eye. Didn’t somebody once say that the eye is the window of the soul?’

Robert Donat’s soul is still there for all to see who watch his films.

Thank you very much to Julie/jigsmave for permission to include this video.

© Mel Churcher, all rights reserved.

___________________________________________________________________________

www.melchurcher.com

Twitter: @MelChurcher

Publications:

Acting for Film: Truth 24 Times a Second Virgin Books. (2003)

A Screen Acting Workshop + DVD Nick Hern Books. (2011)

Welcome to the Donatotorium!

22 Sep

If a natatorium is a building housing a swimming pool, then the Donatotorium is a site simply swimming with fresh (almost daily) Robert Donat-y goodness.  Your blog mistresses Gill and Jenny have pulled out all the stops and left no metaphor unturned to bring you the most Robert Donat in one place in cyberspace.  Whether you are a new conquest or full-on fanatic, we’re confident you’re going to love what you see here.

There’s enough here to keep even the most ardent Donatofile busy for a while, from a thorough but succinct biography to an unhealthy number of swoon-worthy pictures, but there’s even more to come.  Stay tuned for more screen caps, guest posts from experts and academics, and in depth analysis (read pro-Donat snark) of the man’s all-too-brief filmography.

So take a look (and listen) around and let us know what you think.  Being arty-sensitive types, we live for comments.  Even if you don’t have anything much to discuss, we’d love to hear from you. One of our objectives is to find out just how many of us are out here.  Is there a Robert Donat fandom?  Could there be?  We’ll find out, I think.

Welcome to the Donatotorium.  Let the madness begin.