brian-desmond-hurst

8

It was not a very good film. The music became popular, that’s all. 

- Anton Walbrook, interview in Film Illustrated Monthly, 1948

Walbrook was unhappy during the filming of Dangerous Moonlight. He was Austrian, and the authorities had taken away his car and his radio. To add to his misery, his Norwegian boyfriend had been sent to Canada. 

When he sat at the piano and his leading lady Sally Gray entered the house and came up into the room, Walbrook had to say to her ‘I’m handsome, full of charm, and a wonderful musician’. Hurst thought he was doing this in an extremely effeminate way and tried every word he could to explain that to him. The term 'camp’ was not yet in popular use. Finally Hurst had to explain to Walbrook it was too 'sissy’. Walbrook said 'No.’ Hurst said 'Yes.’ Hurst got his way.

- Stephen Bourne, Brief Encounters: Lesbians and Gays in British Cinema 1930-1971

Hurst, rather than being homophobic, was a (cliche alert) larger-than-life openly gay Irishman, director of over 30 films, most famously, probably, the Alastair Sim Scrooge, and this.

I bloody love Dangerous Moonlight. Even though I’m with Anton - it’s not a great film. But Stefan is, as Bourne says, 'a beautiful, sexy, gentle, kind, comforting hero.’ Hurst might have thought him sissy, (and he is still pretty, um, swishy, in this scene - you’re almost surprised Sally Gray is a girl) but then Hurst (aided by Georges Perinal, bless him) lights and directs him like he’s an actress, and there are tons of lingering shots of his face, and his eyes, that you rarely see of the usual leading man.

Throw in the bomber pilot OTP of Stefan and Mike (Mike who is irish, and Stefan’s best friend, and who saves him from death and escapes with him from a Romanian POW camp and who becomes his manager) - and Stefan’s constant desire to get back to the fighting (and Mike), and his and Carol’s obvious unsuitability for each other, and the 'Rose of Tralee’ scene (augh my heart) and quite frankly, this is a really really slashy film, for something that’s meant to be a big straight romance. 

From The Empress of Ireland by Christopher Robbins, a fabulous memoir of the Irish film director Brian Michael Hurst. Robbins is writing a (never filmed) film script for Hurst about the birth of Christ and they are hoping that Michael Redgrave will play Herod. This is sometime in the early 70s.

On arrival at [Brian’s] house I was briefly introduced before Brian excused himself and went upstairs for some reason. We were left alone and it was evident that Sir Michael Redgrave was painfully shy. He was dressed in an old tweed jacket and corduroys, and had on the floor beside him a white plastic bag that I thought might contain the script and the great man’s notes. Although I was anxious to talk about the film I understood that it would not be appropriate for either of us to mention it before Brian returned. Besides, I had never spoken to an actor in my life about a script, let alone one who was unarguably one of England’s finest. I wondered if Sir Michael would be intellectual and analytical, or manipulative and charming.

‘Sorry if I’m late,’ I said. 'The bus took forever.’

There was a silence. After a while, Sir Michael said, 'Prefer the bus, do you? To the tube?’

'There’s no bus that really connects Knightsbridge to Fleet Street, that’s the trouble.’

Sir Michael nodded. Silence fell again. A minute passed. Maybe two. It felt like an hour. Sir Michael rifled inside his plastic bag and pulled out a bottle of brandy. 'Drink?’

'No thanks.’

Sir Michael replaced the bottle inside the plastic bag. Another silence; more time crawled by. Sir Michael pulled out another bottle. 'I have whisky.’

'That’s very kind but no thank you. I have to work this afternoon. Spirits at lunchtime make me sleepy.’

We sat in excruciating silence once again until Brian entered. Sir Michael immediately rose from his chair, pulled an envelope from the plastic bag and placed it on the desk. The men embraced and Sir Michael made for the door. He turned to face me. 'Goodbye.’

'Goodbye.’

Brian accompanied Sir Michael to the front door and I heard them muttering conspiratorially in the hallway. The words were indistinct but there was something urgent in Sir Michael’s tone, almost panic. The front door opened and closed, and Brian returned and took up his seat in the winged chair. 'You made a very good impression on Sir Michael.’

'I am pleased.’ The sarcasm failed to find its mark. 'Brian - I came all the way from Fleet Street for this meeting. I thought we were going to talk about the script. Sir Michael asks me if I prefer the bus to the tube, offers me a belt of booze from a plastic bag and says goodbye.’ A suspicion entered my mind. 'He does know, I suppose, that I’m the man who wrote the script?’ The suspicion grew. 'He has read the script?’

'Set all that aside’ Brian said, dismissing my questions with a wave of the hand. 'This is much more important. A delicate matter. I am asking you to perform a service for Sir Michael in the utmost confidence. This is strictly between the three of us. I know I can trust you.’

'What is it?’

'Sir Michael has had a spot of bother with Big Freddy.’ [Big Freddy is a well known hulking rent boy]. 

'Oh Christ!’

’…Big Freddy has been sending daily telegrams to Sir Michael demanding money. Naturally, they have been ignored. But Big Freddy has a spiteful streak - he has threatened to go to the papers.’

'What? And tell them Sir Michael’s queer? As if they don’t already know.’ [Bisexual, actually, but a moot point in this context.]

Brian looked at me searchingly, and seemed to be considering whether to continue. 'There are a few “in” jokes about Sir Michael in our circle. “Sir Michael Redgrave, I’ll be bound,” and “Sir Michael is unable to come to the phone just now, he’s all tied up!” Do you understand? […] So you can see why Sir Michael doesn’t want this to get into the News Of The World.’

I didn’t know much about Hurst (except that of course he directed Dangerous Moonlight)  and this anecdote is more about Michael, bless him, but The Empress of Ireland is probably the most enjoyable book I’ve read all year. It’s fucking glorious. You don’t need to know anything about the film industry (British or Hollywood - Hurst went out in the 20s and became John Ford’s lifelong friend, amongst other things) but if you do it’s extra joyful. But it covers Ireland, and Gallipoli, London and Tangier, and Hurst comes out of it as a grand old charmer of a man, even if you wouldn’t want to lend him a fiver, or share a guardsman with him. 

10

A Christmas Carol (1951).

(Sources: www.dailymail.co.uk/ www.listal.com/ www.toutlecine.com/ www.sheeplaughs.com/ www.samefacts.com/ www.dvdbeaver.com/ www.cinefantastiqueonline.com/ www.acidemic.blogspot.com/ www.theoldmoviehouse.blogspot.com/ www.movieposter.com)

A Christmas Carol (1951)

Originally released in Britain as Scrooge, this 1951 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ oft-adapted novella A Christmas Carol. Perhaps no piece of literature has been so often adapted. There are at least a mind-boggling twenty-one feature-length film adaptations since a 1901 British silent short and not counting short films and television specials.

So pretty much everyone has covered A Christmas Carol. This lengthy list includes Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, the Muppets (my personal favorite with straight-shooting Michael Caine as Scrooge), CGI characters (that adaptation had a disturbing poster to boot), Mr. Magoo, and even - and I’m not kidding - THE FLINTSTONES (yes, a prehistoric Christmas thousands of years before the birth of Jesus). You really wonder what’s next.

It has been covered so many times in so many mediums, I wonder how many people have actually read the actual novella. I know I have. And I’m not going to even bother with a synopsis.

But this adaptation directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge is often regarded as the critics and film historians’ selection for the definitive Christmas Carol. And why is that so?

First, Alastair Sim is the most perfectly cast Scrooge I have ever seen. Sim, not exactly the most handsome man in the world, has this cragginess and poor British dentistry exacerbates his Scrooginess - if that is a word, which I doubt. Sim’s Scrooge has hints of resistance as he meets the three ghosts and his expressive face - which he can switch between strict control and expressiveness with such range - heighten the already dramatic change from the Scrooge in the beginning and the Scrooge at the end.

Unlike in most other adaptations which provide no basis for Scrooge’s malevolence, this film frames and gives context to that behavior. This is mostly done in the visit with the Ghost of Christmas Past (Michael J. Dolan) - which takes up the most time of the three - as he shows Scrooge the death of his beloved younger sister Fan.

This deathbed scene is unexpectedly effective and lends even more poignancy because it is implied that there are strained relations between Ebenezer and his father. I don’t recall if this was in the novella, but it contextualizes Ebenezer Scrooge’s Scrooginess by making the source not solely about Scrooge’s desire for wealth - something almost every single other adaptation has failed to do. And after the lost of his fiance Belle, his transformation is all the more complete than any other edition.

Again, Sim’s expressive face is the star once his nightmarish time with the Ghost of Christmas Future. His tentativeness to join his nephew Fred (Brian Worth) is masterful acting in its subtlety. Sim probably deserved an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, but never received it. This is probably due the ubiquity of A Christmas Carol in many mediums and the fact that this film disappointed at the box office.

Combined with C.M. Pennington-Richards’ noir-inspired cinematography, a Noel Langley screenplay that - through its little moments - make Scrooge even colder in the beginning and genial in the end - as well as the Dickensian griminess of the city streets, the 1951 film finds itself - even sixty years later - as an exceptionally dark, if not the darkest, adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

Wildly successful in Britain, the film was slated to make its American premiere at Radio City Music Hall in New York City in December, but was rejected by the owners of the hall because they thought the film was far too dark an adaptation. So instead, the producers and United Artists were forced to settle for a less prestigious premiere on Halloween - not an ideal time to release a Christmas movie back then. The film would find its American audience thanks to television - especially thanks to PBS through the 1970s and 80s.

Though I personally prefer Michael Caine in the Muppets adaptation, I now acknowledge that Alastair Sim is the definitive Scrooge in the definitive adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The writing, cinematography, and art direction make the 1951 version a good film.

A not-so-handsome, but incredibly talented Alastair Sim singlehandedly elevates a good film to a definitive holiday film.

My rating: 9/10

^ Based on my personal imdb rating.

12 December 2013

Film: A CHRISTMAS CAROL a/k/a SCROOGE (dir. Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951, U.K.)

Forum: Private screening       Format: 35mm

Observations: How privileged we are to know people whose love of film extends to screening them in their living room for friends, family and colleagues. I've only ever seen this hallowed classic on TV, in a cruddy (public domain) TV print. A clean, crisp theatrical print brings the film more in line with its contemporary, the eye-popping OLIVER TWIST (1948) - also, incidentally, released by The J. Arthur Rank Organisation, which evidently knew a thing or two about cinematic Dickens adaptations.  Shown with some shorts (including a new original 16mm reel by one of the hosts), and served with treats, it was the most delightful kick-off to the holiday season. Thanks to R, J and K.