My Journey through Films and Film Songs 19

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Watching English Films in 1950s #6

The Creators

I have mentioned the names of some of the iconic film makers of the Golden Era of Hollywood earlier, Charlie Chaplin (Limelight), Alfred Hitchcock (Rope, Rebecca, Strangers on a Train), Vincent Minnelli (An American in Paris), Elia Kazan (Viva Zapata!, A Street Car named Desire, On the Waterfront), Cecil B DeMille (Samson and Delilah, Greatest Show on Earth), John Huston (African Queen), George Stevens (A Place in the Sun), William Wyler (Detective Story, Carrie, Roman Holiday), David Lean (The Sound Barrier), and Walt Disney (Cinderella, The Living Desert).

Orson Welles

Orson Welles is among the greatest and most influential filmmakers of all time. In 1938, Welles earned international fame as the director and narrator of a strikingly realistic simulation of a Martian invasion in a radio adaptation of H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds. His first film Citizen Kane (1941), which he co-wrote, produced, directed, and played the title role, is treated as one of the greatest films ever made. The film was nominated for Academy Awards in nine categories, and it won for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) by Mankiewicz and Welles. Citizen Kane is praised for its cinematography, editing, music, and its narrative structure, all of which have been considered innovative and trendsetting. He directed twelve other acclaimed feature films, The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Macbeth (1948), Othello (1951), The Trial (1962), based on the novel of the same name by “absurdist” writer Franz Kafka. Welles also starred in films like Jane Eyre (1943), The Third Man (1949), and A Man for All Seasons (1966). His distinctive directorial style featured layered and nonlinear narrative forms, dramatic lighting, unusual camera angles, sound techniques borrowed from radio, deep focus shots and long takes . Welles received an Academy Award and three Grammy Awards among other numerous honours.

Roberto Rossellini

Roberto Rossellini was one of the most prominent directors of Italian neorealist cinema. During the Second World War, with Italy under the dictatorship of Mussolini, Rossellini produced a government sponsored Fascist Trilogy. After the collapse of the Fascist regime, Rossellini produced an anti-fascist Neorealist Trilogy consisting of Rome, Open City (1945), Paisà (1946), and Germany, Year Zero (1948). Impressed with his work, Ingrid Bergman offered to work with him. Their first collaboration was Stromboli (1950). Since they were married to other people, their love affair caused a great scandal, when Ingrid Bergman became pregnant with Rossellini’s child. Ingrid divorced her husband Peter Lindstrom and married Rossellini in 1950. In 1957, when Jawaharlal Nehru invited Rossellini to India to make a documentary for the Films Division, he got involved with a married woman once again. Sonali Dasgupta was the wife of Harisadhan Dasgupta, an Indian documentary film maker who was assisting Rossellini. This became a huge scandal in India as well as in USA. Sonali, pregnant with Rossellini’s child, left for Italy with Rossellini along with her infant son, leaving behind her husband and a six-year-old son. Unmindful of the public uproar, Nehru, who was acquainted with Sonali, facilitated her passage to Europe. Rossellini divorced Ingrid Bergman to marry Sonali and she remained his wife until his death in 1977, although they separated in 1973.

Leading Men

I mentioned the established stars, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart and newcomers Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brando, and Richard Burton. There were many British actors we liked including Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Ralph Richardson, Nigel Patrick, Michael Wilding, Clifton Webb, and Michael Rennie. I mention â…žthree who became our favourites.

James Mason

James Mason was a very successful English actor in the 1940s. with hits like The Seventh Veil (1945), The Wicked Lady (1945) and Odd Man Out (1947), the first recipient of the BAFTA Award for Best British Film. In Hollywood, Mason starred in a number of successful films between 1950s and the early 1980s, including: The Desert Fox (1951), Julius Caesar (1953), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), A Star Is Born (1954) and Alfred Hitchcock 's North by Northwest (1959). Mason was nominated for three Academy Awards, three Golden Globes and won the Golden Globe for A Star is Born and two BAFTA Awards . We loved the way he essayed different types of roles with finesse; German General in The Desert Fox , sly spy in Operation Cicero, wicked Rupert of Hentzau in The Prisoner of Zenda, mysterious flyer in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, (1951) starring Ava Gardner, reluctant assassin in Julius Caesar (1953), the self-destructing has been in A Star Is Born (1954) and a suave master spy in Alfred Hitchcock 's North by Northwest (1959).

Stewart Granger

Stewart Granger was born James Lablache Stewart in London, but when he became an actor, he changed his name to avoid being confused with the American actor James Stewart Granger, who began to work on the London stage in the 1930s, got his first major film role in The Man in Grey (1943), in which he co-starred with James Mason. In 1949 Granger joined MGM to star in King Solomon's Mines a movie version of H. Rider Haggard's novel of the same name, and following its success, landed a seven-year contract with MGM. In 1952, Granger starred in Scaramouche, a version of Rafael Sabatini's novel in the role of Andre Moreau, the bastard son of a French nobleman. In The Prisoner of Zenda (1952), he played Rudolf Rassendyll, which suited his theatrical voice, six-foot stature, and dignified profile. Columbia borrowed him to play the love interest of Rita Hayworth in Salome (1953), another big hit. For MGM he co-starred with his wife Jean Simmons in Young Bess (1953), playing Thomas Seymour. This was followed by adventure story Green Fire (1954), co-starring Grace Kelly. Granger’s last two films with MGM were, The Last Hunt (1956), a Western in which Robert Taylor played the villain, and Bhowani Junction (1956), adapted from a John Masters novel about India on the verge of independence with Ava Gardner playing an Anglo-Indian girl.

Granger is reported to have turned down the role of Messala in the 1959 film Ben-Hur, because he did not want to take second billing to Charlton Heston.

When MGM announced the production of Bhowani Junction and George Cukor travelled to India in October 1954, there was a lot of opposition in the press and public to filming the novel that many in India considered to be colonial and racist. The fictional location Bhowani Junction was in India, most probably Bhusaval. MGM wanted to shoot the film in location in India The government of India insisted on script approval and stipulated other terms that MGM refused to accept and decided to shoot the film in Lahore, where the government of Pakistan welcomed the filming team.

In The Prisoner of Zenda and in Scaramouche we enjoyed Stewart Granger’s fencing duels with James Mason and Mel Ferrer, respectively. Scaramouche contains what was reported to be the longest fencing duel ever caught on film, a sequence lasting nearly eight minutes that takes place in the theatre where Scaramouche works. The fight ranges from the balcony boxes, to the lobby, through the main seats, backstage, and finally on the stage itself.

Alec Guinness

Sir Alec Guinness was one of the greatest British actors, along with Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. After an early career on the stage, Guinness was featured in several comedies, including Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which he played eight different characters, The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), for which he received his first Academy Award nomination, and The Lady Killers (1955). He collaborated six times with director David Lean in Great Expectations (1946), in Oliver Twist (1948), in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for which he won both the Academy Award for Best Actor and the BAFTA Award for Best Actor, in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), in Doctor Zhivago (1965), and in A Passage to India (1984).

Mirth Merchants

Charlie Chaplin and slapstick comedians

Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and the Marx Brothers were comedy actors in the silent film era who adapted themselves to talking films smoothly. After Talkies arrived, actors like Charles Chaplin often played mute in films. Harpo Marx, from Marx Brothers always played a mute. Apart from Charlie Chaplin, we enjoyed the comic capers of Harold Lloyd the most, followed by the Marx Brothers, Chico, Harpo, and Groucho. Each of them had a distinctive persona. Groucho Marx was known for his one liners, while Chico Marx and Harpo Marx enthralled us with their expertise in playing the piano and the harp respectively. The other comedy groups were Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, and The Three Stooges.

Bob Hope

When we began to watch English movies, Bob Hope was the reigning comedian. We liked him in Road to Rio (1947) and My Favorite Spy (1951) (with Hedy Lamarr) Road to Rio was part of a series of films known as "Road" pictures, in which Bob Hope teamed up with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. A new pair of comedians appeared in the movie, At War with the Army (1950), starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Audiences liked their double act with Dean Martin playing a straight man to Jerry Lewis's zany antics, unlike other pairs in which both partners indulged in comedy acts. Dean Martin was also a singer with a deep voice. The pair’s flair for improvising outside the script was an added asset. They appeared in a series of fourteen new movies, starting with At War with the Army (1950), ending with Hollywood or Bust (1956).

Danny Kaye

When we saw Danny Kaye in The Inspector General (1949) we became his fans instantly and never missed any of his films, Hans Christian Andersen (1952), Knock on Wood (1952), White Christmas (1954), and The Court Jester (1955). Knock on Wood was remade in Hindi as Begunah, starring Kishore Kumar, and released in 1957. The producers of Knock on the Wood filed a copyright lawsuit claiming that it was a plagiarized version of their film. They won the case, and the judge ordered all prints of Begunah to be destroyed. Danny Kaye was the first ambassador-at-large of UNICEF in 1954 and received the French Legion of Honour in 1986 for his years of work with the organization. During his tenure with UNICEF, he visited India and was touched by an Indian couple’s silent but deep affection for their ailing child and contrasted it with the showy, but often shallow, display of love in Western society.

African American actors in English Films

Up to the 1950s, African American actors in Hollywood were only offered demeaning roles like domestic servants, clowns, or a Mammy, the loyal maid played by Hattie McDaniel, in Gone with the Wind (1940) for which she won the Academy Award for best supporting actress. Hattie McDaniel faced both racism and sexism. The leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), ironically named Walter White, felt that coloured actors were "playing the clown before the camera". It was only in the late 1950s that African American actors got their just due when Sydney Poitier was nominated for the Oscar for best actor in The Defiant Ones.

Sabu, an Indian actor in Hollywood films

Long before IS Johar found a place in international films with small parts in Harry Black and the Tiger (1958), Northwest Frontier (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Death on the Nile (1978), an Indian actor was acting in Hollywood movies with star billing. I still remember watching the trailer of The Cobra Woman as a ten year old when we went to see The Prisoner of Zenda (1937). Our hearts filled with pride when the voice over announced the stars Maria Montez, Jon Hall and Sabu.

Sabu, the son of an Indian mahout from Karnataka, was spotted by documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, who cast him in the British film Elephant Boy (1937), based on a story by Rudyard Kipling. Sabu is best known for The Thief of Bagdad (1940). According to one director, Sabu had a wonderful grace about him. Sabu starred later as Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book (1942) and in three films with Maria Montez and Jon Hall, Arabian Nights (1942), White Savage (1943) and Cobra Woman (1944).

And lastly, a non-actor

Victor Mature was a leading man in Hollywood with successful films like One Million B.C. (1940), My Darling Clementine (1946), Kiss of Death (1947), Samson and Delilah (1949), which was his most successful film, and The Robe (1953). He was variously called “a handsome Tarzan type, a sort of miniature Johnny Weissmuller (The first Tarzan in Hollywood)”. Nobody seemed to believe that he could do anything except grunt and groan. Cecil B DeMille cast him in Samson and Delilah because the role of Samson was a combination Tarzan, Robin Hood, and Superman. I recall a piece from the humour pages of Reader’s Digest. Actors were excluded from an event in Beverly Hills but Victor Mature decided to attend it all the same. When he was stopped at the gate and informed that actors were not allowed, he quipped, “I have fifty films to show that I am not an actor.”

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More by :  Ramarao Annavarapu

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