London Letter

Hollywood Goes British

British talent and American organization combine to hit a new high in cinema quality

JOHN R. WOOLFENDEN August 1 1939
London Letter

Hollywood Goes British

British talent and American organization combine to hit a new high in cinema quality

JOHN R. WOOLFENDEN August 1 1939

Hollywood Goes British

British talent and American organization combine to hit a new high in cinema quality


THE DAY after "Goodbye, Mr. Chips” opened to a twenty-one-gun salute of applause at the Astor Theatre, New York, and the Four Star Theatre, Los Angeles, it was evident that here was the fourth big money-making film success to be produced in England during the past year and a half. Holly wood wiseacres confessed that there must be more than coincidence behind the fact. Particularly since each of these British-made pictures had topped its predecessors.

"A Yank at Oxford” set the pace, and a fast pace at that, with Robert Taylor stroking the winning crew. “The Citadel,” with Robert Donat and Rosalind Russell, stepped up that pace. Along came "Pygmalion,” with Leslie Howard and the hitherto unknown Wendy Hiller, to send audiences dashing home to insist that all their friends and relatives see it, too. And now “Mr. Chips,” with Donat already acclaimed as the best bet in the Academy Award sweepstakes, promises to obliterate all records set by the previous three.

Why are these pictures, with British background and British faces, winning such unprecedented popularity with American audiences? Well, for a variety of reasons. But the most pertinent of these is freshness. Freshness in story ideas, freshness in approach, freshness in acting talent, freshness in the entire attitude toward picture-making.

In general, excepting “Pygmalion,” pictures of purely British origin have not fared well recently in the United States markets, as records compiled by National Box Office Digest show'. Figuring normal theatre business as the base, at 100 per cent, "A Yank at Oxford” did business estimated at 130 per cent in 1938. while “The Citadel,” released late in the year, had done 117 per cent when the year closed. The only purely British picture to approach those marks on its American release was Alexander Korda’s “Drums.” figured at an even 100 percent. Far below that figure were “The Divorce of Lady X,” at 72; “Action for Slander,” at 64; “Gaiety Girls,” 62; “To the Victor,” 59; “Storm in a Teacup,” 54; “Look Out for Love,” 52; “The Girl Was Young,” 46; and “The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel,” 44. Twentieth Century’s Gracie Fields picture, “We’re Going to be Rich,” was a disappointing 69.

To date this year in the United States, “Mr. Chips” figures 132 percent and “Pygmalion” 131, with Laughton’s “The Beachcomber” at 113 and Universal’s British-made “The Mikado” at 83. “The Lady Vanishes,” Alfred Hitchcock’s latest mystery thriller, is listed at 80, and the Elisabeth Bergner “Stolen Life” at 72.

The high mark which Korda hit with “The Private Life of Henry VIII” has never been equalled since, though better than average popularity has been enjoyed in America by such films as "The Ghost Goes West,” “Nine Days a Queen,” “Victoria the Great,” “Elephant Boy,” “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Escape Me Never,” and several of the Jessie Matthews musicals.

The original idea of Hollywood executives, in opening production in England, was to make use of the great wealth of English talent which could not be reached direct from Hollywood, and to develop the talent of the Continent as well, by producing in London. When Louis B. Mayer made his trip abroad two years ago, preparatory to organizing his studio’s setup in London, he sought talent from Budapest, from Vienna, from Italy and France, as well as from England. As a result of that trip, not only were Robert Donat and Greer G arson signed, but Hedy Lamarr came to Hollywood. The plan is still to make London the central talent spot for all Europe.

The second purpose of opening production in England was to meet the specifications of a quota law. It was MetroGoldwyn-Mayer which first made the decision that if it was going to make films in England, they should be films comparing in every way with Hollywood’s best product. Why toss thousands of dollars out of the window for “quickies” to meet the quota, when those same thousands could be applied on a production that would redound to the credit of the organization, build goodwill in England and, more important, bring returns at the box-office? For the boxoffice must always be the final measure of film success. Audiences express their appreciation of a film by paying to see it.

Thus Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore and Maureen O’Sullivan, with Director Jack Conway, Cameraman Hal Rosson, an assistant director, a film editor and a publicity

man, were sent to Denham, Middlesex, for the first British production experiment. True, other Holly wood companies had had production branches overseas before that, but this was the first time that major box-office personalities had been sent to work at a British base.

When an audience at Luton, Bedfordshire, seeing its first “sneak preview'” in the Hollywood manner, scared production executives to death by greeting the first public screening of “A Yank at Oxford” in frozen silence, and then allayed all fears by almost standing on its chairs and cheering at the final fade-out, M.-G.-M. knew that its experiment wras fully justified. The comment cards filled out by that Luton audience corroborated the expressed purpose of making this a “British” picture. “Best British production yet,” was the tenor of virtually all the comments.

Incidentally, the sneak preview of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” at Reading repeated the experience at Luton. Whereas a Southern California audience looks forward to the opportunity to see a film before it is finally edited for release, English audiences, still unfamiliar with the tryout system, have been somewhat dubious about having an unannounced picture slipped in on the bill, and have reserved their demonstrations of approval until the completion of the screening.

The Real Atmosphere

'T'HE qualities which made “A Y'ank at Oxford” a success throughout the Empire and in the United States, have been evident too in “The Citadel,” “Pygmalion” and “Mr. Chips.” First, the subject matter and background have been definitely and essentially British. Though Hollywood can duplicate the British scene with great realism, as in “Cavalcade,” and maintain a British atmosphere with British players, as in that same picture, to capture the very spirit and feeling of England is a difficult undertaking in a locale 6,000 miles removed. When M.-G.-M. launched its overseas production schedule, it was determined that the logical aim would be to film in England only stories written with that setting. And the faithful depiction of the setting has provided much of the unique flavor.

Secondly, a complete and carefully prepared shooting script has been available for every director who has made the trip abroad. “A Yank at Oxford,” while no literary classic, left nothing to be guessed at by Jack Conway. With “The Citadel,” “Pygmalion” and “Mr. Chips,” painstaking and faithful adaptation was made of the A. J. Cronin, G. B. Shaw and James Hilton works before a camera turned, adaptations which met with those authors’ approval. According to Hilton, the explanation for most film flops is “million-dollar personalities in ten-cent stories.” When Sam Wood, who directed “Mr. Chips,” left Culver City, he carried with him what fellow workers conceded to be the best script that had ever been prepared at the studio. “Mr. Chips” represented the last of the Irving Thalberg story purchases, and its preparation reflected the same painstaking care which marked every '1 halberg production.

There was no shooting “off-the-cuff” on these British-made pictures. Though a budget and a shooting schedule with a time limit was prepared in advance, it was realized th at production facilities are not as readily at one’s fingertips in England as in Culver City. Weather is uncertain for exterior shots, strangeness of working conditions must be overcome by the newcomer, and harassing demands to finish on a deadline, in order to meet a theatre release date, must be set aside.

But the greatest advantage of all these pictures has been the reservoir of skilled acting talent available in London. It has amazed every American director, who sees there the answer to Hollywood’s everrecurrent question: “Where can we find new faces?”

To quote Wood, “There never was a city which contained such a wealth of versatile actors. Trained in repertory, doing leads one week and bits the next, the English actor at home has not succumbed to the evil of being typed and playing butlers for the rest of his career just because he once made a success as a butler. He can play the prince or the pauper, Hamlet or the gravedigger. In London, it was comparatively simple not only to get good types, but types with a solid background of acting experience.”

Wood, uninitiated in the problems of picture-making in England, but with a Hollywood experience dating back to Wallace Reid’s sports films, arrived at Denham with a script, the knowledge that Robert Donat was to be his star, and that he himself had selected Irish-born Greer Garson as his leading lady after seeing a test of her which had been slipped into a projection room by mistake, the day before lie was to sail. Miss Garson, completely new to films, quickly dissipated any qualms which Wood might have felt, and proved the efficacy of British training by setting an example for the players enacting the 153 other speaking roles, and soaring to stardom as Mrs. Chipping.

“Goodbye, Mr. Chips” covers a period of some sixty-odd years, requiring four separate sets of characters, mostly schoolmasters and students. Donat and young Terry Kilburn, London busman’s son who returned to his native soil for the film, alone survive the action from beginning to end. Donat’s Mr. Chips spans the time from when he arrives at Brookfield School in his early twenties, a timid teaching recruit, to his death at the age of eightythree. During those same years, young Kilburn appears as four different generations of the same family. None of the other supixirting parts is long. So Wood, with few acting plums to dispense, at first held but slim hopes of capturing outstanding talent for roles which in 1 lollywood might have been spurned by “name” players as not sufficiently important.

Patriotism an Item

FOR several weeks Wood interviewed London actors, the interviews proving invariably a refreshing experience. He was able, in almost every instance, to sign the actor he wanted. Any doubts in the actor’s mind as to accepting the role, lay not in its importance or unimportance, but in the fact that to appear on the London stage is still the premier goal of the British actor, and where stage appe. ranees conflict with film offers, the film offers by tradition must go by the boards, regardless of the larger salary. When Donat completed his role in “Mr. Chips,” he announced that he did not plan to appear in another film for six months, as he had arranged to return to the stage at the Old Vic, in Shaw, Chekhov and Shakespeare.

Donat’s popularity with his fellow actors was the first item in Wood’s favor, in casting the film. John Mills, one of the most promising of the younger London players, took the small role of Peter Colley, 1918, because of his friendship for the star. They were associated in Donat’s one attempt at actor-management, “Red Night.” Also, Mills felt that he owed a debt to R. C. Sherriff, co-author of the screen play of “Mr. Chips,” because Sherriff gave him his first opportunity in “Journey’s End.”

Other stage stars with their names in London lights were perfectly willing to come to Denham for only a few days work, provided that the role offered just one telling scene. There wasLyn Harding, for example, who plays the strikingly dominating Brookfield headmaster in the first period of the story, and Baron Paul von Hernried, who appears as Staefel, the German teacher who accompanies Mr. Chips on his Austrian walking tour, where he meets the future Mrs. Chips. Von Hernried made a stage name for himself as the Prince Consort in “Victoria Regina.” Then there were such other prominent figures of the London stage as Edmond Breon, also of “A Yank at Oxford;” Merle Tottenham, known to Hollywood; Milton Rosmer; David Tree and Scott Sunderland, also of “Pygmalion;” Austin Trevor, Peter Gawthorne, Louise Hampton, Patrick Ludlow, J. H. Robert, Frederick Leister and Charles Carson. Wood also introduced a new personality to the screen in Judith Furse, Greer Garson’s walking companion, who received her training at Robert Morley’s Perranporth Summer Theatre in Cornwall, and who was borrowed from the cast of his London play, “Goodness, How Sad!”

Perhaps most remarkable as a casting feat was the assembling of the 2,197 schoolboys, who could never have been found in Hollywood. With sixty-four speaking roles among them, they lent the picture its most authentic note, embodying the spirit and tradition of the English public school as no other youngsters could. At Repton School, in Derbyshire, where early cricket and football scenes were shot, some 200 boys returned from their holidays a week early to appear in the film. By the time the script’s final schoolroom scene was to be shot, Wood had run out of boys. By hiring six buses and visiting every school in the vicinity of Denham, the director managed to round up his final 200. Incidentally, from this roundup of juvenile talent. Casting Director Harold Huth prepared an indexed record of boys who may well prove the topline actors of tomorrow.

The zealous patriotism of the British actors has been another incalculable aid to the American director. If they could in any way advance the cause of things cinematic in England, they have been eager to make any effort, taking the wider view that even though an American company might be sponsoring the production, it was essentially a British undertaking. In this way scores of new faces have become familiar to world audiences, who now look forward to further film appearances of such new-found favorites as Vivien Leigh, the vamp of “A Yank at Oxford” and now the Scarlett O’Hara of “Gone With the Wind;” Griffith Jones, Taylor’s rival in “A Yank;” C. V. France, the tutor, and Edward Rigby, the “scout” of that picture; Ralph Richardson and Rex Harrison, the Drs. Denny and Lawford of “The Citadel;” and Emlyn Williams, author and London star of “Night Must Fall,” who was happy to take the comparatively insignificant role of Owen, the miners’ secretary in “The Citadel,” that he might appear as a Welshman, his own nationality, for the first time.

“Pygmalion” should come in a different category than “A Yank,” “Citadel” and “Mr. Chips,” since it was produced by a British company, co-directed by two Englishmen, Leslie Howard and Anthony Asquith, and then purchased for release by M.-G.-M. One of the great British-made successes in America, it introduced other new and sparkling personalities, notably Wendy Hiller, who amazed with her transformation from the Cockney flower girl to the belle of the ball. And the freshness of new faces was repeated in the instance of Wilfrid Lawson as the horribly genial Doolittle, Marie Lohr as the imperturbable and understanding Mrs. Higgins, and Scott Sunderland as Colonel Pickering, who remained at all times a “gentleman.”

Reservoir of Talent

WHILE “A Yank at Oxford” was being filmed at Denham, Gracie Fields. Victor McLaglen and Brian Donlevy were working on adjoining stages in Twentieth Century-Fox’s “We’re Going to be Rich.” But the attempt to popularize Gracie with American audiences to compare in any way with her Empire standing, has not yet been completely realized. British fans have objected to the “Americanizing” of Gracie. American fans, while recognizing her unique personality, have still found her brand of comedy too typically English music-hall. “Sally of the Shipyards” will be Twentieth Century’s second attempt to find a happy medium for Lancashire’s Gracie.

Paramount, meanwhile, has solved the British problem by contracting to release Charles Laughton’s Mayflower productions, and sent Ray Milland and Ellen Drew to England to film the London stage success, “French Without Tears,” for Orion Productions, its British subsidiary. “The Beachcomber,” with Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, met a most satisfactory American reception. It will be followed by “Jamaica Inn,” “The Admirable Crichton” and “St. Martin’s Lane.” Paramount also released the Bergner film, “Stolen Life,” and has three other Britishmade films on its forthcoming release schedule: “This Man is News,” with Barry K. Barnes and Valerie Hobson; “This Man in Paris,” a sequel; and “Live and Let Live,” uncast at this writing. Warners’ proposal to send such stars as Paul Muni to their Teddington plant is still in the discussion stage.

M.-G.-M.’s next two British productions will star Robert Montgomery. The first, Dorothy Sayers’ “Busman’s Honeymoon,” is a story of a nobleman with a penchant for detective work, who marries a mystery story author. On their honeymoon they become enmeshed in a murder case. The second, Brock Williams’ “Earl of Chicago,” concerns a vice lord who inherits an earldom and goes to England to investigate. He becomes involved with Scotland Yard, murder and international intrigue. Again, the essential British background and flavor. Also fairly definite is Mickey Rooney’s trip to England for “A Yank at Eton.” Donat’s M.-G.-M. contract calls for four more pictures, all to be made in England. While his complete recovery from former periodic attacks of asthma removes the reason for his shunning a return to Holly-

wood, there seems no immediate prospect of luring him to this side of the Atlantic, unless he should plan another visit to his brother Philip, in Kentville, Nova Scotia.

Besides the reservoir of acting talent which shows no signs of being drained in London, due to the unwillingness of other British players to leave home and pay a double income tax abroad, there still remains the repertory theatre reservoir to be investigated. Repertory groups such as the celebrated Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester organizations have brought to the fore such famous names as Donat, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Greer Garson, Ronald Colman, Ralph Richardson, Rex Harrison, Herbert Marshall, Diana Wynyard and Margaret Lockwood. The type of training which built their careers must still be producing results consistently, Wood, Vidor and Conway agree.

British production under American guidance is not all good-fellowship and four o’clock tea, though, as any Hollywood director who has worked there will admit under cross-examination. Firstly, British labor laws make it almost impossible for Hollywood technicians to obtain labor permits for work in England, the Home Office taking the attitude that no American should be allowed to fill a job which might otherwise be taken by an Englishman. Thus a director now is largely on his own when he arrives at Southampton. The chances are that he cannot take an assistant, a cameraman or a cutter, as Jack Conway was permitted to do the first time. He must rely on a producer, such as Victor Saville, to assemble a competent crew, and standards of efficiency in England and Hollywood are decidedly different. There is not sufficient trained technical talent to draw from in all branches of the film industry in London. If the cameraman is exceptional, the sound recorder, or the cutter, or the laboratory workers may be behind Hollywood methods in their training. So that there is a certain gamble involved. The Denham and Pinewood studios, now amalgamated, are not production plants in the Hollywood sense, but are run on a rental basis, and there M.-G.-M., Twentieth Century and Alexander Korda have leased space and equipment.

Conway, Vidor and Wood concur in the belief that the best possible way to ensure good technical work in England is to work out some exchange system by which promising British workers might be sent to Hollywood, and vice versa. Occasionally a director finds an exceptionally talented technician in London, such as Guy Pearce, who created the make-ups through which Donat, as Mr. Chips, passes from youth to old age.

James Hilton remarked after viewing the “Chips” film, “Filmed in Hollywood, it could not have avoided losing some of its flavor, but filmed in England, it still needed American organization to make it a success.”

That successful combination of British authenticity and American technical organization is the goal of the forthcoming films to be made overseas under Hollywood’s sponsorship.