Not Of This Earth
So, my late friend Lawrie Knight was an A.D. on Powell and Pressburger’s THE RED SHOES. He had an odd set of duties, sometimes assisting Reggie Mills in the cutting room, (“I was the worst editing assistant –all my splices fell apart!”) sometimes helping co-ordinate crowd scenes. When the studio had a Royal Visitor, Lawrie was landed with the job of escorting the Princess around. “Why me?” he protested. “Because you’re the only GENTLEMAN in the unit,” he was told.
An empty stage had been set aside for the dancers to practice on. As Lawrie showed the Princess in, a tiny figure started to pirouette towards them from the extreme distance. Robert Helpmann.
They watched as, like Omar Sharif in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, which had not yet been made, the minute figure slowly grew, until Helpmann spun to a halt right before them.
“What’s your date of birth?” demanded the dancer.
“Umm, September 22nd,” stammered Lawrie.
“Oh, another lovely virgin for me!” exclaimed R.H., dancing off.
Lawrie also set up the camera for the official cast and crew photo, setting the timer and running to the back of the group to appear in it himself.
But my favourite story concerns Anton Walbrook. The day after filming the big argument scene where he smashes the mirror, Walbrook asked if he could be shown the rushes. Lawrie took him to the screening room and asked for the relevant takes to be shown.
The film came on, but there was no sound. Lawrie made to go and find out what the problem was, but Walbrook indicated that it didn’t matter. So they sat and watched the footage with only a faint whirrr from the projector.
And, in the dark, Lawrie could gradually hear a whisper. “Marvellous. Wonderful. Oh, I’m fantastic.”
Which he was.
This fits nicely with Moira Shearer’s recollections of Walbrook as an elegant, slightly distant figure, wafting about in sunglasses. Once, as she sat dining in the hotel restaurant in the South of France location, Walbrook strolled by. “Ah, it’s beautiful, but it’s not our world, is it?” he sighed, and wafted on.
Well, Walbrook was a refugee, after all. Even after his death, in Germany in 1967, he had no last resting place: for thirty years his ashes were kept in a jar, before finally being interred in the graveyard of St. Johns Church, Hampstead, as he had requested in his will.
In his not-always-factual autobiographies, A Life in Pictures and Million Dollar Movie, Powell claims credit for casting Walbrook in a series of films. His colleague, Emeric Pressburger “didn’t like homosexuals,” — and yet Pressburger wrote some vividly autobiographical material for Walbrook: Pressburger’s experiences as an exile surely informed Walbrook’s unbearably moving speech in the immigration office in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP. Powell obviously responded to Walbrook’s intensity and flexibility: who else could achieve the bitter melancholy of that monologue, the sly wit of his characterisation in OH…ROSALINDA! and the strangulated angst of his last speech in THE RED SHOES?
“Actors are a third sex,” ~ Orson Welles. Certainly some of the most amazing actors have an ALIEN quality. The Shock of Recognition is a powerful thing, that kind of dramatic deja vu, but jamais vu is pretty amazing too — the Shock of Seeing Something You Never Saw In Your LIFE. Walbrook combines the two.
Maybe Walbrook’s most apt role isn’t in a P&P film at all — his otherworldly grace is perfectly suited to the “Ringmaster” character in Ophuls’ LA RONDE.