“Ah, Jean!”

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That’s what my late friend Lawrie would say whenever the subject of Jean Simmons came up. I mention it because I happened to notice it’s her 79th birthday.

Lawrie’s first movie as assistant was CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, produced by an irascible and untalented Hungarian mogul/confidence man called Gabby Pascal. Pascal had managed to persuade the notoriously intractable George Bernard Shaw to grant him the film rights to his entire oeuvre. Turning up for the meeting in a pair of new yellow socks (“always wear something new to an important meeting”) Gabby convinced George of his genius, which GBS remained convinced off throughout their partnership, despite numberless proofs to the contrary. ‘What is your company called?’ asked Shaw, agreeing to the deal. ‘It can be called whatever you like, once you advance me the money to set it up,’ replied the Mittel-European with a beastly twinkle.

CAESAR was a massive super-production, with all the traditional wastage. ‘We exported sand to Egypt for the desert scenes,’ remembered Lawrie with wonderment, ‘– during wartime!’ A thousand sandals were made for Egyptian extras, who promptly ate them. ‘The soft leather was apparently quite a delicacy.’ Ancient Egyptian-sounding music was produced by the Ondes Martenot, one of the first electronic instruments. Huge murals were painted, then ignored by the camera because the director preferred blank walls.

On location, Lawrie sat in a tent and manned a radio, co-ordinating troops for Caesar’s battles. ‘Oh, the battles were a scream! We killed so many people,” he recalled fondly. “Twenty years later I was walking in London with my fiancee, when a grubby old man accosted us. “Remember me?” he said. I didn’t. He raised his hat. One ear was missing. Cut off by a sword in one of those battle scenes. The man said, “I got paid a fortune for that. I do hope we’re going to do another film soon. I’ve still got one ear!”‘

In C&C, Jean Simmons doubled for Vivian Leigh, being thrown into a water tank at Rank Denham Studios — in January. They hurled her in, she couldn’t swim, the man delegated to save her couldn’t swim either, she was eventually hauled out, shivering and bedraggled, to face a delighted Pascal, who was doubling as director. “That was vunderful, perfect, perfect! We do it one more time.”

(Remind me to tell you the one about Pascal and the camel sometime.)

Jean genie

On BLACK NARCISSUS, Lawrie got to know Jean better. ‘I used to help her wash the brown body make-up off in the bath,’ he said, dreamily. Sabu was very interested in her too, but Mrs. Simmons didn’t approve of him, so he went off with Jean’s stand-in instead and got her pregnant.’

(Sabu is a pretty well unique figure in British cinema — my students are usually surprised that we had an Indian star in British films in the 40s. We don’t have one now!)

As Lawrie reminisced, I remember thinking: ‘Jean Simmons. In the bath. Aged seventeen. Wow. I’m in the wrong line of work.’ And then, ‘Waitaminute! I’m in the same line of work.’

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2 Responses to ““Ah, Jean!””

  1. Sabu pretty much saved my life. In this great white movie world he was the only star who looked like me. And what a star he was — especially in The Thief of Baghdad.

    Jean Simmons is currently shooting a movie.

  2. Sabu was amazingly charismatic onscreen.

    A friend knew he was going to meet Jean Simmons and asked me what he could ask her. I remembered a Stewart Granger interview where he talked about plotting to murder Howard Hughes, because Hughes was aggressively pursuing his wife (Simmons). Granger claimed to have proposed that Simmons invite Hughes over and lead him to the cliff at the bottom of the garden so that Granger could shove him off the edge.
    So I suggested my friend might like to ask Jean about Howard Hughes. Perhaps that was wrong of me.
    Unexpectedly, she told my friend that Hughes was very nice and she had long chats with him in his car.
    Slightly baffling!

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