Archive for Powell & Pressburger

Donkey con

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , on August 14, 2013 by dcairns

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A Michael Powell story.

“A donkey was duly called by the property department and reported to Pinewood Studios on the appointed day at 6 a.m. complete with its owner, a diminutive cockney from Covent Garden Market. Immediately on arrival he was taken to wardrobe and fitted out with a ballet costume, tights, shoes, etc. Then followed make-up and hairdressing  where he was given the full classical look. This he endured without comment of complaint, being a man of few words who had prepared himself for the peculiarities which he might have to face in a film studio. His donkey, equally phlegmatic, grazed on a patch of grass outside the window. He was then taken to the crowd dressing room where h sat, silent, in the farthest corner, surrounded by other male dancers with whom he was totally identified in looks, if not in spirit. He waited patiently for something to happen, all the while keeping his own counsel, apparently unmoved by all that went on around him. At last, his patience rewarded, the dancers were called on to the set with him leading his donkey, which by now must have become his only link with the outside world. The market square sequence had been fully rehearsed the evening before, so all that was required was a quick run-through before shooting.

‘Quiet, everybody, for a final rehearsal,” shouted the assistant director. ‘Playback, please,’ and with the magic word ‘action’ and to the sound of the recorded music, the crowd leaped and twisted their way across the stage with pirouettes and entrechats, all perfect apart from the ‘dancer’ with the donkey, who stood immovable and expressionless. ‘Cut, cut!’ shouted Michael above the sound of the playback, never endowed with great patience on these occasions. ‘What’s wrong with everyone? It was rehearsed last night. Pull yourselves together and let’s go again.’

And so we did with exactly he same result. With the third attempt ‘cut’, Michael strode angrily through the crowd to confront the dancer with the donkey. ‘What’s the matter with you? Everyone else knows what to do. It was all rehearsed last night. You can hear the music like the others, you’re a dancer, aren’t you?’

‘Of course I f…..g ain’t! I just brought the f…..g donkey!’

From cinematographer Christopher Challis’s memoir Are They Really So Awful? Challis was camera operator on THE RED SHOES. However, the story above may not be 100% reliable since I have yet to spot any form of donkey, mule or ass in the corps de ballet.

But this story struck a bell with me because my pal Lawrie Knight, who was third AD on TRS and also on A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, reported a precisely similar story — a friend was visiting him at the studio, but didn’t appear to meet him as planned. Suddenly Lawrie recognized one of the jurors in the heavenly tribunal — his friend, in fancy dress. “What are you doing in that costume?” he asked. “I… don’t know!” replied his befuddled visitor.

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I love the idea of Pinewood as a place where anybody stepping through the gates would be bundled into costume and makeup and forced in front of the cameras. It’d make breaking into the movies a lot easier.

Stark reality

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2011 by dcairns

THE SPY IN BLACK (above), is notable not just for being the first screen collaboration of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, nor for being a nifty wartime thriller with Conrad Veidt as a surprisingly sympathetic Nazi spy — it’s also the first known screen credit of one Graham Stark, seen at screen right — the larger bellboy.

Yes, that familiar soft, chewing-gum face, surmounted by a huge, angular cranium, like a baby snail peeping from under a cardboard box, is familiar to us from numerous Blake Edwards and Richard Lester films, the common link being Stark’s friend Peter Sellers.

Stark plays Inspector Clouseau’s sidekick, Hercule LaJoy in A SHOT IN THE DARK, for my money the funniest of the PINK PANTHER sequels, and he’s Auguste Balls, supplier of theatrical costumery and disguises in several later PP movies. He nearly bookmark’s Lester’s career, showing up in the early TV work and THE RUNNING JUMPING & STANDING STILL FILM, and again in the silent comedy credits sequence of SUPERMAN III, as a blind man with a runaway guide dog.

In TRJ&SSF, he’s recipient of the world’s greatest and most profound visual gag (starting 9 mins and 10 secs in) ~

He’s also directed a couple of nice silent comedy inspired shorts, and one feature film, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN DEADLY SINS, which is mainly, uh, not great, but has a nice Spike Milligan scripted chapter on the theme of sloth, a sepia-tinted silent which shows his true strengths — a shame Eric Sykes and Graham Stark didn’t get to make wordless feature films, their shorts were rather popular.

Graham Stark is still with us at 89 — a few years back, a student of mine tried to recruit him for a short film — he was up for it, but his wife wouldn’t let him come out and play. Still, he remains a grand old man of British comedy, part of a noble troupe who enlivened backgrounds or embodied inane stereotypes at the drop of a bowler hat, performing an essential service all through the fifties and sixties.

Addendum: RIP, Graham Stark.

Meet Lawrie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on November 30, 2010 by dcairns

This is a little documentary a couple of my students, Susan Lamb and Stephen Tebbutt, made about my friend Lawrie Knight, some years ago. It’s only  a second year project, so it’s no masterpiece, but it’s the only film I have of him, and he tells some of his favourite Michael Powell stories. Lawrie worked as an AD, stand-in, editor, and various other jobs on A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, BLACK NARCISSUS and THE RED SHOES, as well as END OF THE RIVER. Other productions included KING SOLOMON’S MINES, BLANCHE FURY, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE. He had stories from all of them, not all of which I have yet shared here…

I might need to add some notes later to clarify a few of his stories — he’d told them so often he sometimes left out vital details. When he set up in Scotland he quickly became famous as somebody who’d always mention his P&P experience within seconds of meeting you. And this, later on, is how we met him. Fiona was working in a furniture store and Lawrie trundled in by electric wheelchair to buy a couch, and announced that he was a film director. When she asked what he’d worked on, he said something like, “Oh, nothing you’d have heard of, probably. Classics!” But Fiona had heard of them, more than that, they were among both our all-time favourites, and within hours Lawrie was lending us his precious production stills from BLACK NARCISSUS (how I wish I’d scanned them!)

So began a friendship that lasted the final five years of Lawrie’s life, and enriched ours.

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