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?

nor any other night...

“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.


Cracked Actor

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.

14 Responses to “Not Of This Earth”

  1. “Miss Page will not dance The Red Shoes tonight. Or any other night!”

    No one remotely like him before or since. Oh maybe Connie Veidt just a scooch, but that’s about all. Connie was warmer. Walbrook had the excitement of pure ice-cold steel. Even in Lola Montes.

    Great story about him looking at the rushes.

  2. Really strange about Pressburger not liking gays in that his most famous film starred Walbrook, Helpmann and Massine.

    It just occurred to my that Lermontov is a precursor of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood in that his sexuality is quite mysterious.

    At the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards dinner last night I was talking to Paul Thomas Anderson about Plainview and brought this up. Plainview has no sexuality or romantic involvement with either sex. Anderson said that he considered shooting a scene that suggested Plainview was impotent but decided against it. I said that was crucial in that such a scene wiht explain Plainview and the film’s power comes from the fact that there’s no simple explanation for him. Anderson heartily agreed.

    Lermontov is clearly a version of Diaghilev, and his relationship with Victoria Page is a straight rewrite of Diaghilev and Nijiinsky. But Diaghilev and Nijiinsky actually had a sexual relationship, and Lermontov and Vicky do not. “Why?” is the big question that hovers over the movie. Creating ballets for her and making her a star is a replacement for and trancendence of sexual and romantic love — which Lermontov speaks of with utter disdain. In a sense he desires her immolation — and gets it.

    “He has no heart — that man.”

    Extra Gay Jeopardy Bonus Points: When Nijiinsky ditched Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, who did old skunk-hair take up with?


    Massine’s Grisha is one of the most delightfully ingratiating characters in the history of the cinema. A large part of why The Red Shoes works so well is that it’s impossible not to fall in love with him.

  3. Apparently Helpmann was constantly bitchy behind Massine’s back. “Oh, he can’t do it anymore, getting old, his joints are stiffening up…”

    The amazing moment where Lermontov caresses a sculture of a foot and ankle in a ballet slipper as though it were a phallus kind of tells you a lot about his sexuality: probably gay, but focussed squarely on his art. Mel Brooks and Harvey Korman spoof the scene in Blazing Saddles, oddly enough.

  4. “probably gay, but focussed squarely on his art.”

    Rather than the boys in the chorus? Well it was 1948. They did things differently then.
    Still P&P triumph whereas Herbie Ross made a total and complete mess of things with his Nijiinsky. Alan Bates was perfectly cast a Diaghilev and George de la Pena was cute. But the whole narrative chokes when it comes to same-sex love and desire, so neither actor had anything to do. Diaghilev comes across as a slightly naughty art teacher and Nijiinsky a sullen teenaged brat.

  5. I guess I think of Lermontov as sublimating his sexuality because he represents Art in the Love Vs Art battle. He could be very busy on the side, of course. But his emotional investment is in the ballet, hence his obsessive desire to possess Shearer. It seems like that would be weakened if we imagined he had a partner of his own.

  6. Quite true. He’s beyond ordinary realms of sexuality — which makes him an inadvertent precursor of Daniel Plainview, IMO.

  7. Darryl McCarthy Says:

    As a sideline to this piece, and the issue of what happens to famous ashes, Alexander Walker’s biography of Rachel roberts, No Bells on Sunday, says that the actress’s ashes were sent in a Versace bag to Lindsay Anderson for safekeeping. Anderson, too, is now deceased, so what happened to Rachel?

  8. Darryl McCarthy Says:

    A web search has answered my own question – Rachel and Jill Bennett were scattered together on the water in the early 1990s.

  9. Wasn’t it the Duchess of Devonshire rather than a princess? Was thinking about Lawrie today as I have to go to a funeral.

  10. M — you might be right about the Duchess.

    Darryl, it’s even better than that:
    Anderson was so used to Rachel R being in his films, she pops up posthumously in Britannia Hospital as a jar on a shelf marked “Rachel Roberts”.
    The scattering of ashes was performed on camera, on a barge sailing up the Thames as Alan Price sang “Is That All There Is?” and forms the climax of Anderson’s self-portrait documentary of the same name,

  11. Speaking of ashes, Wally Cox had his delivered to Marlon Brando. When Brando died his ashes were mixed with Wally’s.

    IOW, at the end of the day the great love of Marlon Brando’s life was Wally Cox.

  12. I particularly like Wikipedia’s assertion that Brando kept the ashes in his room and “conversed with them nightly.”

    When trashmeister Michale Winner filmed in a British crematorium he discovered that the usual practice was just to cremate everybody, and at the end of a day’s work shovel a mixture of ashes randomly into all the urns. “You mean everybody gets a Frankenstein monster combination of people?”

    I actually kind of *like* that idea. The ashes are not the person. It’s purely a symbolic tranasaction so it suits me fine that the ashes aren’t really derived from the right body.

    I don’t care what they do with my remains when I die, as long as I get a GIANT MONUMENT.

  13. good grief ! when I did a tour of seafield crematorium at the end of Leith Links the man who showed us around (dead sweet stuart and I tried to get funding to make a doc about him) was at great pains to explain how one would NEVER get some strangers ashes and explained all about the system of labelling. Rather goulish but rather interesting all the same. That crematrium at the end of Control is breaking envirnmental laws and if in Scotland would have SEPA coming down on it like a ton of bricks…

  14. Return of the Living Dead vividly shows the dangers of reckless crematorial activity.

    Actually, I think I’d like to have my ashes scattered on a young Claudia Cardinale.

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