Going Postal

The explosive opening of BULLDOG DRUMMOND’S BRIDE (perhaps an influence on the beginning of Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL?) captures a fascinating historical detail. Note how the character in the foreground grabs ahold of the wobbling post box to stop it falling over. It’s a little-known fact that until the 1960s, Britain’s “pillar boxes” were unfixed cylinders of cast iron, vulnerable to theft and toppling. A great metal canister like that could cause considerable property damage if it got loose on an incline, perhaps struck by a cart or levered onto its side by wanton schoolboys.

Many solutions were considered, including a scheme pioneered in Gloucestershire where the post boxes were simply enlarged to make them harder to unbalance. At over forty feet in height, the new models was unpopular with the citizenry, who disliked having to scale a set of metal rungs to reach the massive letter slot, like lighthouse-keepers ascending to their positions. Postmen demanded danger money for descending inside the great megaliths by rope ladder to collect the mail lying at the bottom, many of the parcels ruined by their plunge into the metallic bowels of the great column.

In addition, high winds could still occasionally blow the giant pillar boxes over, and the destruction they would then cause was stupendous. Fleeing Gloucerstershirians would be converted to jammy smears ‘neath the trundling tread of the unstoppable juggernaut, and entire cottages were reduced to bass-reliefs in seconds flat.


A common reaction to this sort of thing.

All this obscure GPO history reminds me of a story from my late friend Lawrie Knight. Assisting on a TV pilot in, probably, the 1950s, he found that his director was Edmund Goulding, originally from England, and now blacklisted in the US following some kind of homosexual scandal. Goulding was obsessed with filming details like post boxes, saying, “They’ll love it in America!”

More interestingly, at the end of the day the sound recordist had a list of “wild tracks” that needed to be recorded: trains, animals, and the like. Goulding poo-pooed the idea of running around town looking for the required FX, and insisted on doing them all himself. At the end of each impersonation (locomotive, goose, dog, car door), Lawrie would turn to the recordist and ask how it was. “It could pass!” said the stunned sound man each time.

The second part of this post, in case you’re wondering, is true.

gouldingEdmund Goulding, human beatbox.

As for the connection to THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, maybe you can guess it? I think a prize can be arranged for a correct answer.

6 Responses to “Going Postal”

  1. I know! As we’ve finally reached a point in Hitchcock year where I’ve seen the films you’re talking about (hooray!), I can submit an answer, which is that the film is based on a Bulldog Drummond story that Hitch couldn’t get the rights to, for some reason. Am I close enough?

  2. Yes — it was an original story about Bulldog Drummond, which Hitch worked out with Charles Bennett. Then when Hitch changed studios, he took the treatment but not the character.

    I think that earns you a prize, something with lots of bit part players, perhaps? I’m gearing up for King Vidor Week, so it occurs to me that The Big Parade and Show People might offer possibilities, and they’re from a slightly earlier period from your usual stomping ground, which might be of interest?

    But have plenty of 30s and 40s stuff too, so let me know!

  3. Excellent! I’d love to see some King Vidor, who (I think, but I might be wrong) is a lamentable blank spot in my viewing record.

    I’d just like to say that this prize makes up for the fact that my overspill team in the Filmhouse quiz came a horrific 15th last month. Shameful.

  4. Should have joined our team, we were so close to winning it was painful.

    I need to see more Vidor myself, so this is a good incentive. A joint posting allows me to connect his Sylvia Sidney-starring film Street Scene to Hitchcock Year, via Sabotage, also starring the Divine Miss S.

  5. David Denby Says:

    Just thought you should know: I’ve run out of body oil so had to crack open a bottle of Newman’s Own Oil & Vinegar. It stings some and I had to bring out the tweezers to pick herbs from my crevices, but here I stand, slick and tangy! Now I just have to find my surgical gloves, then I’m ready to hit the Great Books!

  6. I worry about you, Denby. (Shakes head, sighs.)

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