Albert Whitlock’s Edinburgh

Looking down on an artificial Greyfriars Kirk, with an artificial Castle behind it.

To entertain Fiona’s brother, Roddy, we screened Disney’s GREYFRIARS BOBBY: THE TRUE STORY OF A DOG, and wound up being hugely entertained ourselves. A surprisingly sophisticated, authentic and somewhat dark tale, it takes liberties with the historical record but serves up a rather neat tale. Don Chaffey directed, and the cast included Lawrence Naismith, one of Chaffey’s original Argonauts, as well as Donald Crisp, the bloke who bludgeoned Lillian Gish to death in BROKEN BLOSSOMS, and the face at the window that terrified Buster Keaton in THE NAVIGATOR. Both gents were superb.

The titular dog (given the Val Lewton treatment here) runs away from Gordon Jackson’s farm to follow his master, an aging crofter (Alex MacKenzie, THE MAGGIE, wonderfully moving) to Edinburgh. A city of torrential rain and loud drunks, then as now. The whole first act is watching this simple old man die, refusing a doctor. Impressively dour stuff for a family show. When MacKenzie’s buried, the dog refuses to leave his grave at night, and gradually the two old men who have tried to make Bobby behave like a normal domestic animal give in and help him to achieve his own lifestyle choice. For the dog is just as stubborn and difficult (in Scots we say “thrawn”) as his master was.

Kids appear, of course, played by the future editor of Paris Vogue, Joan Juliet Buck, and the talented Vincent Winter, who won a special Oscar for his role in THE KIDNAPPERS. Special Oscars were for children, cripples, and black people, you see. Winter’s co-star and co-winner, Jon Whiteley, went on to star in Fritz Lang’s MOONFLEET and Roy Ward Baker’s THE SPANISH GARDNER. THE KIDNAPPERS is a fantastically charming affair, with one of the worst soundtracks I’ve ever heard, an insistent barrage of inappropriate noise (hang your head, Bruce Montgomery), whereas GB:TTSOAD has a lovely score by Francis Chagrin, possibly his career high point.

The artificial Grassmarket viewed from the artificial Cowgate.

And I love imaginary landscapes, so I was delighted to see my home city turned into a series of them, courtesy of Albert Whitlock’s matte paintings. Very much an authentic portrayal of the 19th-century capital: it was even disappointing when they used an occasional location shot. The matte paintings are augmented by Michael Stringer’s stylised sets, which use forced perspective and big backdrops and are thoroughly charming. He even builds a convincing replica of Greyfriars Kirkyard, the original of which can be seen here. I immediately looked him up to see what else he’d done, and found A SHOT IN THE DARK. I have fond memories of Herbert Lom’s office in that one, with a view out the window of a miniature Paris. This is one of the benefits of being a Parisian police chief: they give you a miniature city, so you can step out the window and rampage like Kong, or just tower over it all like Fantomas. It’s a wonder Lom’s so frustrated when his job comes with a perk like that.

This angle delights me because, even though there’s no reason for it to be a painting, it is.

There was a recent version of the tale, not an official remake but another riff off the historical account, and my costume designer friend from CRY FOR BOBO, Ali Mitchell, worked on it. When she saw John Landis’s BURKE AND HARE recently she was able to spot much of the same costumery hired for BOBBY, and a few things she’d had made herself. I like spotting props and stuff reappearing in different films, but I’m not expert enough to identify costumes, normally — except all the FORBIDDEN PLANET gear that gets reused in QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE and a dozen other B-flicks.

Buy the original for your kids (better quality than my frame-grabs) ~

UK: Greyfriars Bobby [DVD] [1960]

USA: Greyfriars Bobby

14 Responses to “Albert Whitlock’s Edinburgh”

  1. This is a gorgeous movie, in every way, a work of art. I was recently pointed at this website, which has solved a few ‘driving me mad’ sleepless nights about locations:
    Edinburgh has to be one of the world’s most ‘picturesque’ cities in reality, though the paintings in the movie are not quite the gothic city described by Stevenson, and yet I cannot imagione the movie any other way.

  2. The scenes in the movie duplicate both existing locations and old prints with a great deal of care. And the buildings are lighter than they are today because the sandstone hasn’t been blackened by the smog of the industrial revolution yet (although that process has started — maybe the grime should be further advanced). They left out the poor sanitation, but other than that it seemed very real.

  3. The Spanish Gardner features on of Dirk Bogarde’s most interestign performances.

    Time for a Roy Ward Baker salute. He’s got everything: Don’t Bother to Knock, The Singer Not The Song, The Spanish Gardner, Quatermas and the Pit (aka. Five Million Years To Earth) and Dr. Jeckyl and Sister Hyde

  4. Also A Night to Remember (the best Titanic movie), The Anniversary (Bette!), Flame in the Streets (a pioneering British movie on racial themes)…

  5. Tony Williams Says:


  6. How could we ever? I’ve just written a few (disparaging) words about that one in an upcoming post…

  7. Tony Williams Says:

    Does this involve the contemporary criticism of John Forbes-Robertson’s Dracula resembling an “aging queen” or the (then) acceptable representation of East and West relationships via a particular form of penetration? I’m intrigued.

  8. Nothing so deep… just a passing mention while looking at Dracula AD 1972 through the eyes of a man with a learning disability…

  9. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by dcairns, said: Albert Whitlock's Edinburgh « shadowplay /via @lukegregory […]

  10. Jon Whiteley has always been my favourite child actor. I think his best performance was in Hunted, where he was first paired with Dirk Bogarde. He always had a serious, slightly eccentric air and made no attempt to be winsome, so it’s no surprise that he quickly gave up acting and became instead a distinguished art historian.

  11. Good for him! I shall seek out Hunted at the earliest chance.

    Vincent Winter, alas, is no longer with us.

  12. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, he is good in HUNTED and the film is worth seeing.

  13. David Rayner Says:

    Just to point out that Roy Ward Baker was not the director of ‘The Spanish Gardener’, it was Philip Leacock, who had also directed Jon Whiteley three years earlier in his Oscar winning performance in ‘The Kidnappers’.

  14. Thanks! I think I had mentally conflated it somehow with The Singer Not the Song.

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