Follow That Camel
I couldn’t remember, offhand, which of my late friend Lawrie’s stories I’d perpetuated here on Shadowplay concerningproducer/director/charlatan Gabriel Pascal. I found some of the stories here, but there are more. Pascal was Lawrie’s first boss in the film industry, as he exited WWII and entered the less murderous but not dissimilar madness of the motion picture industry.
All Lawrie’s stories are true — the ones I’ve been able to check, anyway. Some of the unconfirmed ones seem decidedly fantastical in a David Niven kind of way, and it’s worth recalling that Lawrie doubled for Niven in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH…
Lawrie entered the film business after exiting the armed forces under circumstances I wasn’t quite clear about. The war was still on, and he was in the Air Force Air Sea Rescue. His war stories are as colourful as his film stories. He mentioned something about pretending to be suicidal so he could escape duty for a day and go to the cinema, which worked fine until the men with the straitjacket came for him a few days later. He also talked about being adrift at sea alone in a lifeboat, with only a newspaper for company. In the paper was an article about the film producer who discovered Leslie Howard. Lawrie resolved to look the man up and ask for a job, if he ever got out of this…
On his release from the army, he presented himself to the producer. “I’ve come about a job,” he said. The man looked delighted. “Oh, thank God! What kind of job do you have for me?”
Only slightly deterred by this early proof of the shakiness of a career in moving pictures, Lawrie went to Rank Denham. The doorman was going to send him away, but when he gave his name as Knight, the man asked “Captain Knight”? Lawrie lied and said yes, and was shown in. (Captain Knight was a celebrated explorer and sometime actor, who appears, with his pet eagle, in Michael Powell’s I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING — and Powell would play a major role in Lawrie’s career). Lawrie was show in to see the top man, who was in conference with Claude Rains. His imposture was immediately rumbled, but he somehow landed a job as assistant on the current super-production, CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA.
The movie was insanity itself. “We shipped sand to Egypt for the desert scenes!” exclaimed Lawrie. “During wartime!” He also reported that when a group of local extras was outfitted with soft sandals, they immediately ate them. A scenic artist painted elaborate murals all over the sets, and director Pascal chose to shoot all the action in front of the only bare wall in the studio.
But Lawrie’s most unlikely anecdote concerned a camel. It was supposed to be led into a shot, bearing one of the stars on its back, and halt on its mark. But in take after take, it refused to do so. Pascal was apoplectic. The camel wrangler tried to explain to him that a camel simply could not be made to perform as precisely as Pascal demanded. Pascal dismissed this, and promtly put on the camel herder’s costume and did the scene himself.
The camel stopped exactly where it was supposed to. “There!” exclaimed Pascal, gesturing in satisfaction, and the camel bit him. Everybody crowded around the bleeding hyphenate, who insisted he was alright. “We’d better get you a doctor.” “No, I’m fine!” “But what about the VD?” “What are you talking about, VD? I don’t have VD!” “No, but all camels do. We’d better get you a doctor.”
The doctor was called. He bandaged the wound.
“What about the risk of VD infection?” asked a crewmember.
“I doubt you have to worry. But if you really think it necessary, I can give the camel some penicillin.”
As I say, this story may not be absolutely truthful. All I can say is, the stories Lawrie told which I was able to check, were.