England Expects

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“But father, I thought you wanted to see England?” says Olivia de Havilland in THE HEIRESS.

“I’ve seen England,” replies Ralph Richardson, with finality (and accuracy).

Theory: nobody ever sees England in William Wyler’s films. In DODSWORTH, Mr and Mrs D are all set to see England on their transatlantic cruise, and looking forward to it mightily, when Mrs D. (Ruth Chatterton) has a dangerous liaison with David Niven on the boat and is simply too embarrassed to see England afterwards. All those English people, acting superior and telling one another of her shame, and sniggering behind their hands! So they just give England the heave-ho.

This motif of not seeing England had becomes such a central part of Wyler’s style that when forced to film in England during the war, Wyler insisted that his cast become fliers and thus spend as much of their time off England as possible. The result was MEMPHIS BELLE, and it was a documentary so that was alright. MRS. MINIVER and THE COLLECTOR presented a bigger problem, since they were not documentaries and there was no way to rewrite them so that Greer Garson spent most of her time hovering or Terence Stamp abducted Samantha Eggar and imprisoned her in the cellar of his Boeing B17F Flying Fortress. Wyler did consider that, but author John Fowles protested, and bombers don’t have cellars anyway. The solution came from filming at the Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood, California, which already looked a bit like England due to all the dirt deposited over the years from Basil Rathbone’s boots.

Wyler’s aversion to filming on British soil (unless it was on the floor of a sound stage in Hollywood) had resulted in numerous script changes over the years. The original draft of THE LETTER took place on a rubber plantation in Wiltshire, while ROMAN HOLIDAY was at first called COCKNEY KNEES-UP and BEN-HUR had a deleted scene where Judah traveled North to Manchester with Joseph of Arimathea and started a record label. Sam Goldwyn only got Wyler to make WUTHERING HEIGHTS by pretending that Yorkshire was in South America, although it has also been suggested that Goldwyn really believed this.

***

We watched THE LETTER and THE HEIRESS on my birthday but I don’t have anything serious to say just now.

10 Responses to “England Expects”

  1. There’ll Always be a Wyler!

  2. Sounds like it was a happy birthday, David. Cheers!

  3. Bette Davis doing fine crochet and Olivia on embroidery — a craft double feature.

  4. it was a perfect double bill…

  5. The opening moments of The Letter – Bette and that gun – inspired the opening monologue in the last play I wrote for the Royal Exchange Theatre (Manchester) and for that, I retain a sense of gratitude for the lovely excesses of her perfromance.

  6. She’s BIG but CONTROLLED. And surrounded by minimalists, notably the tragic James Stephenson.

  7. What about Ghost and Mrs. Muir? Admittedly, Rexy and Co. write a salty book about escaping merry ol’, but they still spend the bulk of it inside and happy about it.

  8. Not Wyler! It’s Joe Monkeybitch in charge of that one, an anglophile, as Sleuth attests. And again, it’s a studio movie anyway, with Californoa doubling for the English coastline.

  9. Damn, right. I don’t know why my wires crossed on that one.

  10. It has a reasonably deep-focus, dark look, and Herrmann’s score may have reminded you of Toland which would have led you to Wyler…

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