Anything’s Better Than This

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With trepidation I pressed Play on BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE (1948), about which I had heard nothing but terrible things. You get Robert Krasker cinematography in Technicolor, and you get to see David Niven acting rings around everyone, the only actor who can make the hoaky lines sound like they’ve just popped into his head (it helps that, despite Scottish parentage, he doesn’t attempt an accent), but otherwise it’s a slog, with all the exciting stuff happening between scenes and then getting served up as dripping goujons of exposition.

Our late friend Lawrie worked on this, and asked Niven why one earth he was making such a terrible film. “Well, I can’t act, you see, so I feel I have to accept any offer that comes as I may get found out and it’ll be my last.” How very wrong he was — but we can be grateful in a way, since it kept him busy and gave us more of his work to enjoy.

Lawrie took Niven for his screen test, which he described as hilarious. Niven donned a kilt and did a handstand. “Can you see anything?”

(Ultimately, in the movie, they kept Niven in trousers.)

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By coincidence, my friend Alex reported watching Niven interviews on YouTube and the euphemism “anything” appeared again. In full raconteur mode, the star complained of the tight trousers he was forced to wear on WUTHERING HEIGHTS, designed by Omar Kiam, “a devout poof.” In Niven’s words, the problem with Kiam’s trousers was “there was never any room for anything.”

The lousy direction of BPC is credited to Anthony Kimmins and Alexander Korda, both of whom were capable of a lot better. Example: we meet Charles Snr. playing cards and explaining he’s too old to run a revolution in a damp climate. At a given point, an angle change reveals that Niven, the great white hope, is seated opposite. But the cut is handled so badly that it feels like a scene change. And the match on Niven throwing down a card should have been dead easy — it could have been a James Bond type introduction, with the card hitting the table in CU and a pan up to Niven. Tsk.

There’s one good bit that reminded me of the striking illusionism in Kimmins’ superior MINE OWN EXECUTIONER — the camera pans off a group of characters on a babbling studio brook onto a miniature heathery hillside — and if you look twice with a skeptical eye, you realise even the people on the hillside are tiny dolls set in dramatic poses. The main interest in the movie is how they’ve augmented their few, unpopulated scenic shots of actual Scotland, with matte paintings and miniatures and sets and cycloramas.

The matte paintings are awesome.

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9 Responses to “Anything’s Better Than This”

  1. Niven so underrates himself. He didn’t have any range but he was such a delightful presence in everything from Raffles to the 1967 Casino Royale he qualifies as (dare I say it?) An Axiom of The Cinema!

  2. And a genuine wit — I think he was more confident about his ability to make people laugh with his stories, so the success of his memoirs must have been gratifying.

    His comic timing in AMOLAD and elsewhere is breathtaking.

  3. henryholland666 Says:

    TCM recently showed “A Matter of Life and Death” (aka “Stairway to Heaven” in the US). Typically well done stuff by The Archers, Niven is terrific as pilot Peter Carter.

  4. Yes — AMOLAD has a table tennis scene followed by a scene where Niven bounces lines back and forth with Marius Goring at breakneck speed — ping-pong dialogue. And he does the heartfelt, sentimental stuff wonderfully too. It’s a real struggle to imagine anyone else being as good.

    My pal Lawrie was his double in that — the shots of Niven’s hands are all Lawrie.

  5. henryholland666 Says:

    The only downside of the movie for me is the scene in the hereafter court where the Brit and the Yank point out all the horrible things the other has done, leading to the replacing of the judges. It feels oddly preachy and smug, it’s also odd how the Brit doesn’t mention those minor things that the Yanks had done like, oh, slavery and slaughter of the native tribes.

  6. It’s the opposite of preachy and smug, since it’s a BRITISH film — the scoring of real points against out imperial past resulted in angry letters to the Times and was a surprising choice for the Archers. It wouldn’t have done for the opposing side to trash American historical crimes, since Roger Livesey as council for the defence wasn’t fighting for Britain against America, but for love against law.

  7. It’s David Niven month on TCM over here, but sadly no Bonnie Prince Charlie. However, I do plan on reacquainting (or acquainting) myself with such relative obscurities as The Best of Enemies, Guns of Darkness, and Before Winter Comes. They’ll probably all be mediocre but I DON’T CARE!

  8. The Best of Enemies seems to have a few fans, and interesting writing credits. In fact, all three have interesting screenwriters, decent journeyman directors, and strong supporting casts. But even if they didn’t, Niven would make them watchable.

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