Since I’ve been writing about those moments when characters can’t quite help but look at the machinery observing them, and by so doing make eye contact with the audience, documentarist Harry Watt’s memoir Don’t Look At the Camera fairly leapt off the shelf at me in Edinburgh University Library.
It was a short loan, so I just skimmed — school days, NIGHT MAIL and a surprise entry on Hitchcock’s JAMAICA INN.
Schooldays at Edinburgh Academy — I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, that Watt was an Edinburgh man. He talks about being both sporty and academically bright, and says he joined the rugby players in their unmerciful bullying of the swots. This struck me as in bad taste. Not only is he saying he was a bully at school, he’s proudly admitting it as an adult. I award extra points to anyone confessing and repenting childhood misdeeds. If the tone isn’t repentant, I think silence is best. British public school graduates should stay as quiet about their bullying as they usually are about their homosexual experiences. In fact, if our Tory leaders were more frank about those, some social good might be done.
NIGHT MAIL — Harry wants us to know that he directed the damn thing, though thanks to John Grierson (another mean Scotsman) the credits don’t say so. But he gives Cavalcanti fair credit for his revolutionary editing and sound design (revolutionary for Britain anyway) and says he doesn’t remember who thought of getting W.H. Auden to write a poetic commentary, but it wasn’t him. So the best aspects of the film aren’t his idea, but he did preside over them.
And then it turns out that H.W. had a brief turn as assistant director for Hitchcock and producer Erich Pommer. I’ll let him tell the tale in his own words. It’s funny, and then finally rather melancholic, and it’s probably useful to bear in mind that Watt is a bully and a dick, by his own confession (well, he doesn’t come right out and say “I’m a dick,” but he boasts of having been a bully which amounts to the same thing) and that he was a fairly unsuccessful director of fiction films for Ealing. His description of his own directing technique makes him sound pretty hopeless, if you’ve ever done it. If you haven’t, it sounds like he’s doing every reasonable thing a director could do to get a performance, which is obviously how he viewed it…
When I got on the set it all seemed easy. Nice set, good bunch of boys, pretty young actress. I do remember being irritated because she kept eating buttered toast, which dribbled and spoilt her make-up, but, what the hell, it was only one shot. I showed Maureen the hole in the wall, checked she knew the scene and what was supposed to be happening next door, and tried a rehearsal. She ambled up to the crack, stuck a huge violet eye against it, uttered the sort of squeak a girl makes when she’s been goosed at a party, and disappeared from the frame in the wrong direction. I wasn’t too discouraged. I had spent years handling amateurs, so I gave her a little chat, and tried again. It was worse! Now it was up to me to show what I could do. I gave her the works–that the man there next door, hanging by his neck, was the man whose touch she thrilled to, in whose arms she would lie naked, who would father her children, AND HE WAS CHOKING TO DEATH! I even did a choking act. ‘Right, in you go, kid, and remember, take a moment to realize the whole horror of it. Then, your eyes wide open, you hold the look for, say, two seconds, then you turn your head slowly towards camera, remember, towards camera, as though you are hardly able to grasp what is going on in the next room, and then try and let us see your sudden decision to rush off and get help. But don’t move until you have made that decision. Do you understand that now?’ Maureen understood perfectly, moved up to the hole, and gave an impression of someone watching ‘What the Butler Saw.’ She got the giggles! It was my choking act, she said. I think the camera crew watched carefully to step in before I did it to her.
I filmed that one goddam shot all afternoon–twenty odd takes, and then rushed off to Pommer: ‘Mr Pommer,’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t get a performance out of that O’Hara kid. I know why, mind you, she’s a virgin, and until someone gives her a good roll, she’s got about as much animation as a piece of wet cod. But I’m afraid I’ve let you down.’ Pommer, chewing nervously on an empty cigarette holder, as he always did, agreed with me, but speaking from his experience, cheered me up by saying she was so lovely that people would not worry about her performance.
At the end of the picture, it was discovered that she had been secretly married to an assistant director all the time. So much for my sixth-sense about actors.
There was a most unholy row when Maureen’s marriage became known. The Laughton-Pommer Company, Mayflower Productions, was proposing to go and make films in Hollywood, and one of their major assets was their dewy unspoilt Irish rose, who would no doubt be excellent bait for the financial tycoons. The whole matter was hushed up, and Maureen was shipped off to the States with assurances, I believe, to the boy that he would follow. But time went on, and by now immersed in the process of being groomed as a star, Maureen agreed to a discreet divorce to be arranged. I don’t think they ever saw each other again.