Archive for Gabriel Pascal

Follow That Camel

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on January 15, 2011 by dcairns

Gabriel Pascal, the penniless Hungarian émigré who somehow convinced George Bernard Shaw he was a genius, and got the go-ahead to adapt MAJOR BARBARA, PYGMALION, and CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA as movies.

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.

“Ah, Jean!”

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on January 31, 2008 by dcairns


That’s what my late friend Lawrie would say whenever the subject of Jean Simmons came up. I mention it because I happened to notice it’s her 79th birthday.

Lawrie’s first movie as assistant was CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, produced by an irascible and untalented Hungarian mogul/confidence man called Gabby Pascal. Pascal had managed to persuade the notoriously intractable George Bernard Shaw to grant him the film rights to his entire oeuvre. Turning up for the meeting in a pair of new yellow socks (“always wear something new to an important meeting”) Gabby convinced George of his genius, which GBS remained convinced off throughout their partnership, despite numberless proofs to the contrary. ‘What is your company called?’ asked Shaw, agreeing to the deal. ‘It can be called whatever you like, once you advance me the money to set it up,’ replied the Mittel-European with a beastly twinkle.

CAESAR was a massive super-production, with all the traditional wastage. ‘We exported sand to Egypt for the desert scenes,’ remembered Lawrie with wonderment, ‘– during wartime!’ A thousand sandals were made for Egyptian extras, who promptly ate them. ‘The soft leather was apparently quite a delicacy.’ Ancient Egyptian-sounding music was produced by the Ondes Martenot, one of the first electronic instruments. Huge murals were painted, then ignored by the camera because the director preferred blank walls.

On location, Lawrie sat in a tent and manned a radio, co-ordinating troops for Caesar’s battles. ‘Oh, the battles were a scream! We killed so many people,” he recalled fondly. “Twenty years later I was walking in London with my fiancee, when a grubby old man accosted us. “Remember me?” he said. I didn’t. He raised his hat. One ear was missing. Cut off by a sword in one of those battle scenes. The man said, “I got paid a fortune for that. I do hope we’re going to do another film soon. I’ve still got one ear!”‘

In C&C, Jean Simmons doubled for Vivian Leigh, being thrown into a water tank at Rank Denham Studios — in January. They hurled her in, she couldn’t swim, the man delegated to save her couldn’t swim either, she was eventually hauled out, shivering and bedraggled, to face a delighted Pascal, who was doubling as director. “That was vunderful, perfect, perfect! We do it one more time.”

(Remind me to tell you the one about Pascal and the camel sometime.)

Jean genie

On BLACK NARCISSUS, Lawrie got to know Jean better. ‘I used to help her wash the brown body make-up off in the bath,’ he said, dreamily. Sabu was very interested in her too, but Mrs. Simmons didn’t approve of him, so he went off with Jean’s stand-in instead and got her pregnant.’

(Sabu is a pretty well unique figure in British cinema — my students are usually surprised that we had an Indian star in British films in the 40s. We don’t have one now!)

As Lawrie reminisced, I remember thinking: ‘Jean Simmons. In the bath. Aged seventeen. Wow. I’m in the wrong line of work.’ And then, ‘Waitaminute! I’m in the same line of work.’