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.)
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.