While in the UK in June, I paid a visit to my old school. (1959- 1964) A discursive review follows.
American and Australian readers probably view the Public Schools of England through the lens of the Harry Potter books and movies. Prior to J.K. Rowling’s fantasy representation, there was a somewhat more jaundiced satire expressed in British director Lindsay Anderson’s first feature film IF….
It divided critical opinion in the UK on first release.
The majority appreciated Anderson’s sharp satire of Establishment values, which he would expand further in O LUCKY MAN, and BRITANNIA HOSPITAL
I am connected to IF… in a few ways. The film was written by David Sherwin who had been schooled at Charterhouse. He told me he based the public school culture and traditions depicted in the screenplay on a combination of Charterhouse and Wellington, where he had friends. Wellington College had been my school too. Lindsay Anderson’s IF… certainly resonated with my ten years in boarding schools, though the experience for me was altogether more positive. So imagine my excitement, when four years after leaving Wellington, National Screen Service in London assigned me to the trailer for IF…
FLASHBACK…to three weeks earlier, when my boss, trailer maven Esther Harris and I had both been at the office of Paramount (UK) Publicity Chief Gerry Lewis. No, not comedian Jerry Lewis but Gerry Lewis, the longtime Paramount executive in London. He gave us his brief which I paraphrase from memory as follows: “Do what you like, just don’t say it’s set in a school.” He invoked the old Hollywood adage: School pictures, boxing pictures, prison pictures rarely work at the box office. For every success in these genres there are ten failures.” In other words, avoid scenes like these:
Gerry Lewis wanted a trailer that broadened the appeal of the movie beyond arthouse. Make it feel youthful, intriguing, vibrant. Although almost all the film was shot in a school, I took his caveats on board, and gave IF….‘s trailer a Swinging Sixties vibe, with fast cut dialogue lines in ironic juxtaposition, punctuated with flashes of action. No good deed will go unpunished.
” I don’t know what the fuck’s going on!” Lindsay Anderson, pictured here with star Malcolm McDowell, screamed at me from the front row of the theater as the lights came up. “You’ve trashed my film!” He would make his own trailer, one that was ” most definitely set in a school!” Not an auspicious start to my second assignment for the company. Luckily Paramount did not have amnesia about their briefing, and was understanding. Here’s the official trailer for IF…:
So, in contrast to the British Public School represented by IF…,let’s visit the real Wellington College. My wife and I were the guests of an old school friend Chris Potter, whose family has been part of Wellington culture for 92 years. .
Chris spent his childhood at Wellington, which his father Arnold Potter had joined in 1932. Potter Senior was a distinguished mathematician, highly respected Housemaster and mountaineer extraordinaire both in the Alps and reportedly on chapel spires. Arnold and Fraye Potter encouraged music, expanded the wider life of students, and were revered teachers in my time. Their son Chris started at Wellington a few months after me, became Captain of Cricket and Head of School. Leadership training was a focus of post-war Wellington’s ethos. For my part, I captained the Fencing team the year we beat Eton. After Cambridge, Chris taught mathematics in Australia, before joining the Wellington faculty. He became the House Master of the Hill for 17 years, and then Secretary of the Old Wellingtonian Society, which is active in charitable work, Later this year, the newly refurbished sports clubhouse – known as “The Pink Pavilion” in my day – would will be renamed “The Potter Pavilion” in honor of the Potter family for their dedication to generations of Wellingtonians. This was taken by its original architect on opening day in 1902..
The new Potter Pavilion can be seen in the distance overlooking afternoon cricket. I was a slogger. Often clean bowled. Ah, but the joy of boundaries…
I had visited Wellington before; once in 1999 when in the UK to make BRITANNIC, a fictionalized version of the sinking of Titanic’s sister ship in 1916, clearly influenced by all the British naval warfare films I saw in childhood. Here’s the trailer, if you are curious.
While prepping BRITANNIC, I contacted Chris Potter and was able to arrange for a Wellington student, interested in film production, to shadow me for a day. I’m not sure if he ever went into film. And I got to fence with the college epee team too. During my recent visit I was interested in the vibe of today’s Wellington College, which became fully co-educational in 2006. Driving up the kilometer from the gate, turning right at the lake towards the main buildings, my view seemed unchanged from my first arrival 63 years ago.
Inside the first quadrangle, I was reminded of how fortunate I had been to spend five of my school years amid such beautiful architecture.
School culture in 1959 long held that the ornamentation below the crest were the Duke of Wellington’s balls. Amusement at prurient detail evident in my formative years has not abated. Which brings me to the Iron Duke himself, indeed a man with balls, a major soldier statesman of the 19th century in whose memory the school was founded. He had died of a stroke in 1852. Queen Victoria officially opened Wellington College seven years later.
The future Duke was born Arthur Wellesley in Dublin, Ireland, the fifth son of the 1st. Earl of Mornington.
Young Arthur Wellesley was an unpromising student at Eton. “I don’t know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur.” stated his widowed mother, who sent him to a military academy in France, being, in her words, “food for powder and nothing more.” History would tell another story. Early in his career, Wellesley enforced discipline, and developed a reputation for valor. In India, he had one horse shot from under him, another bayonetted.
Knighted in 1805, Sir Arthur commanded of British forces in Spain, where his aptitude for military campaigning, and guessing what lay “on the other side of the hill.” delivered a string of victories throughout the Napoleonic wars.
His soldiers admired his calm demeanor under fire, his attention to keeping them properly supplied, his judgement whether to be cautious or bold. They called him “old Nosey”, due to his prominent beak, which this portrait captures. His eyes were reportedly an intense blue.
The 1815 battle of Waterloo, was in his words ” a close run thing”, but a timely assist from Prussian Field Marshall Blucher ensured Napoleon’s defeat and made Britain the dominant power in Europe for the next hundred years. I worked on the original trailer for Serge Bondarchuck’s WATERLOO in 1970. Here is a fan made trailer, in which Rod Steiger plays Napoleon with scenery gnashing relish, while Christopher Plummer smartly low-keys Wellington.
In 2009 I viewed the battlefield of Waterloo from Lion Mound, the most impressive of the Waterloo monuments. The topography surveyed had changed little in over 200 years.
After the battle, Wellesley was created the first Duke of Wellington for his services to the nation. As commander in chief, and one fluent in French during the occupation of France, he opposed a punitive peace, organized loans to rescue French finances, and recommended the withdrawal of occupying troops after three years. In this engraving, Wellington (far left) is seen alongside Metternich, Talleyrand and other celebrated European diplomats at the Congress of Vienna, 1815.
Between 1828 – 1830, Viscount Wellington was Prime Minister of Great Britain. His political career was hampered by the extreme factionalism rife in Parliament and The Palace. Wellington was plain spoken with a gift for repartee. “”Publish and be damned!” he responded to an ex-mistress threatening blackmail. He even fought a duel with an abusive ultra-Tory, the earl of Winchilsea, though both men deliberately fired to miss. He opposed political reform, because what he saw after reform – “on the other side of the hill ” – was revolution: one that could give rise to another populist dictator like Napoleon. His premiership was divisive. There were two assassination attempts. The windows of his house were twice smashed by radical mobs, It is said that the iron shutters he installed re-enforced his image as The Iron Duke. To deconstruct this satirical cartoon: Wellington is casting a shadow across The Radiance emanating from The King, the titular head of the Protestant Church of England, because he allowed the passage of the much needed Roman Catholic Relief Act. Interesting to compare with today’s political memes.
Historians have come to view Wellington more kindly, and as a shrewder statesman than his contemporaries. Wellington’s military, political and personal life, is rich and complex. Film and television portrayals of the Iron Duke so far have been one dimensional. He deserves a granular dramatization at the top BBC/HBO level. I tend to see all of History as screen drama just waiting to be filmed. But that’s just me. But here’s a thought: Wellington’s fond relationship with his celebrated charger “Copenhagen” could provide a thread of Spielbergian sentimentality, as well as a linking device for an episodic narrative. A Napoleonic era WAR HORSE perhaps, the trailer for which reflects the hard life of a cavalry horse. Great image making.
Standing 15 hands high, with a muscular physique on a small compact frame, Wellington’s Copenhagen was an unusual horse, who was partial to eating while lying down.
Wellington said of Copenhagen “There may have been many faster horses, no doubt many handsomer, but for bottom and endurance I never saw his fellow.” As demonstrated when Wellington rode him for seventeen hours continuously during Waterloo.
With the battle ended, Wellington dismounted. While walking away, he patted Copenhagen on the flank. The horse then kicked back towards the Duke’s head. which the Duke, apparently, narrowly avoided. But the special bond between horse and rider remained unbroken. Copenhagen continued to be his primary horse throughout the occupation of France, and subsequent victory parades in England, before a long comfortable retirement on one of Wellington’s estates. where he was reported to “like being noticed” and “kissed hands and ate his apples with all possible grace.” Copenhagen is celebrated at Wellington with this remarkable sculpture.
Across the Quad from Copenhagen is the Chapel, which in our time we all attended after breakfast every day, and twice on Sunday. No longer obligatory, religious instruction is now available to students of all faiths.
The magnificent Harrison organ dates from the 1920’s. I recalled its sonorous accompaniment to our hymns.
I could not resist declaiming a couple of verses of Ecclesiastes from the lectern.
Nearby is the Chinese Language center. The expansion of language learning is a major Wellington focus. Third Form pupils choose two from French, German, Mandarin, Russian and Spanish, all of which can be taken through to GCSE, A Level and IB Diploma.
Wellington has tuned its curriculum to keep pace with modern industrial technology. In the Mechanical Engineering Department, there’s a high end plasma cutter, for instance. With time and patience, you could build a racing car…
Art and fashion design, architecture, computer graphics, electronic programming are among a diverse range of studies available.
Drama and the performing arts have a new facility. In 2011, former Wellington College pupil, Sir Christopher Lee opened the fully equipped theatre named in his honor.
With auditorium capacity around 346, it’s as well equipped as any West End London theater.
The main dining hall offered much a better lunch than I remember.
The vibe among the young people we met, despite the pressure of end of term exams, seemed relaxed and happy. On the far wall, among portraits of previous Masters (headmasters), is Sir Anthony Seldon, who in 2006, introduced classes on happiness and well being.
Seldon’s focus on internationalism has resulted in Wellington establishing six sister schools in China and Thailand. He advocated for a holistic personalized approach to education rather than what he called “factory schools”. Seldon’s ten year tenure as Master is considered to have been transformative to the school’s culture.
The hanging flags display the crest of each of the school’s houses, which were named after Wellington’s generals. I was assigned to the house celebrating General Murray. All Wellington’s Generals went on to distinguished careers.
Sir George Murray was Wellington’s Quartermaster General during much of the Peninsular campaign. He was present at nine battles. Murray became President of the Royal Geographical Society. The Murray River and Mount Murray in eastern Australia, were named after him.
Pride in military history resonated with the sons of Britain’s World War Two generation. My father survived being shot down in France, and dug tunnels in Stalag Luft 3 for the Great Escape. 76 of the intended 250 POWs got out. My father was close to the exit before the escape was discovered. A Wellingtonian, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, masterminded this extraordinary mass breakout. He was one of 50 escapees shot by shot the SS.
Our fathers’ war was culturally dominant as we grew up. Books, movies, documentaries, comics provided a two decade long group therapy session for the nation, and it shaped our world view. . Naturally I joined the school’s Combined Cadet Force. Here, IF…’s Malcolm McDowell, in his star making debut, uses the same 1912 Lee Enfield bolt action .303 rifle with which we cadets trained for war in the nuclear age.
Promotion in the CCF beyond corporal was hampered by my tendency to see far too much humor in the physical practice of military activities, With my 8mm camera I shot the Drill Cadre performing flamboyant Turkish arms drill. Clearly I was destined to be a future Monty Python fan. But Wellington encouraged a student’s declared passion, in my case movies, and gave me a dozen rolls of Kodachrome to make a year long record of the school’s activities, which I did with both affection and irreverence. I got to stage a brief battle scene with a dozen fellow cadets storming foxholes, It was a rush. Smoke. Blank firing. Thunder flashes. (The 8mm. film has since been lost.) The CCF left its mark. Initiative. Teamwork. Logistics. The experience showed me the effectiveness of intercutting wide angles with images that compressed defenders with attackers. A fan made trailer for my Vietnam film THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA. shows influences (amongst others) of 1964’s ZULU, and my fondness for blowing things up.
The Murray was my home for five years in a similar block to this, with 30 other boys, living in a corridor lined with cubicles on each side, in which we slept and studied after classes and sports. I managed 4 middling ‘A’ levels, and 7 ‘O’ levels.
With seniority, we moved up the long corridor to the rooms closest to the balcony. I visited the Murray, trying to see where I had carved my initials on the sandstone wall outside its balcony.
Like these students, I sat for exams here, known as Old Hall, now renamed Waterloo Hall. It was also used for concerts. World renowned classical guitarist Julian Bream performed for us one year. I
Old Hall was also the venue where friends and I performed a comedy revue on my final night at Wellington. “Carmen Heroidum” – the songs of heroes – mixed pop culture satire, iconoclastic jabs at school traditions. and the kind of absurdist humor that was brewing in the minds of public schoolboys across Britain in 1964 that would see public expression five years later by the public school educated Monty Python team.
The flyer is a little arch. But Bond movies were prime zeitgeist among teenagers, with the GOLDFINGER premiere eagerly awaited in two months.
At the dress rehearsal, the master vetting the production felt one sketch and several jokes were too irreverent and must be dropped, an instruction we ignored to great response.
We all had a great time putting it together. Sadly Hug (Hug) Sayers, who became a Captain in the Welsh Guards, was killed, alongside the Governor of Bermuda Sir Richard Sharples, by terrorists, as he drew his pistol in defense. One thing that never leaves you after five years at Wellington is a sense of professional duty. I hope the rest of the cast and crew went on to satisfying lives. My friend and fellow producer Julian Beaumont had a distinguished career in banking, and has been awarded the Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for service to the arts and the health and care of the aged.
The subsequent review.
True. An over -the-top streak can be found in several of my films. For those that like such things, try NGHT OF THE DEMONS 2, LEPRECHAUN IN VEGAS, LEPRECHAUN IN SPACE.
I feel immense gratitude for the excellence of my education, which prepared me well for my future career. I wish all children everywhere could receive such a start in life. There is no more important investment that a country can make than in the education of its future generations.
Here’s the Wellington College website, which offers more pictures.
How social history is depicted in movies has always fascinated me. I will offer some films that sprang to mind as I reviewed happy snaps from my recent visit to the United Kingdom.
From the age of five, I walked down Odiham High Street hundreds of times before I sailed to Australia at nineteen. In 1953, I had watched from this spot, as part of a cheering crowd, newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth pass up High Street with her motorcade, an event which provided Britain with a much needed mood lift after the hardships of World War Two. It was a hopeful time. Rationing was ending after a dozen years. For example, sausages had been rationed from 1943. The way some people in rural districts got around the rules is the subject of a deliciously wry comedy of middle class rivalry A PRIVATE FUNCTION, starring Michael Palin and Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot, who capture the sensibility of post war village life with affection, social comment, and mordant humor. It’s a lot of fun in the spirit of those classic Ealing comedies. Here’s the trailer.
Visiting this June, I found that Odiham, despite inevitable modernization, continues to retain that home counties village charm that I recall from my childhood. It’s a sought-after location as the million pound realtor’s price tag on this house in the High Street indicated.
My parents bought Kings Cottage, the house in which I grew up, for four thousand pounds sterling in 1953. Alas, the original Georgian portico with stained glass inlay is no longer there.
During my 10 years of boarding school, I would live in Kings Cottage four months of holidays each year. The house faced onto a large field, containing community vegetable garden allotments. All gone now.
Each day, I would walk down King Street to where it ended at Odiham’s Norman era Church. The first recording of Odiham as a township was in the Doomsday Book of 1086.
Walking through the churchyard, I came across the graves of two French naval officers, prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars, inscribed with the words: Death Hath Made Him Free.
Naturally, my mind wandered to the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815), in particular naval warfare of that period as it has been depicted in movies. I have two particular favorites. HMS DEFIANT (UK)/ DAMN THE DEFIANT (US). A ripe, early sixties, patriotic melodrama, with Dirk Bogarde and Alec Guinness at the top of their game, and some well-staged battle action. As a seventeen year old, I loved it.
And, of course, with greater depth and nuance, there is Peter Weir’s excellent distillation from the MASTER AND COMMANDER books.
Walking down from Odiham Church, on the way to the High Street, I would enter Stoney Alley, the key points of which have been documented and preserved, where possible, by the Odiham Society.
Among the interesting artifacts on display are the stocks, a form of punishment authorized by local courts which imprisoned the feet or hands of minor offenders, enabling offended community members to pelt the helpless victims with rotten vegetables and excrement. This form of public shaming has now been replaced by the social media.
Often accompanying the stocks in medieval times was another engine of stress position torture – the pillory. This gives me the opportunity to show you a scene cut from the original theatrical release of A KNIGHT’S TALE, starring Heath Ledger and Paul Bettany. The distributor wanted to reduce the running time and cut three sections, including this lengthy speech by Paul Bettany, playing Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, in which he pleads for his friend. Bettany demonstrates his Shakespearian skills in this masterful piece of rhetoric. He was disappointed that it was cut from the film, but was glad to see it back in the Blu Ray. Check it out here.
Reaching the High Street, it was time for a sandwich and local ale at the George Hotel, where as a youth I got away with underage drinking due to being six foot tall at age thirteen.
Margaret would like to clarify she does not drink alcohol (I drink enough for both of us). A pleasant ale, less bite than an Oregon IPA, but ideal for a summer afternoon.
It’s been seventy years since I first walked these lanes. British rural life seems much the same as I remembered.
A two mile walk from the High Street is the little hamlet of North Warnborough, through which runs the Basingstoke Canal.
Thirty miles long, the canal issues permits for a limited number of houseboats, either as holiday homes or tourist rentals, which can moor alongside houses with the owners’ permission. Nice solar power panels.
Naturally, the Cary Grant / Sophia Loren romantic, if lightweight, comedy HOUSEBOAT a (1958) is the first title that springs to mind. Grant’s wife Betsy Drake wrote the original script, and Grant originally intended that she would star with him. After Grant began an affair with Sophia Loren while filming THE PRIDE AND THE PASSION (1957), he arranged for Loren to take Drake’s place with a rewritten script for which Drake did not receive credit. Grant’s affair with Sophia Loren ended in bitterness before The Pride and the Passion finished shooting. Grant had hoped to resume the relationship, but Loren meantime had agreed to marry producer Carlo Ponti instead. This caused serious problems on the Houseboat set. Check out the cringe-worthy, sexism-driven trailer.
Walking further down the canal, you will come across Odiham Castle.
In my childhood this place was known as King John’s Hunting Lodge. He built this multi level stronghold over seven years at a cost of one thousand pounds. It was well appointed, with bedrooms, a banquet hall, and tapestries hung to disguise the walls made from flint stones.
King John rode to Runnymede from his hunting lodge, and reluctantly signed the Magna Carta, the first document to limit the powers of the King, which became a cornerstone of constitutional rule.
John had no intention of honoring the agreement, and spent the remaining year of his reign laying siege to the castles of his rebellious barons, as depicted in the British movie IRONCLAD (2009), starring Paul Giamatti.
Odiham Castle itself was attacked by France the next year, before King John died of dysentery, and France made a deal with his son, who became King Henry the Third.
With many twists and turns, representative democracy slowly evolved in England into what it is today, a political system in which the citizens have the right to change their government at the ballot box, and the government has the right to replace a leader who has proved too many times to be untrustworthy. The British system has many safeguards in place which prevent an autocrat from hanging onto power. The United States, which has derived so many governmental precedents from Britain, has profited from its example.
Twenty years ago I wrote a paranormal thriller for myself to direct entitled The Executioner’s Daughter. Its genesis was a dream. All I could remember were a few images. A riot overwhelms a medieval execution… A young girl flees through the forest in a blinding thunderstorm… She wakes up in a 21st Century psychiatric institution…If dreams are the subconscious putting out the trash, what tortured region of my mind did this spring from? Or was it just psychic screen grabs evoking movies I had seen, or maybe a movie I would want to see? I immediately started devising a story that could incorporate innovative action sequences from my personal wish list. The finished script was a time paradox /chase movie that combined historical drama, with the contemporary spy thriller via a Freaky Friday premise; a 21st Century girl on the run in medieval England; her 16th Century counterpart hunted by rogue intelligence agents in contemporary London. These things can happen when there’s a glitch in the Multiverse and separate stands entangle…
My screenplay was optioned twice but no green-light. The story still gnawed at my liver. So I turned it into a novel. This enabled me to delve into the background of the characters, revealing how they were shaped by past events, and offer wry comments on the culture and politics of their times. I introduced new characters into the narrative including England’s Queen Mary, dubbed by History as “Bloody Mary”. To be fair, Mary only burned 300 Protestants, while her father Henry the Eighth reportedly executed 58,000 rebels during his reign.
You will also meet Queen Mary’s estranged half-sister who would one day become Queen Elizabeth 1st. In 1553, the then Princess Elizabeth was imprisoned in the Tower of London under investigation for treason. A powerful faction at Court feared Elizabeth’s Protestant leanings and were determined she should not reach the throne when the ailing Mary died.
A significant new character in the novel is Pamela Van Doren: a young environmental activist, charismatic and wealthy, who is funding the clean up of plastic garbage in the Pacific Ocean. The wide ranging environmental policies she advocates threaten entrenched financial interests.
I don’t want to reveal more about the story. There are surprises. It is best you peel away the layers from scratch. The novel’s expanded edition is now called Alice Through The Multiverse, intended for those who enjoy a fast paced, time twisting, fantasy adventure in which a plucky heroine defeats conspiracies five centuries apart. The ending may particularly appeal to fans of revisionist history novels.
Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads were nice:
“slam bang non stop thriller never lets up…I love the ending.”
“ The characters are engaging and relatable. The prose is expert, with highly developed description and detail and a distinct sense of setting and emotion investment as you engage with the action of the novel… You’ll love it. It’s a great read.”
Goodreads: ” It’s like B-grade schlock, but with velvet drapery and an appreciation for the finer things. If action were cream, you’d call this novel decadent. However, if you’re a fan of his movies but think he was a bit constrained by budget and physics, then Alice Through the Multiverse is the perfect one-on-one with a treasure of an Australian filmmaker.”
As the reviewer implies, the novel is indeed a movie in prose.
H.G. Wells’s 1895 novel “The Time Machine” was probably the progenitor of the modern time-travel story, though he wrote an earlier one, “The Chronic Argonauts,” in 1888, The following year Mark Twain put a comedic spin on the premise with his satire A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which ultimately spawned three movie versions, a 1921 silent, a 1931 talkie, and a 1949 musical. George Pal’s classic 1960 adaptation of The Time Machine was the first time-travel film to win an Oscar (for best visual effects). Planet of the Apes, and Back to the Future proved how well time travel married with other genres. Peggy Sue Got Married (dramady) Warlock (horror), Kate & Leopold (romcom) and stoner comedies (The Bill & Ted films).
The mechanics of time travel have always presented credibility problems. At the outset, H.G. Welles tried the literal approach by building a machine, Twain ducked the problem by having his Connecticut Yankee wake up in Camelot after being knocked unconscious by a crowbar. Audiences eventually ceased to be satisfied by such remedies. Luckily science came to the rescue. An actual scientific theory, one that is yet to be proven or disproven, is easier for an audience to swallow.
Research into quantum mechanics have offered the string theory hypothesis of “the multiverse”; namely that life is not confined to one universe, rather it extends across a series of parallel dimensions with alternate timelines and outcomes, stacked one upon the other in a sort of cosmic hard drive, containing all the options of “being”. Limitless possibilities! Consequently movies and TV shows have embraced the multiverse as an acceptable time travel delivery system. . The latest excellent example is Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.
Alice Through The Multiverse offers a similarly wild and wacky tale. Maybe there is a rising film maker/ producer/star/entertainment executive out there who will download my novel as a fast airport read, and find the movie version playing in his or her imagination. After twenty years, I think public taste, influenced by Outlander, The Bourne franchise, Game of Thrones, is in synch with my original vision. Alice could be a movie, but in the new recorded entertainment economy, perhaps the best format is as a streaming series. To that end, I have written the pilot script, and a provisional outline for the first two seasons, not as holy writ, but as a demonstration of what is possible. It is up to the appointed show runner to decide how best to shape the material for an audience. My role is to be executive producer. The gates to Apple, Netflix, Amazon, Paramount + and Hulu, are heavily guarded, so I will need an army of support to penetrate the defenses. This picture is from Danger Freaks, by the way; an example of a wish list sequence I was lucky enough to pull off in 1973.
Let’s start the process of rebuilding readership after Amazon/KDP cancelled my account in January. (See earlier blog re: autocratic algorithms) I have republished through Ingram Spark, and hope you will agree with the reviewer who found Alice to be “a compulsively readable page turner”. Please spread the word if you enjoyed the movie you found playing in your head. Alice Through The Multiverse can be ordered from your favorite bookstore, or on your Ipad as a Nook Book. Here’s a link to the book on barnesandnoble.com.
Movie censorship, a mechanism of cultural control, was in direct contradiction to the instincts of film makers across the world. No director challenged the British Board of Film Censors and the Production Code of America’s restrictions more often, and more successfully, than Alfred Hitchcock. I offer a view of Hitchcock through the prism of censorship, against which he became a covert saboteur, quietly moving forward the needle of reform.
Many admirable biographies have been written about “the master of suspense.” Among them The Dark Side of Genius by Donald Spoto, and Alfred Hitchcock, A life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan. Both are well researched and packed with illuminating material, but tend to focus on the negative sides of his character. However, Hitchcock’s movies are all the richer for understanding the demons that drove him. Collectively all commentaries past and present show how Hitchcock fed on the cultural influences and the anxieties of his childhood, then poured them into his movies.
Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on August 13, 1899., the third child of a family that had been grocers and fishmongers for a generation. Shopkeepers were at the precarious entry level to the British middle classes. With hard work the family business prospered. The earliest surviving photograph of the future director was taken in 1906, posed with his father outside the family shop above which they lived. Young Hitchcock frequently accompanied his father to the crowded Billingsgate market to pick up produce for sale.
With a doting mother who was a good cook, food and its pleasures became an early preoccupation for Hitchcock. a pudgy child, who, as an adult, would occasionally top 300 pounds. He felt unlucky in his physical appearance, but quite comfortable with his own company. He took no exercise. ” I never walk when I can ride. My exertion is from the neck up. I watch” he would explain. He had health problems for much of his life but despite an excessive appetite for rich food and alcohol, he lived to be 81. Young Hitchcock read extensively. The family owned a bible and an illustrated Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Travel books opened his eyes to a wider world, as did studying six Shakespeare plays in one school year. A sketchpad and pencil provided an outlet for his creativity and a eventually a path to his chosen profession, in which he began self educating. By age 11 he was buying movie trade papers at a shop in Leicester Square – the Bioscope, and Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, known as the Kine. It was the start of a life long love affair with America.
Other factors contributed to Hitchcock’s fascination for the macabre. Older neighbors still talked about the 1888 Jack the Ripper murders that took place in nearby Whitechapel. Adjacency to one of the most famous crimes in British history would have amused Hitchcock. He grew up in a popular culture filled with lurid stories of crime, from penny dreadfuls to the flagship of sensationalist Edwardian media The News of the World (circulation almost 3 million in 1920). I’m sure Hitchcock was a reader, both enjoying the schadenfreude of scandal yet noting, because his strongly Catholic mother brought him up to be compassionate, how grim life could be for those ensnared in the legal system. Flogging was still administered in gaol. Capital punishment was a regular occurrence in British life. In some years more than 20 people were hanged for murder including this fellow: George Joseph Smith who managed to lose three wives by drowning, all in bathtubs, after they had made out wills in his favor. It was a notorious case that consumed British newspapers at the height of World War One. Murder had become serialized entertainment for the masses, and may have sparked 16 year old Alfred Hitchcock’s interest in marital murder, murder for money, and political murder that feature in his films.
Hitchcock’s father William was, by most reports, a kindly if nervous man, who was an occasional drinker while working long hours managing two shops. He still made the time to take his children to the music hall, and silent movies projected at the local skating rink on Saturday afternoons. But William could also be strict. As boys do, young Hitchcock committed some disciplinary infraction, so his father sent him to the local police station with a note that the boy had been naughty. The policeman locked him in a cell, saying “This is what we do to naughty boys.” Hitchcock stated that he always remembered “the clang of the door, which was a potent thing – the sound and solidarity of that closing cell door and the bolt.” Something Henry Fonda experiences in The Wrong Man.
It’s an evocative story Hitchcock has told many times, with his duration in the cell ranging from a few minutes to half an hour, and his age between from 6 and 11. Hitchcock was a fantasist by inclination and by trade. But so vivid and “potent” is that memory and so regularly does the concept of unjust imprisonment run through his work, that I’m inclined to believe something of the kind happened, perhaps facilitated by his maternal grandfather a London policeman, maybe even as a joke. But it left a mark on Hitchcock’s psyche.
Montgomery Clift faces the same potential fate in I Confess, with the added spice that the wrong man is a priest.
Aged 11, Hitchcock was sent to St. Ignatius College, a Jesuit day school “for young gentlemen”. Report cards graded students on their conduct and application to their studies. Infractions, like not declining Latin verbs correctly, could be punished a lash from a rubber strap across the hand. Malefactors were required to chose which priest would administer punishment. It was prudent not to choose the priest you offended. Hitchcock sensibly selected his favorite priest, who dropped the strap lightly on his palm. Sin was the Jesuits’ main concern. On March 10, the weekly sermon was “Sin and the Justice of God”, followed on March 17 by “Sin and the Majesty of God”, with “Sin and the Christian” and “Sin and the Passion of Christ” to round out the month. The Jesuits provided a detailed education in every aspect of sin, which I suspect young Hitchcock relished. Mortal sin, Venal sin. The Sins of the Flesh! A feast for the pubescent imagination, with the seductive aftertaste of guilt. Hitchcock did not care for his Christian name Alfred, shortened to Fred or Alfie by his family. “I’m Hitch,” he would introduced himself, ” That’s Hitch without the cock.” displaying early in life a flair for double entendre. Hitchcock did not engage in play with the other boys, ” preferring to observe.” One fellow pupil said of him ” he was a fat boy…said little and was not easily engaged in conversation.. considered odd.” They teased him as “stinking of fish”, knowing the common occupational hazard of his fishmonger father. As Hitchcock withdrew into himself during those two years, he expanded his reading and was diligent in his schoolwork, earning prizewinning citations in Latin, English French, and Religious Studies.. Alongside his intellectual growth, an anti-authoritarian and iconoclastic instinct began to secretly take root.
World War One began when Hitchcock was 15. German Zeppelins periodically dropped bombs on London. When explosions resounded nearby, Hitchcock and other family members dropped to the floor, and hid under tables. It was the first time, he told a French interviewer, that he had ever experienced real fear. Yet his recall was laced with a typically Hitchcockian vein of comedy. ” the whole house was in an uproar…but there was my poor Elsa Maxwell – plump little mother struggling to get into her bloomers, always putting both her legs through the same opening, and saying her prayers, while outside the window shrapnel was bursting around a search-lit Zeppelin. – extraordinary image!” One that would influence a body of work filled with German accented villains, bombs, spies, assassins, and the death of innocents.
Hitchcock’s sense that life was fragile and arbitrary would soon be reinforced. That year his father died of chronic emphysema and kidney disease aged 52. The comfortable well ordered world in which he grew up had been turned upside down by a random unpredictable event, something he would regularly inflict upon the heroes of his movies as a springboard to suspense. For a time there was significant effect on the family finances. Hitchcock dealt with his grief, comforted his mother and got a job at 15 shillings a week to help support her. His innate talent soon got him noticed and the rest, as they say, is history; a long and storied history.
Vertigo was my introduction to his work came at age 13 when I went to a re-release of Vertigo double billed with a Rory Calhoun western Four Guns To The Border at the Regal Cinema, in Odiham, Hampshire, Vertigo‘s initial release had performed below expectations. It was ahead of its time. Note how the re-release artwork hypes the thrills and spoils the ending to broaden the audience. That evening, the movie’s rich visuals, foreboding tone and the magnetism of the two stars took me to another world more completely than any previous film. Walking home it occurred to me that making films was a job. People got paid to do it. A eureka moment. Vertigo, with its compelling set pieces, emphasized in this French poster, inspired me to study the medium and try my hand.
To many teenagers like me in the 1960’s, with dreams of making movies themselves one day, Alfred Hitchcock was an idol: a film maker with total creative control. always seeking innovative ways to make drama more visually compelling. He was attracted to stories of moral conflict in which the audience experienced divided loyalties. This coincided with a taste for the macabre, ironic, and gruesome. He strove to push the boundaries of allowable content and would challenge censorship standards throughout his career. At heart, Hitchcock was a free speech advocate. Why, Hitch asked, should some subjects, particularly those involving sexuality, be forbidden in movies, but allowed in theater and literature?
Many books touch on how Hitchcock steered his films through decades of censorship oversight. I recommend the recent Hitchcock and the Censors, by John Billheimer, which is both scholarly and entertaining. All Hitchcock fans will enjoy it. Hitch did not always win his battles, particularly in the early days, but he grew more adept, chipping away at the restrictions by setting little precedents along the way. Yet among the many things the book reveals is how often the restrictions of the Production Code of America and the Catholic Legion of Decency prevented Hitchcock from highlighting the controversial element that attracted him to the source material in the first place. One example is 1939’s Jamaica Inn.
The heroine of Daphne Du Maurier’s Napoleonic era novel Jamaica Inn is a plucky eighteen year old girl, who discovers that a pirate gang is luring ships onto the North Cornish rocks to kill survivors and pillage their goods.
Du Maurier’s villain is a clergyman, the Reverend Francis Davey, one so cynical that he has a secret drawing of himself preaching as a wolf to a congregation that have the heads of sheep. Such an image must have amused Hitchcock. It catered to his innate suspicion of authority figures, another benefit of Jesuit schooling. Besides, the Reverend was a Protestant, fair game for an irreverent Cockney Irish Catholic like Hitchcock. He was going to have fun with the villain’s hypocrisy, particularly as played by star character actor Charles Laughton, here binding and gagging Maureen O’Hara with a degree of uncomfortable relish; Hitchcock again pushing the boundaries.
Laughton had discovered the young actress at Dublin’s Abbey Theater and insisted on her casting. Their next pairing The Hunchback of Notre Dame would make Maureen O’Hara a Hollywood star. The Legion of Decency and read the script and had a conniption at the prospect of a crooked officer of religion and threatened Hitchcock’s film with a “C” rating – Condemned, making its future release in the US unviable, without which the film could not go into production. As they explained, the evil Reverend Francis Davey violated the PCA’s ruling on religion.
SECTION VIII. Religion 1. No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith. 2. Ministers of religion in their character as ministers of religion should not be used as comic characters or as villains.
So the villain’s profession had to be changed. He became Sir Humphrey Pengalion, a Justice of the Peace. Thus the institution of The Clergy was protected from ridicule; The Law less so. The Censor’s justification:
The power of the movies to influence society underpinned all the PCA’s concerns: The reason why ministers of religion may not be comic characters or villains is simply because the attitude taken toward them may easily become the attitude taken toward religion in general. Religion is lowered in the minds of the audience because of the lowering of the audience’s respect for a minister.
Hitchcock realized this was not a fight he was going to win against an institution with theocratic leanings. His contract with Hollywood producer David O’Selznick was in negotiation. It was more important to avoid a confrontation with the PCA and effect a smooth transition from the British film industry to Hollywood. His first American film was another Daphne Du Maurier novel with an ending that contradicted PCA moral strictures.
The Italian poster for Rebecca projected more sexuality than the film offers. But what attracted Hitchcock to Daphne Du Maurier’s brooding mystery was the delicious moral ambiguity of its conclusion.
The heroine accepts that her husband, albeit with some cause, killed his promiscuous first wife who was planning to ruin him. But the new young wife, when she discovers the truth, lies on his behalf, then stays with him, thereby achieving hitherto denied parity in their relationship.
Once again Hitchcock’s push for moral nuance in movies was thwarted. Absolutely not, said the PCA, if an accused murderer is guilty, he must be punished. To overcome the impasse Hitchcock suggested the “accidental death” revelation at trial, allowing the husband to be found not guilty, and conventional morality upheld. Producer David O. Selznick, already smarting from PCA restrictions on Gone with the Wind publicly declared the Production Code “insane, inane, and outmoded.”. But the “death by misadventure” version of the script was shot, shorn of the whole point of Du Maurier’s proto-feminist novel.
The book suggests there had been a lesbian relationship between the late Mrs. Rebecca De Winter and her housekeeper Mrs Danvers. No, said the PCA, there can be no implication that Mrs. Danvers is a lesbian. But Hitchcock found ways to convey that implication through lighting, framing, and little touches like the ways Mrs. Danvers obsessively caresses Rebecca’s clothes.
Rebecca was a big hit, won two Academy Awards, and established Hitchcock in Hollywood as a stylish director, drawn to subjects with moral conflict.
As a Catholic, Hitchcock was attracted to the issues in the hit play I Confess in which a priest, played by Montgomery Clift in the film, is accused of murdering a blackmailer who threatened to reveal the priest’s illegitimate child. He goes to the gallows because he won’t reveal the identity of the real murderer, another victim of the blackmailer, whose confession of guilt is protected by the seal of the confessional.
Note the sensationalist approach in the posters for I Confess. Nothing suggesting the hero he is a priest. The studio was nervous about the picture’s appeal to a wide audience, given that the dilemma at its core was one of Catholic doctrine.
” I was terrified of the police, the Jesuit fathers, of physical punishment, of a lot of things. This is the root of my work. ” Hitchcock once confessed.
Of course the Production Code nixed the priest’s illegitimate child. A secret worthy of blackmail became instead a chaste over night stay with a girlfriend before he entered the priesthood. But the PCA insisted that the real murderer be caught and the priest exonerated. Phew! Of course, Justice always prevails, the innocent never hang. Confidence in the criminal justice system must be preserved. The powerful anti-capital punishment ending of the play was not allowed. The trailer went all out to assure Hitchcock’s fanbase that I Confess would deliver the master’s trademark suspense.
Although he dd not succeed in keeping the original shock ending of I Confess, Hitch was a brilliant subverter of the rules. In Leonard Leff’s “Hitchcock and Selznick,” the director explained how he distracted the eye of the head of the British Board of Censors, Joseph Brooke Wilkinson, or “Brooksie” as he was known. Although he was the top watchdog over movie sins, Brooksie’s eyesight was failing. During review screenings, Hitchcock recalled, whenever an “offending piece of film approached, I said ‘Mr. Wilkinson-.’ He turned his head toward me and the moment went by on the screen without him seeing it.” But it was much harder going with the PCA under Joseph Breen.
In The 39 Steps, the male and female leads are handcuffed together while fleeing from both the police and enemy agents.
The two are not lovers, given that he is an accused murderer on the run, and she is an innocent, unwillingly handcuffed to him. Hitchcock created an amusing scene where Madeline Carroll has to remove both her stockings, dragging Ronald Donat’s hand within an inch of touching her thighs, first one leg, then the other. In an ostensibly non-sexual situation, though one charged with sexual tension, Hitchcock was able to put a sexual thought in the mind of the audience. And the sin is after all in the eye of the beholder. The PCA examiners clearly did not like having such thoughts put into their heads and demanded this shot be removed.
Predictably they had serious problems with the next scene. Donat and Carroll are forced to spend the night together in a double bed. Unmarried in a Double Bed! All Night! Handcuffs! It was a worrying combination to the Breen office.
In the British version, the couple are fully clothed, and engage in verbal sparring. Donat eventually goes to sleep, then Carroll frees herself from the handcuffs. In 1934 not all British companies submitted their scripts to the PCA ahead of production for “do’s, don’ts, and be careful”, one of which was that not even married people were to be shown sleeping together in the same bed. Before The39 Steps could be imported, the PCA insisted that key portions of the scene of the handcuffed couple in bed be cut, including any shot that involved their physical contact, leaving the audience wondering how the handcuffs were removed. Hitchcock complained of the damage to the story’s credibility, but the PCA were adamant, observing that, if the script had been submitted in advance, “they would never have allowed the scene to be filmed in the first place.” Hitchcock gradually became more adept at getting his taboo touches past the censor.
I like the French poster for Notorious, pointing us towards the famous two and a half minute kissing sequence which passed by having the actors break off kissing every three seconds. The PCA had a prohibition against “excessively lustful kissing”. Historians differ on the legendary “three second rule”, which former Breen Office examiners denied existed. Perhaps early in Code enforcement, they requested the shortening of a lengthy kiss. It passed at three seconds duration, and so became enshrined as a rule in the minds of studios and producers. Hitchcock was determined to find a way to sneak nearly three minutes of passionate love play past the censors. Before shooting the scene, Hitchcock abandoned the scripted dialogue, a witty exchange concluding with a kiss, much to the chagrin of writer Ben Hecht. It was laced with double entendres that could draw the examiners attention to Hitch’s underlying intentions, delivering the screen’s longest kiss.
Hitchcock had Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman improvise innocuous plans for a chicken dinner, while nuzzling, whispering, exchanging more than 20 kisses, none longer than three seconds. They never leave each other’s arms, even when Grant moves inside from the balcony to make a phone call, throughout which the kisses continue, till the door closes on Grant’s departure. Total canoodle – 2 mins 40 sizzling heartfelt seconds.
Both Grant and Bergman felt uncomfortable by their close proximity throughout the scene, but Hitchcock wanted to lock the audience in there with them. He said: “ For the length of this love scene, we the audience are privy to the embrace between two of the most attractive people in the world, enfolded in it with them, vicariously yet also actively.”
Given his suppressed intoxication with Ingrid Bergman that dated from their previous film Spellbound, I wonder what emotions Hitchcock felt while shooting this prolonged physical intimacy, while his wife and creative partner, the ever supportive, but all-knowing Alma Reville, sat beside him at the camera. This picture, which speaks volumes, is taken from early in their relationship. Alma and Hitch remained devoted to each other until death.
The success of Notorious ensured a good start to Hitchcock’s post-WW2 career, with the prospect of more creative control. The world had changed radically in six years and many aspects of society were under review. The psychological disruption and hardship of the war impacted Britain’s 1945 election.
British voters, despite gratitude for Winston Churchill’s wartime leadership, threw out his Conservative Party, and installed a Labour Government that promised social change. Hitchcock hoped there would be a corresponding relaxation of censorship standards. Perhaps audiences would be allowed limited reference to previously taboo subjects, like homosexuality. Hitchcock’s Jesuit upbringing had insured a prurient interest in the forbidden, yet his experiences in the film industry had shown him the clear contradiction between dogma and reality. Forgive me if I couch it in terms Hitchcock might have appreciated – namely that sodomites were just as talented, decent upstanding citizens as non-sodomites. During the year he spent filming at Babelsberg Studios in Berlin, Hitchcock watched famed and openly gay director, FW Murnau at work on his silent masterpiece, Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh).
Murnau was happy to show the 25 year old aspiring British director his storyboards and meticulous preparation of each sequence, a discipline Hitchcock adopted along with Murnau’s Expressionistic visual style. The fact that an early mentor was homosexual, and thus damned to Hell from a Jesuit perspective, clearly did not bother Hitchcock. His fascination with sin stopped short of judgementalism. The Weimar Republic of 1924 certainly opened young Hitch’s eyes to a sexual tolerance not experienced in Islington. One night his German colleagues at UFA took him to a gay nightclub, where a private party was taking place. According to author and critic John Russell Taylor, the group adjourned to a hotel room with two women, who “made various propositions which, perhaps fortunately, the terrified Hitch did not understand too exactly. ” He kept repeating “Nein. nein.” The women then began making love on a bed under the gaze of their guests sipping cognac. The young daughter of an UFA executive put on her glasses to see better, Hitchcock recalled decades later in conversation with fellow director Francois Truffaut, adding dryly “it was a gemütlich German family soiree.”
Hitch had more than a passing curiosity in every kind of sexual expression, be it straight, gay, lesbian, whatever. John Russell Taylor recalled Hitchcock saying that if he had not met Alma, he might have become ” a poof”. Maybe that was just Hitchcock’s penchant for shocking humor. In truth, he was a watcher, not a doer. There is anecdotal evidence that Hitchcock regarded homosexuality as a random fact of life, not deserving of moral opprobrium. In 1948, Hitchcock tried to sneak gay characters onto the screen, while convincing the Motion Picture Code of America he was doing no such thing. This required some fancy footwork when dealing with the PCA. ruled by conservative Catholic Joseph Ignatius Breen.
The PCA had an iron clad attitude to the subject of homosexuality. It was a sin, a perversion; at best a mental illness. The concern of this group of men with theocratic leanings was that allowing the subject in a mass entertainment medium will only encourage the “weak-minded” to try it. If homosexuality was eliminated from popular culture, it would eventually die out – was their rationale. By contrast, Hitchcock’s Jesuit education produced a man who was a covert iconoclast, an anti-authoritarian, sympathetic to the victims of circumstance. Sympathy for a cause is one thing, but why would a star director, with an Academy Award nomination and a string of successes behind him, want to even hint at a topic prohibited by the PCA? Hitchcock’s cause was simple. Freedom of expression. Hitch was a Free Speech warrior. No subject matter should be banned from the cinema screen. Every aspect of the human condition explored in literature and theater should be permitted in movies. Hitchcock tested the water with his next production, an adaptation of a British stage play Rope by Patrick Hamilton.
The premise of the play, a suspense thriller taking place in real time in a single location, appealed to Hitchcock’s taste for the macabre. Two young wealthy intellectuals strangle a friend, then throw a party. They serve food and drinks from the top of a chest in which they have hidden the body. Guests include the victim’s father, his fiancée, and their mentor professor who had introduced them to Nietzsche’s concept of the “superman” – one who is above conventional morality and the law.
The play drew inspiration from the notorious Leopold and Loeb trial in 1924 Chicago, in which two homosexual college students contrived to commit the perfect murder of a stranger to demonstrate their intellectual superiority. Hitchcock knew there was no way the PCA would pass such a story. However, there was nothing overtly homosexual in the text of the play. The sexual relationship of the characters was conveyed through the playing of the actors. Consequently, when Hitchcock submitted the play’s manuscript, such homosexual inferences as there were went over the sheltered heads of the examiners. On first reading, their only concern was an undue emphasis on “liquor and drinking” at the party. Breen and his cronies were an abstemious lot. Hitchcock then hired a gay writer, Arthur Laurents, to adapt the play for the screen, discreetly shaping the young characters as closeted gays who pass for straight, much as Laurents had to pass in the straight Hollywood of 1948.
Laurents and Hitchcock eliminated phrases from the play like “my dear boy” and “have a lovely excuse ” lest they might be interpreted by the PCA as gay parlance, but retained some coded gay stereotypes of the day; one character uses cologne and is mother-fixated. Hitchcock then cast gay actors Farley Granger and John Dahl as the murderers, with folksy James Stewart as their former professor, who, of course, unravels the murder during the party.
It tickled Hitchcock to share in the secret that writer Arthur Laurents and co-star Farley Granger were gay lovers at the time. Gay subtext was as far as Hitchcock dared to go, and he depended on Laurents, Granger and Dahl to pull it off under the unsuspecting noses of the Breen Office. Hitchcock knew that any requested censor cut would compromise the unique vision he had for Rope. His plan to amplify tension was to stage the real time drama in one apparently unbroken shot, running the length of the movie – 80 minutes. If the PCA demanded that lines of dialogue be cut, Hitchcock’s bold visual conceit would be ruined, or the costs of reshoots would be substantial. He adopted a pre-emptive approach. Stating that he was going to shoot the film in sequence, he requested the PCA view each reel as it was shot to flag any problems, starting with reel one and proceeding to conclusion. This was a sound strategic move. The PCA was now boxed in to tacitly approving the film reel by reel, without the benefit of context. Consequently each reel passed without comment. Even though the PCA had the right to demand cuts upon screening the film as a whole, Hitchcock gambled Joseph Breen had no interest in antagonizing a major studio with costly changes over gay subtext if he inferred it from the completed film. Indeed such subtext went over the heads of 90% of the US audience in 1948. It would take 10 years before critics of Hitchcock’s films would point out how Hitchcock broke new ground. It would take 20 years before homosexual characters would be permitted in major studio movies.
Hitchcock was a risk taker, In Rope, the first venture of his new production company Transatlantic Pictures, he danced around the edges of a taboo subject while adopting an enormously challenging production technique. Such hutzpah. Forgive me, if I get into the weeds of it here as a digression on his technical mastery. The theoretically “unbroken shot” running the whole length of the movie was achieved by a series of long single takes, roaming with the actors around the penthouse set. Through the panoramic windows Hitchcock placed perspective miniatures of adjacent Manhattan skyscrapers, complete with cotton wool clouds.
All walls and furniture were made mobile so they could be rolled out of the way of the big Technicolor camera as it moved through doorways, taking in new perspectives of the action and entered apparently confined spaces.
Rope is comprised of eleven such moving camera shots. The shortest is just under four minutes, the rest over nine minutes in length. The camera’s magazine contained barely ten minutes of film. Hitchcock designed these shots to be invisibly joined by “body wipes”. At the end of a long take, an actor would cross the foreground close to camera, or the camera would cross behind the actor – wiping the screen to a blur for a second. The camera would cut. The next chunk of the script would be blocked and rehearsed. The camera would roll again from exactly the same framing. The actor would repeat his cross past camera, which would then pan or dolly with him to a new perspective of the penthouse, as the scene continued without skipping a beat. The transitions between reels were accomplished by Hitchcock, buttoning a moment by homing in on an ornament or piece of furniture to end one reel, then starting the next reel with exactly the same shot, before the camera moves to the actors continuing the drama. If the projectionist handled the reel changes with precision, the illusion of an 80 minute unbroken shot was maintained, as it was when the PCA screened the completed film. They were not going to tamper with such a technical achievement. Rope received a PCA seal. However, once the media pointed out the similarities to the Leopold and Loeb murder, there was a backlash at the municipal level. The City of Chicago, where the murder had taken place, shut down the film because it was “ not wholesome entertainment”. When Warner Brothers appealed the ban, the city relented and allowed exhibition “to adults only” which worked to boost rather than diminish attendance. There were similar closures in Atlanta, Memphis, Spokane, and Seattle. Rope was banned outright in France, Italy and Holland. Hitchcock shot the movie in 18 days, including reshoots due to lighting discrepancies as the daylight transitioned to night. On its $1.5M budget backed by a 450K publicity campaign, Rope turned a modest profit. But contrary to Hitchcock’s expectations, the film’s single shot technique robbed the audience of the range of close ups such a drama needed and so diminished emotional engagement with the characters.
Hitchock’s next attempt to slide a homosexual character past the PCA was in his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s first novel Strangers on a Train. Her dark and ingenious plot has two strangers starting a conversation on a train, in which each reveals frustration about a troubled relationship. Successful tennis player and aspiring political hopeful Guy (Farley Granger again) has an unfaithful wife who won’t give him a divorce. Bruno (Robert Walker), a psychopathic momma’s boy, would love his father to die. Bruno proposes they swap murders. In that way, each of them would have an alibi. Guy dismisses it as a joke, but Bruno goes ahead and strangles Guy’s adulterous wife. The iconic shot featuring her fallen glasses, passed by the PCA, was cut by the State of Maryland for excessive violence. Municipal censors were still flexing their muscles.
Bruno then blackmails Guy into fulfilling his side of the perceived bargain. Guy ultimately gets away with this murder, one of many boundary-pushing elements in the novel that Hitchcock knew would be prohibited by the PCA. So, in the script submitted, Hitchcock eliminated the second murder, maintaining Guy’s moral compass. The hero exposes the villain and defeats him mano-a-mano. The PCA nonetheless objected to the cynical attitude in dialogue to marriage, divorce and murder, in particular the concept that there is latent murder in all of us. Hitchcock was pleased that Breen and his examiners failed to detect the hints of Bruno’s homoerotic fascination with Guy. Hitchcock biographer Donald Spoto characterized their screen relationship as “a homosexual courtship.”
Gay code – Bruno speaks French, is mother fixated, and wears flamboyant clothing – went unnoticed. So oblivious were the PCA, that they even requested the deletion of a line from Bruno’s mother that would have suggested Bruno was straight; Bruno was “ going to spend the weekend with some girl”. A mother’s lack of concern over her adult son having sex before marriage was what caught their eye.
Hitchcock told Robert Walker (straight) to play Bruno with homoerotic subtext, and told Farley Granger (gay) to play a straight man oblivious to these undertones. The chemistry worked. As with Rope, the subtext was evident only to the discerning at the time. But over subsequent re-releases, Robert Walker’s subtle performance would be seen as the first clearly homosexual character in a 1950 American movi.. Hitchcock’s skill in building suspense and the rousing climax on the runaway merry-go-round made Strangers on a Train a solid hit, returning $1.8M on a $1.2M budget. It strengthened Hitchcock’s clout in Hollywood and his on-going challenges to PCA restrictions.
Strangers on a Train did have credibility issues. But it was bravura sequences like this that allowed Hitchcock’s audience to ignore plot flaws in his thrillers. Visuals took priority over script rigor. Hitchcock knew what the audience wanted from his films. A prime example of his expertise in mixing a good genre cocktail was North By Northwest.
The French/Netherlands poster for North By Northwest reflects foreign markets’ difficulty with the Hamlet reference in the title. Hitchcock expected some issue with the racy dialogue he had asked Earnest Lehman to write for stars Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint, but his first serious problem was not with the Production Code Administration, it was with the Department of the Interior who had jurisdiction over Mount Rushmore, the location of the movie’s climax and refused permission to shoot there. So Hitchcock sent a still photographer to shoot a variety of angles of the iconic monument to be used as back projections, in conjunction with replica sections built in the studio. The DOI, ever protective of the image of the Founding Fathers, got wind of Hitchcock’s plans to have actors clambering over their faces, and (OMG!) the hero hiding in Lincoln’s nose, who gives away his location in a sneezing fit. (HFS!) This gag was at the core of Hitchcock’s choice of Mt. Rushmore as the location for the climax. At one point the production’s working title was The Man in Lincoln’s Nose. DOI warned Hitchcock they would seek to block release of the film if it showed such desecration of a National Monument. MGM was not inclined to argue with the Department of the Interior. So Hitchcock sent a still photographer to shoot a variety of angles of the iconic monument to be used as back projections, in conjunction with replica sections built in the studio. Hitchcock staged the chase using the President’s faces only as backgrounds to the main action.
As for the racy dialogue and the “promiscuous heroine”, Hitchcock negotiated with consummate skill. It helped that the film had a light hearted tone, and the protagonists had such charm. Hitchcock argued that the immorality of Eva Marie Saint’s character’s was ordered by the unnamed counterspy agency she worked for, and therefore did not contradict the prohibition against unpunished immorality. Sex for Uncle Sam gets a pass.
In the dining car scene, between fugitive Cary Grant and the mysterious blonde he meets on the train, Eva Marie Saint, she states with a seductive smile “I never make love on an empty stomach.” At the insistence of the PCA, the line was re-dubbed as: “ I never discuss love on an empty stomach.”
Only film editors notice a slight discrepancy between the words her lips are forming with the words you hear. This line, like many racy quips in his screenplays, had been red-flagged by the PCA when the script had been submitted, but Hitchcock shot it anyway. According to Hitchcock biographer Patrick McGilligan “the director bucked the code with exceptional tenacity in the American phase of his career, pushing the boundaries of sex and violence in his films. And he usually did so deviously, rather than by direct confrontation, stalling , surrendering by degrees, swapping one cherished transgression for another.”
In this case, he traded the dubbed line for the later implication that intimacy had taken place the night before, a scene played by Grant and Saint as if basking in post-coital bliss even though they are fully clothed. Over a decade after Notorious, lips are locked for a full sixteen seconds at one point. This was acceptable because, as requested, the actors remained “attired in their day clothes”. Hitchcock enjoyed his tussles with the PCA which he likened to “the thrill of competitive horse trading.” It helped that a more enlightened examiner Geoffrey Shurlock had taken over after Joseph Breen retired through ill health. Much like the long-term Secretary of the BBFC John Trevelyan, he was more lenient to directors he admired.
In a classic Hitchcock cut, Eva Marie Saint, dangling from Mount Rushmore by Cary Grant’s hand is then hauled into the sleeping compartment of the train on which they first met. This was accompanied by the overdubbed line “Come along, Mrs. Thornhill” to assure America that what the couple was about to do was sanctioned by marriage.
The line had been suggested by Geoffrey Shurlock, who also recommended that the angle between the now married couple never dipped below the regulation 45 degree angle, as they relaxed back onto the bunk. So Hitchcock cut the shot at that point, before the lovers became fully horizontal as publicity shots of the scene indicate. With the negotiated adjustments made, the PCA gave North By Northwest its seal of approval. But Hitchcock had one more card to play, a covert chuckle for the cognoscenti. In the shooting script, the next and final shot of the movie was described “ towards the back of the observation car as the train rolls off into the night.”
In March 1959, with a premiere date of July 1st looming, Hitchcock sketched what he wanted to see in the frame, and sent a pick-up crew to get a replacement shot, one of the train plunging into a tunnel.
Thus Alfred Hitchcock achieved metaphorically the most explicit depiction of the sexual act ever pulled off under the Production Code.
The sardonic humor of Hitchcock’s publicity gimmick for his next picture reflects his increased confidence in operating outside the box. During post-production for North by Northwest, Hitchcock ordered several reshoots and pick-up shots, which caused studio chief Sol Siegel to barrage him with memos to stop expanding the budget, which had climbed 25% to $4.3M. Siegel thought the picture too long. The 130 minute running time meant theaters could lose one session per day, resulting in reduced box office. He took the matter to the MGM board who happily sided with Hitchcock. North By Northwest, took $6M in US rentals, and strong international grosses, his biggest hit in years, solidified Hitchcock’s Hollywood clout. He had the power to make any film he chose.
The reason he chose Psycho, in my view, was that it was the perfect vehicle to challenge the PCA’s restrictions on a number of issues. He could make it inexpensively ($800,000) in black and white, using the crew of his hit TV show The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The script of Psycho was a minefield of Code taboos: immoral behavior, insanity, sexuality, voyeurism, transvestism, matricide, plus graphic murders with a big knife, all areas of fascination for Hitchcock, who sensed the time was right to push the envelope on violent death. But he knew bright red blood would spook the PCA, hence his decision to shoot in black and white as well as its cost saving. He had developed a good relationship with Geoffrey Shurlock, a more sophisticated man than his predecessor and a genuine film lover. I suspect he was privately amused at the way Hitchcock snuck a sexually suggestive image into North By Northwest. Hitch had confidence he could get his expressionistic treatment of the shower murder and opening semi-clothed adulterous love scene through the PCA, with minimal nips and tucks.
In an interview Janet Leigh recalled: “ He told me how all along he planned to manipulate the censors by deliberately putting in things so bizarre he could come back to them and say ‘tsk ‘tsk, alright, I’ll take that out but you’ve got to give me this.” He shot profanity (three ‘damns’, two ‘hells’, and an irreverent ‘God’) and some suggestive dialogue that had been flagged in script review so he could make a show of removing it as a concession. His masterful navigation of Psycho’s censorship process is laid out in detail in the afore mentioned John Billheimer book Hitchcock and the Censors so I will just hit on the points that impressed me.
His handling of Norman Bates’ voyeurism, regarded as sexual perversion under the Code, was a classic bait and switch move. When Janet Leigh removes her bra viewed through a peephole by Norman Bates. The intention was to shock the examiner with a clear violation, make the nudity the focus of his attention, rather than the eye of the peeper.
After earnest pleas, Hitchcock made the great concession to replace the offending shot with one in which she walks to the shower, having put on her robe, a cover shot he already had in his back pocket. The distracted examiners ignored the extreme close ups of Norman’s eye, which offered the audience their own voyeuristic experience: to imagine what Norman Bates saw through the peephole between the time Marion Crane was in her bra and half slip (1st. POV) and the time (2nd POV) in her robe.
Hitchcock was also able to break the rule against showing toilets or the sound of their flushing. The Breen regime had discouraged scenes involving bathrooms, and showing a privy was absolutely verboten! Merely referring to an off screen toilet, as a “thingummy,” was forbidden in his 1938 comedy thriller The Lady Vanishes. But Robert Bloch’s book, on which the film was based, has Marion Crane spending the night in a small motel room where the sight of the toilet past the bathroom door was inevitable. Hitchcock successfully claimed the location was vital to the plot, as was the scene where Marion Crane flushes her calculations of the stolen money down the toilet. It was a sound previously unheard in American theaters. Hitchcock argued that it signaled her remorse, and the surviving scrap of paper becomes an important clue. OK, Hitch, the commode stays in the picture. No longer was there a room in the house off limits to film makers. Hitch highlighted his little triumph in his droll pre-release trailer. knowingly turning to the camera to utter the word “Bathroom”. Check it out on YouTube:
Under the rules of the previous Breen regime, no character could be a “transvestite”, nor could such a word be used in dialogue. OMG! People might ask what a transvestite was! And then what would happen…? Breen’s thinking was that by eliminating words describing perceived aberrations from popular culture, such behaviors would die out. But, Hitchcock argued, how else can we give the audience proper understanding of Norman’s behavior, wearing his mother’s clothes whenever she took over his personality, if we cannot use medical terminology? He and Stefano won the day by citing a dictionary definition of the word “transvestite” does not necessarily imply sexual deviancy. The word was allowed.
Violence was going to be his biggest challenge. This motivated his decision to shoot the movie in black and white, understanding the visceral response of both censors and public to the sight of bright red blood draining from the victim.
In the killing of Arbogast, Hitchcock reduced the number of stabs at the bottom of the stairs to one, protecting the slashed face at the top of the stairs.
Marion Crane’s murder in the shower took Hitchcock 7 days of his 36 day schedule to shoot. The only shots of Janet Leigh were the ones that clearly showed her face. In all the other shots, she was doubled by a pin-up model Marli Renfro, whose body was a perfect match for Janet Leigh.
There’s an exhaustive study of the shower sequence in the documentary 78 Shots/52 Cuts, as well as in Billheimer’s book Hitchcock and the Censors. I’m not going to get into the weeds of it here. Suffice to say Hitchcock chose a daring strategy for his end game.
The PCA stated that the blizzard of shots, “ some impressionistic, some completely realistic of the girl’s nude body” was clearly “ in violation of the Code” which prohibits nudity “in fact or in silhouette”. Of the five examiners at the screening, three were convinced they had seen nudity, two were not. The PCA instructed Hitchcock to remove the nudity. Hitchcock promised to do his best.
He sent the sequence back without changing a single frame. This time the two who hadn’t seen nudity now did, and the three who had seen nudity now did not. A week of debate as to who had seen what ensued.
Previously belly buttons had been forbidden on screen. In order to get a PCA Seal, Beach Party movies ensured that the bottom half of their bikini-clad girls covered this provocative aspect of the female anatomy. The PCA ignored the offending belly button, in favor of focusing on “ penetration” of the body by the knife. But Hitchcock explained that the shot was created by placing the knife against the waist of Janet Leigh’s body double and jerking it back out of frame. The film was then reversed to gives the effect of a stab but, Hitchcock insisted there was no actual close up of a penetration by the knife, a violation of the human body forbidden for movie audiences to see. Yet in their imagination they saw it, as Hitchcock intended.And a precedent was set for belly buttons in close up.
Another serious issue was the opening post-coital bedroom scene: bare chested John Gavin with Janet Leigh in bra and half-slip evidently having an adulterous affair; fully on a bed, what’s more, not with one foot still on the floor, as per traditional Breen rules. The lovers were “entirely too passionate”. The PCA wanted it re-shot with less passion and exposed skin.
Hitchcock counter offered: he would take out all the nudity from the shower sequence if he could keep the opening sequence as is. The PCA refused. Hitchcock countered again. If the Code would allow him to keep the shower sequence as is, he would reshoot the opening scene, on condition the PCA sent a representative to the set to identify anything objectionable. This put the PCA in a potentially embarrassing bind. They chose not to send anyone to the set on the day of the designated re-shoot. So Hitchcock kept the scene as he shot it.
He then gave the PCA one last concession: the high wide angle of the shower after the murder. The camera craned up to the same angle as this earlier shot. It showed Janet Leigh’s double slumped across the rim of the bathtub, her bare buttocks distantly exposed.
Hitch pleaded for it as an emotion charged button on the scene, emphasizing the vulnerability of the victim. But he sacrificed it to break the deadlock. Psycho got its Seal. The Legion of Decency stopped short of “C – Condemned” perhaps out of deference to its sister censor and Hitchcock’s popularity with the media. They gave it a “B- morally objectionable in part for all.”
Many in Hollywood felt Hitchcock should have made another star driven comedy thriller like North by Northwest rather than a tawdry low budget serial killer movie. Paramount particularly felt Psycho would fail. And the film conflicted with the studio’s image with its new line of family friendly musicals. Hitchcock and his brilliant agent Lew Wasserman took advantage of their nervousness and offered a new deal.
Hitchcock would take over as the producer, and be responsible for any budget overages. Paramount would remain the distributor. Hitchcock would waive his $250,000 fee in return for 60% ownership of the negative until Paramount earned a set amount of money from a guaranteed percentage of the gross. Once Paramount realized the agreed figure, then all revenue and ownership rights would revert to Hitchcock, while providing an adequate guaranteed profit for Paramount on a picture they had no confidence would be a money spinner. Hitchcock’s sense of what audiences were looking for told him otherwise. He created a novel publicity campaign to heighten intrigue, issuing instructions, in his customary dry tone, to theater owners as to how to manage his mandate that no one be admitted after the movie started.
Theater owners who had been unhappy with Hitchcock’s publicity gimmick soon stopped complaining as every session filled. How much those Paramount executives must have regretted their decision to eliminate the studio’s risk when Psycho opened with queues round the block.
Psycho grossed $9.6M in its US initial release, earning $6M in overseas theatrical. Re-releases, home video and television sales were yet to come. Over time Hitchcock’s $800,000 movie made him millions. But Psycho gave ammunition to critics of Hitchcock’s fascination for the dark side of human behavior. Esquire magazine writer Dwight McDonald wrote of the film as “ the reflection of an unpleasant mind, a mean, sly, sadistic little mind.” Hitchcock’s subsequent biographers provide anecdotal evidence of the less attractive side of his character. But I don’t care if Hitch was not a paragon of virtue. I watch his movies enthralled by his mastery of technique, fascinated by the common thread of his obsessions.
Hitchcock would echo Psycho’s publicity gimmick, but not mandate it, with his next production. The Birds would cause him no censorship problems. By 1963 Hammer’s Dracula, Frankenstein, and Werewolf remakes had made a polite level of Technicolor blood acceptable.
How about those jump cuts into the congealed pecked-out eye sockets? Another Hitchcock innovation in editing.
The real terror comes from the attack sequences.
The use of masses of live birds, enhanced by visual effects had never been done before. Throughout the location shooting, members of the crew were regularly pecked and scratched. Tetanus injections were instituted for all, including the cast before the scene in which a swarm of birds burst from the fireplace and attacked them.
Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, 9 year old Veronica Cartwright, and Jessica Tandy, along with camera crew and bird wranglers protected by thick rubber gloves, would all be trapped in a small set surrounded by netting to prevent the birds’ escape. In front of the crew Hitchcock sought to break the tension with his own style of ribald humor. He addressed venerable stage actress Jessica Tandy, the wife of Hitch’s old friend Hume Cronin, who were regular visitors at the Hitchcock home.
“ If one of these gets up your skirt, grab it! Because a bird in the hand…”
It took a moment to sink in, then they all laughed. Hitchcock sometimes whispered risque quips just before a take, to get a reaction from an actor that might stimulate a shift in mood or delivery. Hitch enjoyed being a sly provocateur. He dared to mock the commercials that played on his TV show. Sponsors complained to the network, but were quieted by the size of the ratings and their increase in sales.
It tickled Alfred Hitchcock, a master film maker, to be a defender of free speech, and a covert censorship saboteur, as John Billheimer puts it: “using misdirection, misinformation, hedged promises, and throwaway scenes to protect his visual creations. Often, he deliberately inserted outrageous dialogue or outlandish images in rough cuts as bait so they could be grudgingly surrendered in return for somewhat less outlandish images that he wanted to protect…We know what the censors kept out of Hitchcock’s films, but we’ll never know what an unfettered Hitchcock might have accomplished.”
Hitchcock is a fascinating universe to explore. Please read read the books on him from which I have quoted. They will enrich your next viewing of his work.
We are terminating your account effective immediately because you have multiple accounts, which is a violation of our Terms and Conditions.
WTF! Cancelled! An author’s worst nightmare.
Apparently, some authors try to game the system by opening multiple accounts to exaggerate sales, create hundreds of fake reviews, sell old content as new with a new cover, and other transgressions. But not me. I wrote back to protest that I have always had only one account as per terms of service. Please explain how, why, when? Please provide evidence.
As per our policy, we reserve the right to disclose any type of information we consider sensitive data and we’re unable to elaborate further on specific details regarding our terms and conditions…
Surely “the right not to disclose information” was what was intended by the boilerplate deflection of a reasonable request? I kept pressing for details. Each time a different content review staff member would either stonewall or come back with a new definition of the offense: Guilt by association.
We are confident that your account is related to an account that has already been terminated due to violations of our Content Guidelines. As a result, we will not be reinstating your account.
This provided a clue. Amazon also cancelled the account of my layout & cover designer, himself an author, and several of his clients for whom he had uploaded large book files when their internet connection kept failing. He did this for my 580 page ADVENTURES. It seems an Amazon Bot, tracking IP address and accounts, in a crackdown on TOC violators, had identified one of his clients, not me, as having more than one account.
Therefore all his clients, for whom – with permission – he provided this upload service, they must be violators too. Their accounts must be cancelled and their books removed from Amazon’s site. Providing proof of actual multiple accounts is unnecessary. The Algorithm has spoken. And Algorithms are never wrong. Right?
So I provided my explanation as to how data might have been been misinterpreted. My “violation” had occurred at a time when KDP allowed an employee of the author to help manage files. Eight months after ADVENTURES was published, KDP changed this in new terms of service. Six months later the newly activated Bot applied the updated TOC retro-actively regardless of original publication date. A human response from a publisher to an author’s problems was deserved; instead, the cold implacable logic of A I.
Upon further review, we are upholding our previous decision to terminate your account and remove all your books from sale on Amazon.
This includes my time-twisting paranormal thriller ALICE THROUGH THE MULTIVERSE, uploaded solely by myself from my computer in 2018. Gone, Baby, Gone.
I kept appealing. But computer programs are blind to nuance, indifferent to explanation. Techno-solutionism rules. And call centre employees who want to keep their jobs must not override an Algorithm. It is Math, impervious to error.
Beware of the increasing power and authority of Artificial Intelligence.
Please be advised that this is our final decision and we won’t be offering further insight or action on this matter. You are not permitted to open new accounts and will not receive future royalty payments from additional accounts created. – Amazon Content Review Team
Case closed. Catch 22 meets Kafka. Will an Algorithm have the power one day to ban books from schools? How easy will that be to reverse?
Needless to say, there were a host of authors victimized in this data misinterpretation. And a host of lawyers on-line ready to right their wrongs.
For a fee.
https://www.ecommercechris.com/amazon/account-closed We’re All Ex-Amazonians. We’ll Reinstate Your Seller Accounts Suspension The Right Way! Amazon Sellers Attorney 10:19
It can only be solved by appeal. We write the appeal for you, with any amendments required by the lower levels and Amazon and include an escalation to higher management if your appeal is denied. You copy and paste our work into an email to Amazon. In most cases Amazon insists that any and all related accounts are reactivated. We offer our services for a fixed, non-refundable fee of $1750.
I chose not to go this route. It would be a Pyrrhic victory at best. I have republished ADVENTURES through Ingram Spark, the second largest distributor of books after Amazon. It is available to be ordered at Barnes & Noble, and other book sellers. Ingram Spark has outlets in the UK, ( inc: Foyles, Gardners) and in Australia (inc: Booktopia, Fishpond) ALICE THROUGH THE MULTIVERSE will follow.
ADVENTURES had over 70 x 5 STAR reviews on Amazon, now all wiped. Reviews are vital to an author. There are still reviews on Goodreads. Here’s one:
Jon Hewitt’s review Nov 20, 2020
“Fabulous read, particularly the early years! BTS is a very rare breed (outside of a studio system) – a feature film director with a very long career and heaps of credits, including all the sploitations from oz to god! Revealing and funny. Highly recommended.”
Christopher rated – it it was amazing “Let’s get my biases out of the way first.
First, Brian wrote a funny, terrific foreword to my book, Mine’s Bigger Than Yours! The 100 Wackiest Action Movies. And he’s a really good Mensch.
Second, as a genre film-obsessed Canadian, I feel a kind of kinship with our pals Down Under. Much like our Tax Shelter era horror films of the 70s, a bunch of plucky action films helped get Aussie films noticed abroad. And two geographic neologisms were coined: Canuxploitation and Ozploitation.
The latter is thanks in large part to Trenchard-Smith, with his unabashedly fun (and action-packed) efforts like Turkey Shoot, Stunt Rock, and my personal favorite, Strike of the Panther. The Man from Hong Kong is accurately described by Film Ink as “about as good as an Australian riff on James Bond that you were ever likely to see at that time.”
As a bonus: BTS helped launch Nicole Kidman’s career too, putting the at the time curly-haired young actress into his charming action/kids movie, BMX Bandits.
Anyway, I’m the perfect audience for Adventures in the B Movie Trade.
There are lots of terrific behind the scenes insights about the shoots and Trenchard-Smith’s somewhat unlikely rise to prominence and a fellow whom Tarantino would eventually cite as an inspiration.
Luckily for the reader, he’s as good a craftsman on the page as he is a film director.
If you order a paperback copy of ADVENTURES IN THE B MOVIE TRADE from Barnes & Noble, please give it a review. In a few weeks, I will publish a hardcover edition with 200 pictures in color.
Coming soon: CENSORED; ALFRED HITCHCOCK – CENSORSHIP SABOTEUR.
Movie Censorship during my formative years by Brian Trenchard-Smith
(Disclaimer, this post contains images of cinematic nudity and violence within historical context.)
Once Upon A Time in Movies… they were shot on 35MM celluloid. Forgive me if I get into the Cinema weeds here. It’s a love that never dies. The exposed film was processed, work-printed, edited, and the negative matched to the final cut. In the change of images in the left-hand film strip, you can see a slight overlap of cement along the frame line, incurred when the splicer pressed down to glue the outgoing and incoming frames of negative together. What cinema audiences saw was a continuous positive print made from the spliced negative, that absorbed the splices and so ran smoothly through the projector.
Unless, of course, a CUT was made in the print, where a section had been extracted, then the two ends cemented together. The splice would cause the frame to jump in the projector for a fraction of a second, accompanied by a discordant bump in the soundtrack you see printed beside the sprocket holes, and worse, a disconnect in the flow of the scene. What just happened? Discerning UK audiences of action, Sci-Fi and horror knew that something had been CENSORED!
Why did they cut that bit?
I was 15 when I first encountered this phenomenon during a 1961 splice-ridden re-issue of Ray Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, a groundbreaking fantasy adventure that received a hard time from the British Board of Film Censors. The obvious cuts prompted in me a lifelong fascination with the whys and wherefores of movie censorship as an instrument of social control from 1899 to 1968 when proscriptive cuts and bans were replaced in the UK & USA with classification by age. Let’s start with the origin of my interest The 7th Voyage of Sinbad as an example of the BBFC’s attitude to violence and horror in the 1950’s.
Reel 1: Remove the four close-ups of snake-tailed woman being strangled by her own tail.
Reel 3: Remove close shots of Cyclops gloating over man on spit.
According to Ray Harryhausen, the Cyclops is licking his lips at the prospect of the meal ahead. RHH complained in his book that the British Censor had eliminated a wry moment that humanized the Cyclops.
Remove close shot of Cyclops’ face as it peers into cave before being blinded.
I wondered “why was this shot deleted?” Was the monster’s deformity too horrific at such proximity? It is the closest shot yet of the Cyclops’ single eye, placed to highlight the target of the blazing firebrand that Kerwin Matthews launches in the next shot. It invites the audience to imagine the imminent damage to the eyeball. In fact, the eye poke takes place off screen, and the wound is never seen. The British Board of Film Censors’ philosophy was that children under sixteen years of age were impressionable and emotionally fragile. They should be protected from nightmarish images, which could warp their development.. Further cuts were required, otherwise The 7th Voyage of Sinbad would be given an ‘X’ Certificate, under sixteens not admitted, with significant box office consequences. Many provincial “family cinemas” in the UK of 1958 would not play ‘X’ Certificate films. No Hammer Horrors in our parish, thank you very much. Columbia could not afford to restrict the British release of a movie that had been a sleeper hit in the US the previous year. The cuts were made to obtain the less punitive ‘A ‘Certificate, which allowed admission to under sixteens, if accompanied by parent or guardian.
Then in 1961, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the first version I saw, was cut even further to obtain a ‘U’ Certificate to be double billed with The Three Worlds of Gulliver in a holiday re-issue. The most egregious of the cuts: the groundbreaking fight with the skeleton. Too scary for little kids who can come to ‘U’ Certificate films unaccompanied, ruled the BBFC which saw the film as more horror than fantasy. It took till 1975 when the film was reclassified uncut, and British audiences could finally see Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion fantasy as he originally intended. You can check out the classic duel here. Really? Too disturbing for kids? In a typical censorship anomaly, two years after Sinbad’s truncated re-issue, RHH’s Jason and the Argonauts, with its army of sword swinging skeletons, was passed uncut for a “U” Certificate.
There is much to mock about movie censorship, and I will, but it should be granted that the censors in their own minds were working to protect society from harm. Whether that harm was imaginary continues to be part of the free speech debate, as new technology delivers instant access to toxic material. The debate over free speech is now more contentious than it has ever been. The purpose of this and following essays on the subject is not to fan the flames of the culture wars. It is to put censorship into the context of social history, because censorship reflects its times. What follows is a quick sketch of the origins, intentions, and practice of film censorship, viewed through my personal perspective. I’ll focus mainly on British and American censorship, with comparative examples from Europe and Asia.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, the new entertainment medium of motion pictures exploded in the tastebuds of an eager public, a visual gelato for a nickel an hour to take them away from the pressures of their lives. The first cinemas were little more than converted storefronts; a screen or a sheet tacked to the wall at one end and a projector at the other, with scattered seats in between and no toilets. There were reports that some patrons became so transfixed by the projected images that they remained in their seats and relieved themselves on the floor, rather than go out to a public toilet. Often there was only one exit, which exacerbated another potential health hazard. 35 MM film was made of cellulose nitrate, which was highly inflammable. If the film jammed in the projector gate, the heat from the projector’s beam could cause it to catch fire within seconds and burn for hours. In 1897 a nitrate fire at a Paris venue killed 140 patrons.
To prevent cinema fires, the London County Council (LCC), exercised its licensing authority over “halls of public entertainment” requiring that projectors be housed in a fireproof box. Local authorities across England and America followed suit. Initially, the motivation for regulating these penny gaffs (UK) or nickelodeons (USA) by local councils was motivated by public safety. A worthy cause, followed inevitably by mission creep. Concerns rose about the content that flickered on their screens. There had always been government censorship or modification of literature and theater. To the middle-class forces of social control, the new medium was working class, consisting mostly of sensationalist entertainment. It was, in their view, commercialized voyeurism and needed supervision.
In 1910 the LCC banned a newsreel of the boxing match between heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, a black man, and former champion James Jefferies, dubbed “the great white hope’ who came out of retirement to reclaim the title. His defeat caused race riots across America.
The LA Times rather cavalier cartoon reflected the explosive outcome of Johnson’s victory. Fear of similar violence breaking out in the UK was behind the LCC’s ban. Custodians of public welfare and morality on both sides of the Atlantic regarded the flickers with anxiety and suspicion. Still images of the female form previously confined to solo viewing in arcade peepshows were now in motion on screens in front of scores of people arousing lustful thoughts.
Melies’ After the Ball (1897) is the earliest known film to show nudity, although the model wore a body stocking, and the poured water was faked with black sand.
The 1900 Biograph film The Temptation of St. Anthony. depicts female sexuality as a trick of Satan. Such scenes inevitably proved popular, and multiplied. The genie, it seemed, was out of the bottle. Fears arose that cinema would substitute its questionable values for existing mechanisms of socialization. Municipal councils in the UK saw the opportunity to use their licensing power, initially intended for public safety, to become guardians of moral safety by deciding what should or should not be shown in their district; a handy, virtue-signaling platform for the politically ambitious, a way to be seen as on the side of God. Council regulations were added to cinema licenses requiring no films could be shown that were “offensive…improper or indecent”; terms open to wide interpretation.
In which category does this shot of Annette Kellermann from A Daughter of the Gods (1916) fall? Personally, it does an excellent job of emphasizing what it purports to conceal.
This YouTube video, created for the 72 Hour Film Festival in Frederick, Maryland, provides some insight into the self-appointed censors’ preoccupations, foot fetish issues among them. Municipal censorship created confusion for distributors and exhibitors everywhere. Some cuts were required in one county, no cuts in another, different cuts in multiple other counties. rendering distributors unable to standardize their release prints. In America, that often meant that the cuts would never be restored to prints that went on to play in more liberal states, where the cuts were not required. The innovative design of Theda Bara’s bra in the 1917 Cleopatra was denied to many audiences in conservative states.
Bureaucratic anarchy was not good for business. As in the USA, companies in the UK had invested heavily in the nascent motion picture industry. To attract middle class patrons who shunned the penny gaffes, they built picture palaces, with fitted carpets and marble counters for refreshments, serviced by uniformed and courteous staff. Well-appointed cinema chains like Empire, Majestic, and Jewel rapidly attracted the bourgeoisie, doubling their venues each year till in 1911 there were almost 4000 cinemas in England.
That year the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith “for the first time in his life entered the portals of a cinematograph theater…laughed heartily and continually made witty comments about the pictures.” Cinema going was now respectable, and potentially a gigantic cash cow. Cinema companies invited the government to take over the confused arena of censorship and create common standards that would be accepted by both industry and civic authorities. But the British Home Office was savvy enough to understand that official government censorship would be a political minefield, and preferred to set up a quasi-independent body, working in conjunction with the film industry to take care of the problem at arms-length, providing a level of control without official responsibility. In November 1912, the British House of Commons announced the formation of the British Board of Film Censors. Its President was paid 1000 pounds a year, its four examiners received 300 pounds each. Two films were shown in the viewing room simultaneously in front of all four examiners seated next to each other. Two would be focused on the left screen, two on the right. This practice continued even into the early sound era. Examiners had the power to require cuts, and grant Certificates of Exhibition:
“U” for Universal Exhibition, all ages admitted;
“A”, under sixteens admitted with parent or guardian.
After Frankenstein was released in 1931, a new Certificate was introduced – the “H” (for horror)
This was replaced by the “X” Certificate in 1950. Classifications remained unchanged till 1970.
The official paper certificate granting exhibition was stamped in wax with the BBFC seal.
A display of the censor’s classification became the first image the audience saw before the film began.
The early British censors certainly were productive. In 1913, their first year, they saw 7510 films. Cuts were made in 168. Several were banned outright, citing “indelicate or suggestive situations…indecent dancing…impropriety in conduct and dress.” No sex please, we’re British…
America would not adopt an equivalent classification system for more than 50 years. The American government rejected direct involvement in censorship of movies. They counted on religious pressure groups to force the film industry take care of the problem. It took time but ensured a theocratic underpinning to the eventual American production code. What was most concerning to America’s moral guardians was the motion pictures’ obsession with crime.
By 1907, the issue of whether films could influence behavior had surfaced in the media. The trade paper Motion Picture World reported a case of two teenage girls charged with shoplifting after they had just seen a movie about a thief. The editor warned of the danger crime films posed to children. A legal decision in 1908 gave the issue national publicity. Two boisterous westerns – The James Boys & Night Riders (now lost) were rejected for licensing in the state of Illinois due to “violence”. Highly unlikely any visual would shock an audience today. Screen violence in the silent era had a distinctly theatrical quality, generally shot at a full figure distance without intercutting any detail of wounds.
Six Nickelodeon operators, stalled in their release of The James Boys & Night Riders, sued, claiming that the story of the notorious outlaw brothers had already been depicted on stage and on arcade stereopticons. The Supreme Court of Illinois ruled against the plaintiffs citing that “the motion picture medium was more likely than other forms of entertainment to appeal to weak and immature minds…those classes whose age, education and situation in life specially entitle them to protection against the evil influences of obscene and immoral representation.” Chief Justice Cartwright described these films as “nothing but malicious mischief, arson, and murder.” The depiction of crimes that represents only the actions of the perpetrators are “immoral and their exhibition would necessarily be attended by evil effects on youthful spectators and therefore a threat to society.” The ban on the two outlaw westerns was upheld. The criminal must pay for his crimes became an early dictum. And show remorse.
As in the UK, states and municipalities across the US appointed their own censorship boards. Fees charged to each film’s distributor, up to $3 per reel reviewed, ensured that all such boards delivered handsome revenue to state coffers. In 1939 the State of New York earned $200,000 profit from purging Cinema of unwholesome content.
In 1916, to counter the confusion and contradictions of multiple censorship bodies, America’s National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (subsequently MPAA) announced it would police itself and issued a catalogue of prohibited material, referred to as the Thirteen Points: among them nudity, white slavery, violence, illicit love, gambling, alcoholism, and disrespect for the law. However, state and municipal censors were political appointees, a payoff to important party members or their wives. Nobody gives up those perks readily, so such bodies persisted for decades, even after the industry set up a detailed Production Code to prevent objectionable content. The studios paid lip service to the rules, but still sought to push the envelope, like Clara Bow skinny dipping in 1927’s HULA.
Criticism intensified from religious pressure groups, disturbed by the risqué dialogue of the new sound movies. The Catholic Legion of Decency, a mass membership association, threatened Hollywood with a nationwide boycott if it did not clean up its act. So, in 1934, the MPAA created its own enforcement arm, the Production Code Administration (PCA), with a devout Catholic, Joseph Ignatius Breen as its head enforcer. Fueled by religious and moral zeal, Breen’s iron grip on standards of Hollywood content remained in force till the mid 1950’s when independent producers began challenging his power and successfully released films with controversial themes without a Production Code seal. By the mid 1960’s the Code had lost all its enforcement power. Theaters were going to play pictures the public clearly wanted to see, with or without a PCA seal of approval. In 1968 President Johnson gave advertising executive and former campaign advisor Jack Valenti the task of making the Production Code more in tune with the times. Under Valenti’s leadership, a classification system for movies evolved that, with regular modifications, has worked quite well ever since.
I find the British classification system more comprehensive in its advice to parents as to age suitability.
Censors reflects the society of their times. As a social history observer, I’m fascinated by the anomalies, contradictions, creative battles and covert agendas in the first 80 years of movie censorship. As background on the US Production Code, this site gives you all the salient information.
While Chief Censor Joseph I. Breen saw his work at the PCA as a positive mission with a socially uplifting outcome, cultural historian Thomas Douherty, in his biography of Breen, “Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen and the Production Code Administration” was not so kind to the Code.
“Hollywood under the Code was variously, cumulatively, and intractably, racist, patriarchal, misogynistic, homophobic, capitalistic, and colonialistic.” He accused the Code of promoting “bourgeois, heteronormative, American-centric values upheld and celebrated from genre to genre, studio to studio.”
Between 1930 – 1934, studios sought to enhance depression afflicted box office by pushing the boundaries as much as they could until Breen took control of the Code. Here are a couple of examples that remained controversial.
British and American censors from the 1930’s onwards had a common approach to what was permitted. Island of Lost Souls, in 1932, was a rare exception. The film was passed by the US Production Code (hereafter PCA) but banned repeatedly by the British Board of Film Censors till 1958, then only released with cuts.
The official reasons for the ban in 1933 were lost when the BBFC records were destroyed in the London Blitz of World War Two. However, their 1933 general report to parliament on the rejection of 23 films that year contains comments that might apply to Island of Lost Souls: “…psychological arguments treated too frankly for public exhibition” and “intense brutality and sordidness coupled with promiscuous immorality.” Island of Lost Souls was the first sound adaptation, after several silent versions, of the HG Wells’ cautionary tale of science run amok – The Island of Doctor Moreau. Acclaimed British stage actor Charles Laughton in his Hollywood debut plays a renowned scientist banished to a remote tropical island after the exposure of his vivisection experiments. Laughton avoided mad scientist cliches and played Moreau with a perverse sardonic charm.
In a new laboratory, dubbed the House of Pain in Wells’ novel, Moreau continues his work to genetically engineer fully functioning human beings from the island’s animal population. But the results are only “Beast Folk” – human animal hybrids – much to the horror of a shipwrecked Englishman played by Richard Arlen, whom the Doctor encourages to mate with his latest creation – the Panther woman.
Such a provocative idea had squeaked by the PCA due to lax enforcement prior to 1934, but to the church going middle aged British censors, the mere suggestion of “bestiality” coming from a scientist who asks “Do you know what it means to feel like God?” was enough to give them a heart murmur. Then there was the vivisection scene, only a 5 second wide-shot, in which no actual vivisection is seen, but preceded by several off screen howls of pain. Anti-vivisection legislation had been on the statute books for 50 years. Worse, this was vivisection of a human-animal hybrid! The portrayal of cruelty to animals in feature films released in Britain was explicitly forbidden. It was a case of controversy overload.
The depiction of biological evolution under human control was “repulsive” and “unnatural”, as was the implication that God created Man out of lower animals, in direct conflict to Biblical teaching in the Book of Genesis. Affront to religion, In suspect, was a significant factor in the banning. In response to the claim that the film was against nature, Elsa Lanchester, (Mrs. Charles Laughton) reportedly said “Of course it’s against nature. So’s Mickey Mouse!”
What was it that went over the heads of the PCA, but resonated strongly with the BBFC, the supervising censor board of the British Empire and its colonial possessions in Asia and Africa?
In Charles Laughton’s white suited Master cracking a whip to control and civilize the natives, the BBFC saw the film as a colonial allegory, implicitly critical of the British Empire’s control over its African and Asian possessions. All the colonials in the film wear traditional white suits, whereas in Wells’ novella they were dressed in ‘dirty blue flannels.’ Wells described the Beast-Men as ‘islanders’, whereas the movie’s European characters refer to them as ‘natives.’ The film’s politics, albeit embedded in a horror film, was clear to the examiners. When Doctor Moreau ends his examination of Lota, the Panther Woman, whose “stubborn beast flesh” is returning, with a sadistic promise: “this time I’ll burn out all the animal in her!”, the implied racism of the character was an affront to the dignity of colonial administrators.
At a time when independence movements were growing in Britain’s colonies, it was hard for the BBFC not to view, as subversive allegory, the climactic revolt of the Beast-Folk, who murder their white suited Master with the same surgical instruments he used on them. Although it was banned in the UK, Australia passed the film for white audience, but with the restriction (NEN) Not to be Exhibited to Natives.
A brief digression into institutionalized racism in censorship.
From 1926 onwards, rules relating to matters of race were strict in the British colonies of Hong Kong, Singapore and India, as pro- independence demonstrations gradually spread across the Empire. Consider these interesting quotes from the guidelines issued to colonial administrators by the BBFC:
“Any film denoting Bolshevist or mob violence. The Chinese are easily worked up and there is quite enough mob violence going on at the moment.”
“Any film showing the white man in a degrading or villainous light.”
“Any film showing white women in indecorous garb or positions, which would tend to discredit our womenfolk with the Chinese.”
“Stories showing any antagonistic or strained relations with the coloured population of the British Empire, especially with regard to the question of sexual intercourse, moral or immoral, between individuals of different races.”
“Any film that deals with racial questions, specifically the intermarriage of white persons with those of other races.”
There were also location-specific restrictions. Pictures reflecting badly on the natives of India were banned in Hong Kong, because a significant portion of the Hong Kong Police were of Indian ethnicity.
The make-up effects used to create the multi ethnic Beast-Men contributed to the film being banned in several countries.
In America, when Island of Lost Souls was submitted to the PCA in 1941 for re-release approval, they corrected their earlier lapse of doctrinal judgement; all dialogue suggesting in any way that Dr. Moreau had created the Beast-Men had to be removed. Only God can create, not man. By making the Beast-Men just God’s creatures who happened to live on the island, the PCA eliminated the essence of HG Wells book which debated scientific ethics. Wells hated the film, because it introduced a totally new character not in the novel, the Panther Woman, to provide sexual tension. He publicly applauded the BBFC’s ban.
When the BBFC introduced the “X” Certificate in 1951, Paramount resubmitted Island of Lost Souls believing, two decades later, it would be passed for the new adults only classification. Wrong. The BBFC expressed its disdain: “The film is old and bad; whatever might be the case for permitting the theme of this film in a modern production, there is no ground whatsoever for permitting this dated monstrosity to be revived under cover of our ‘X’ Certificate.” It “would do our ‘X’ a lot of harm.” The French had no problem with its release.
Paramount tried again in 1957, receiving the response from the BBFC that “the film was no less repulsive than when it was viewed before…totally unacceptable for public exhibition in this country.” Paramount then submitted an extensively edited version, which the BBFC was initially reluctant to view in the light of the backlash from religious leaders to the flood of “X” Certificate horror films that followed the success of Hammer’s Dracula and Frankenstein remakes. BBFC Secretary John Nichols stated: “There has been a considerable hardening of responsible public opinion against horror films, and we certainly cannot relax our standards – indeed, a little tightening up is desirable.” After further wrangling, further cuts were made and an “X” Certificate was issued.
So it remained till 1996 when an uncut version was classified “12” for video release, because “it was surprising to see how well the horror holds up”. In 2011, the uncut DVD release was reclassified PG, on the grounds that children were seeing more frightening monsters on Doctor Who and Harry Potter.
The film benefitted from expressionistic cinematography by Karl Struss, who had shot Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the year before. The director was Erle C. Kenton, a former teacher who acted in Mack Sennett silent comedies, and graduated to director, developing a reputation for bringing a film in on time and on budget. He was paid $750 per week to direct Island of Lost Souls. By 1960, he had accumulated 144 directing credits, finishing his career like many prolific B Movie directors in television.
Like many perceived journeymen, his work was underrated. In 1942 he directed two of Abbott and Costello’s best comedies Pardon My Sarong, and Who Done it? His Universal horror movies House of Dracula (1945), House of Frankenstein (1944) were solid examples of low budget ingenuity keeping a tired horror franchise alive. While Island of Lost Souls is considered his one true classic, he has another claim to fame – Search for Beauty.
Erle Kenton saw the days of flexible interpretation of the Hays Code would soon be over. Under the incoming management of the PCA. any film to be released after July 1st 1934, would be subject to much stricter controls. Erle set out again to make a picture that would push the envelope, and get it into release before the before the door of permissiveness closed. The genre he chose was sex comedy.
The premise was based on a play: Three comedically characterized con artists dupe two Gold Medal Olympians into serving as editors of a new health and beauty magazine which is only a front for scandal stories and salacious pictures. With the Olympians’ names on the Health & Exercise front cover, their smutty magazines will pass through the mail with innocent wrapping without being seized by the federal authorities and thus earn a fortune. A scheme that has much in common with Paramount’s agenda for the movie too.
But the Olympians heroically turn the tables and put the tricksters out of business. Decency triumphs! A moral tale, that conveniently offers constant opportunities to display male beefcake and female pulchritude in revealing athletic costumes and lingerie.
Is that a wardrobe malfunction I see before me? (Or is it by design?) The sheer number of scenes of undress convinces me that director Erle Kenton set out to make – while he still could – the 1934 equivalent of a skin flick, perhaps a proto-Porky’s without the nudity, where the lure for the audience, both male and female, is to ogle beautiful bodies.
You will not see such figure-contouring female costuming in a Hollywood film after this. Erle Kenton knew how to skirt the rules, putting sex into the audiences’ mind in non-sexual situations. Scenes of physical exercise can always justify a subsequent shower scene, right? Maybe two.
The locker room scene with four bare butts was a rarity even in Pre-Code. Perhaps Kenton was trying to set a precedent. Good luck with that under the Breen regime. Several scenes were cut out when the film was submitted for re-release years later.
Gay cinephiles have told me Search for Beauty had strong appeal to the closeted gay and lesbian community of America, a significant segment of the movie-going audience of which Paramount was privately well aware: an audience that dared not speak its name, you might say, but yearned for movies that in some way spoke to them.
Equally attractive to gay and straight audiences alike was Buster Crabbe in his first leading role. Before entering acting, Crabbe was an actual Olympic bronze medalist in 1928 and a gold medal winner in 1932. A one-time Tarzan, he would go to star in the popular Sci- Fi serials Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.
Kenton partnered him with a British actress in her first Hollywood role – Ida Lupino. Over a 50 year career she notched up 105 movie and TV roles, before becoming one of the few women in Hollywood to maintain a career as a director, traditionally a male preserve. Two of her films Outrage (1950) and The Hitchhiker (1953) are registered by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.
Search for Beauty is in its own way culturally significant because of deliberate objectification of the male as much as the female body.
Consider which part of Buster Crabbe is the focus of the lady’s attention:
The film’s climax of massed athletes performing calisthenics in a Busby Berkeley-esque musical parade has a curiously fascist tone.
Did Leni Reifenstal screen a print of Search for Beauty while planning the fascist imagery her Olympia movie? There are oddly prescient camera angles in the triumphant Parade of Beauty sequence.
Beautiful specimens of humanity, all with shaved armpits, marching together for health through calisthenics! Not a black face amongst them, of course. But that was Hollywood back then.
Is the Sieg Heil accidental? I assume that Paramount had high hopes for Search for Beauty in Germany one year after the Nazi party, a strong advocate of physical fitness, had taken control of the country. Germany was an important foreign market. For six more years most major studios would remain uncritical of Nazi atrocities to protect that revenue stream. Double standards rule in Hollywood. Paramount pitched Search for Beauty as a moral fable. This poster for a Chicago theater, highlighting a live burlesque act as the supporting program film, is a telling indication of Paramount’s grasp of the picture’s core audience.
Director Erle Kenton, for his part, made Search for Beauty as an irreverent lampoon of American prudery, indicated by his choice of final shot.
In the silent era, keeping sex off the screen was the focus of censors. With the arrival of sound and color, violence increased its ability to shock. In March 1930, the Tiffany Production MAMBA gave audiences the first opportunity to see blood in 2-Strip Technicolor.
They also got to see miscegenation, misogyny, whip-wielding threats of threats of marital rape, and natives killing white men! Lurid subject matter that got the guardians of morality clutching their pearls.
MAMBA, and the code breaking films described earlier, resulted in a hardening of the production code under Joseph Breen. Adding weight to restrictions on explicit violence was the popularity of gangster movies like Scarface and Public Enemy, in which multiple characters die in a hail of bullets, the sound of which was a novelty, that echoed through the theater, inducing a visceral impact not experienced in silent cinema.
Sound triggered a legitimate question for the censors of the world: Does screen violence have a priming effect on cognitive and emotional response? Can a violent movie incite a cinema goer to commit a violent act? That debate continues today. The earliest censorship codes decided to prohibit explicit depiction of wounds and mortal agony. For five decades, censors believed that detailed violations to the integrity of the human body were too confronting to the psyche of adult audiences. Characters could have a cut lip, or bleed politely from a flesh wound. Violence done to the head or face, the epicenter of our intelligence and personality, was regarded as more confronting than violence directed at a clothed part of the body and had to be handled with discretion. After the Production Code became rigorously enforced in 1934, previously approved violence was cut from re-releases of King Kong.
Cecil B. DeMille’s 1931 The Sign of the Cross was stripped of shots of bloody gladiatorial combat, and seminude girls menaced by crocodiles, and a gorilla.
The academy Award winner All Quiet on the Western Front suffered from the revisionism of the Breen Office. Too much emphasis on the horrors of war in popular culture might be detrimental to recruiting in time of war. In the 1934 re-release of All Quiet on the Western Front, this powerful moment amongst others was deleted: A soldier has grabbed the barbed wire to pull himself through, when an explosion fills the frame. When the dust clears only his hands remain still clinging to the wire.
Such sanitization of screen violence held until World War Two, when blood lust needed to be aroused for patriotic reasons. This justified the fudging of previous standards. Face wounds, previously forbidden, offered the wartime audience enhanced satisfaction at the death of the enemy. In Flying Tigers (1942) when Japanese pilots are struck by bullets, they clutch their faces with bloody fingers, or vomit blood. US pilots die cleanly.
Conversely, in Back to Bataan (1945), shots of brutality to US soldiers were intended to produce rage and reinforce in the audience the determination to achieve victory.
By 1945 the horrors of war experienced by a generation inevitably led to a gradual loosening of the PCA rules in the depiction of violence. The prison break movie Brute Force (1947), inspired by an actual two day riot at Alcatraz prison the year before, broke new ground in that genre. The film has a number of brutal scenes including the beating of a prisoner bound to a chair by straps, and the crushing of a stool pigeon prisoner under a stamping machine.
Critics at the time considered the climax of Brute Force displayed the most harrowing violence ever seen in movie theaters. The PCA was criticized for passing it, but justified the decision on the grounds that the prison conditions depicted would act as a deterrent to crime. By contrast, British censors considered the movie was detrimental to public perception of penal systems in general and by association British prisons. It was banned in the UK for several years. The eventual DVD release was rated suitable for age 12.
Technicolor blood, always more confronting than B&W blood, began to be seen again in historical subjects like Scaramouche (1952) Mel Ferrer bleeds politely from Stewart Granger’s blade.
By 1958, Kirk Douglas could bleed less politely in his production of The Vikings.
To compete with television, movies had to deliver more grit than the US networks allowed. Bloodshed in westerns and big budget historical drama began to be given more leeway by the PCA. The same shots would not be permitted in a contemporary thriller; the censors’ rationale being that period costumes make violence less disturbing.
The BBFC were always more concerned with violence than their American counterparts. I began to notice multiple splice jumps during Italian Sword and Sandal epics that I enjoyed as a kid. One in particular was the Steve Reeves peplum epic, Giant of the Marathon (1960) to which to cinematographer / 2nd Unit director Mario Bava, soon to make a career in horror and giallo, contributed a stunning underwater battle as an homage to Douglas Fairbanks Snr.’s The Black Pirate. (1922) The BBFC was sensitive to penetration of the human body, and deleted several of Bava’s most impactful moments.
Arrow in the eyeball was a guaranteed Yikes! moment for the fans. Bava used it again in Goliath Against The Vampires (1961).
This time the BBFC let it through, but gave the film an “X” Certificate, a real rarity for peplum. When fire was combined with penetration by arrow or spear, it amplified the sense of pain.
The BBFC saw it as gratuitous sadistic detail and such shots were cut to obtain a ‘U’ Certificate for unrestricted exhibition.
British audiences were denied Mario Bava’s stunning 1960 directorial debut Black Sunday.
This gothic masterpiece remained banned by the BBFC for 8 years, then released pruned of its best disturbing images. Nonetheless it made a star out of little known British actress Barbara Steele. The full uncut version was not released till 1992.
UK’s Hammer Films advanced the boundaries of horror at a time when the British film industry was ailing, as the BBFC, a quasi- autonomous government instrumentality, was quite aware. They knew that for Hammer’s color remakes of black and white horror classics Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy to prosper in the American market, they had to loosen previous restrictions on blood and dismemberment in the new “X” Certificate. Not as much as Hammer wanted of course, but it worked.
Naturally, there was a backlash from religious groups, but Hammer’s strong box office performance proved the public were ready. The Dracula/Frankenstein/ Mummy franchises were a huge success world wide, which in turn attracted production back to the UK. The BBFCs policy liberalization of Adults Only movies had an impact that benefitted trade.
I credit American director Cy Raker Endfield’s ZULU with finally pushing the boundaries of the British “U” Certificate (all audiences admitted) in 1964. I saw it on its first weekend. There was a distinct intake of breath from across a packed house when, early in the movie, hundreds of bare breasted Zulu girls began a ritual dance.
Topless girls were normally verboten in a “U”Certificate film, ZULU’s requested classification. However there was one category of footage permitted for all audiences by the BBFC since the silent era – actual footage of traditional native ceremonies even if the participants are unclothed. Newsreels and short subjects containing such material were considered a valuable natural history record and permitted for public exhibition. Endfield claimed that that the sequence he filmed was an authentic Zulu mass wedding ceremony, that would provide cultural context to the Zulu side of the story. In 1961, the spurious feature documentary on nudism clubs – Naked as Nature Intended – had received an “A” Certificate after cuts. There was no precedent for anything less than an “A” for bare breasts, when ZULU came before the BBFC. Also there was an “A” Certificate level of blood and violence by prevailing standards. The BBFC were aware of the financial implications, if the expensive 70mm. British production did not receive a “U” Certificate for its release in the UK’s prime summer holiday playing time, potentially the patriotic ZULU‘s most lucrative market. Box office statistics suggested generally “A” films earned 20% less than comparable “U” films. Some minor cuts in spear and bayonet wounds were made, and the needed “U”Certificate was obtained. Occasionally market forces influence a censors’ decision. In a good way. The British Film Institute Monthly Bulletin review questioned the wisdom of the BBFC’s “U” Certificate, suggesting ZULU was ” too tough and bloody” for younger audiences.
As the sixties progressed, and the control exerted by the PCA came to an end, explicit violence in American movies gradually increased across all genres. Film makers were anxious to try out advances in prosthetic make up technology. Multiple blood squibs in slow-motion would finally reach the screen in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.
A year later Sam Peckinpah took the bullet ballet to a new level. For a while, blood squibs became the action director’s new toy. More about how censorship evolved through the 1970’s & 80’s in a future post.
Throughout the decades of censorship under the dominant bodies of the PCA & BBFC, many film makers have tussled with the censors over violence, nudity, and taboo subject matter. None battled them so consistently over a 50 year period than Alfred Hitchcock. His chess games with the censors on both sides of the Atlantic will feature in the next chapter. HITCHCOCK: CENSORSHIP SABOTEUR!
“See the cruelest white man in Africa! See his brutal marriage, her adultery, his revenge! A jungle uprising of furious natives all collide in a wild brawl of fists, whips and flying fur on the eve of World War One! See it now in blood-stained 2-Tone TECHNICOLOR!”
Trailer copy from those purple prose days sprang to mind. When a unique long lost Hollywood classic is found, it’s like the discovery of King Tut’s Tomb. There’s a treasure trove to unpack. But let’s go back to the beginning.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – the Roaring Twenties to be precise – the production, distribution and exhibition components of the nascent “motion picture business” were settling into place, with many companies jockeying for dominance. It was a time of galloping technological change, fueled by strong public demand for drama and comedy displayed on a screen rather than a stage. Color and sound were on the way. One company – Tiffany Productions – made a big bet. In 1929, they put $500,000, five times their normal budget, into a single film – MAMBA.
It was the world’s first “all color” talkie, a ripping yarn shot out of doors, while other color movies were musicals, shot with controlled lighting on studio sound stages. The film contained scenes that would be forbidden by the Production Code a year later, which was rigorously enforced by chief censor Breen from 1934 for the next 25 years. MAMBA was a huge success.
Then a decade after its production, the negative was destroyed and the film deemed lost forever; and would have been, were it not for the sustained efforts of a number of people dedicated to movie preservation, in particular Australian cinema historian Paul Brennan and Swedish author and history professor Jonas Nordin, whose personal memories of the discovery and complex restoration process are linked at the end.
They provided most of the photographic materials in this article. And to whet your appetite, Jonas Nordin has created his own trailer.
The story of MAMBA’s creation, destruction, and resurrection offers the opportunity to turn back the clock a hundred years and look at the thriving world of Early Hollywood, and perhaps conclude that it was not much different to Hollywood today.MAMBA was made by Tiffany Productions. To give broader context to Tiffany’s most notable movie, I’ll chart the 14 year history of the company’s rise and fall. There will be occasional digressions into evolving technology and industry practice to provide a sense of the era. Think of it as the short subject that precedes the main attraction.
Tiffany was founded in 1918 by director Robert Z Leonard and his wife silent movie star Mae Murray. They followed other prestige partnerships like United Artists, formed two years earlier by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and DW Griffith, director of Birth of a Nation. Fifty years later major stars Barbara Streisand, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Dustin Hoffman, and Steve McQueen would form First Artists to gain greater creative control and profit share in their movies.
Similarly, Tiffany’s purpose was to produce vehicles for its star Mae Murray, directed by her husband Robert Leonard, releasing them through rising distributor Metro to the nickelodeons of America. Leonard & Mae, the founders of Tiffany Productions, had sadly different career paths that are a window into the twists and turns of Silent Hollywood success stories.
Chicago born Leonard gave up law studies in favor of acting in 1907. For a period he drove a van to make a living. Over six feet tall with camera friendly looks, he quickly broke into the fledgling movie industry, becoming an established star by 1913, then directing short comedy features, His career took off when he was assigned a popular serial, The Master Key. A contract at Universal followed, where he became chiefly associated with the films of his future wife, the ex-Ziegfeld Follies star Mae Murray. Mae Murray, a striking beauty at 5’ 2”, with frizzy blonde hair, was born Marie Adrienne Koenig in 1885. In 1908, she joined the chorus line of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway and with determination and political skill beat out the competition to achieve headliner status by 1915. Her motion picture debut in To Have And To Hold a year later made her a major star for Universal. Roles opposite Rudolph Valentino in The Delicious Little Devil and Big Little Person followed.
Salary, in addition to profit share, for her 1922 hit Peacock Alley was $10,000 a week. She became known as “The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips” and “The Gardenia of the Screen”. For a brief period she even wrote a weekly column for newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Critics sniped at her over-the-top costumes and exaggerated emoting, but the eight movies Tiffany Productions delivered to Metro were popular and financially successful. Perhaps Mae Murray’s volatile personality became too much for Leonard and the couple divorced in 1925. Their lives diverged down sadly different paths. At that time three rival distributors, Metro, Goldwyn, and Mayer merged into a new powerhouse – MGM. Robert Z Leonard left Tiffany, joined MGM. An enduring marriage to another actress soon followed. Leonard was perfect for the new studio system, turning out musicals and light comedies, with occasional big hits like The Great Zeigfeld, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1936, and a lavish 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Laurence Olivier, written (curiously) by Aldous Huxley. Leonard became one of the studio’s most reliable contract directors till his retirement in 1955. Fate was not so kind to his ex-wife Mae Murray, seen her with 4th husband European Prince David Mdvani. Murray clashed with MGM chief Louis B Mayer, then, at the advice of Mdvani, whom she had appointed her new manager, she broke her contract. Later she would plead to return but Mayer refused. His enmity discouraged many directors from considering her. The dawn of the sound era was another blow. Her first talkie Peacock Alley in 1930, a remake of her 1921 silent hit, revealed she had little flair for dialogue. It flopped, as did her two subsequent releases. She sued Tiffany for destroying her career and lost. Her husband/ manager Mdvani – how predictable – drained most of her wealth before their divorce.
In the 1940s, her nightclub appearances celebrating her past received reviews critical of her youthful costumes, the heavy makeup to hide her age, and her silent movie style. Perhaps she was an inspiration for Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Murray’s finances continued to collapse, and for most of her later life she lived in poverty, giving ballroom dancing lessons to teenagers. Yet nobody came to her aid. At her career peak in the early 1920s, along with such other Hollywood luminaries as Cecil B. DeMille, Harold Lloyd, and Irving Thalberg, Mae Murray was a founding member of the board of trustees at the Motion Picture & Television Fund – a charitable organization that offered assistance and care to industry members without resources. Four decades later, Murray was found homeless and disoriented, and spent her final years in the care of that excellent charity; a poignant irony. At the peak of their careers, both Mae Murray and Robert Z Leonard, the founders of Tiffany Pictures, received stars on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame. They were once a Hollywood power couple. How sadly different were their lives thereafter. They fade from the story of MAMBA now, but the company they founded would continue to be a Hollywood player, striving for a hit that would elevate Tiffany to the Major Studio level.
The man to do the job was producer director John Stahl, who was recruited, after the Leonard/Murray divorce, to be the new CEO. Along with executives Phil Goldstone and Maurice H Hoffman, he retooled the company for low budget production to generate cash flow. Tiffany has been called a Poverty Row studio, in the vernacular of the time, one whose films had lower budgets, lesser stars, if stars at all, and much lower production values than major studios. In fact Tiffany was more an independent production/distribution company with its own studio, having acquired the old Reliance / Majestic backlot on Sunset Boulevard.
Stahl renamed the company Tiffany-Stahl Productions and released 70 features, both silent and sound, 20 of which were Westerns. The new Tiffany invested in developing technologies to get ahead of the competition. They commissioned shorts subjects, photographed in a breakthrough color process known as Technicolor. The iconic Technicolor brand has a fascinating history and you can get into the weeds of it at this amazingly detailed website.
Your eyes may glaze as the differences between 2-Strip and 3-Strip Technicolor are explained, but it’s worth the study, because it demonstrates the ingenuity of the early camera pioneers; how fraught with mechanical and chemical complexities the process of creating a color image was. Today, just hit record on your phone.
Stahl, Goldstone and Hoffman were early examples of innovative hard driving studio executives that have their parallels in every decade of Hollywood history. The company would occasionally overreach in self-promotion. Their advertising slogan “Another Gem from Tiffany” caused iconic jewelry firm Tiffany & Co. to sue for trademark infringement. Tiffany Productions recognized the potential of synergy. The huge demand for sound movies in 1927 enabled Stahl and his team to make a lucrative deal with RCA: If a cinema owner agreed to book a block of 26 Tiffany films, RCA would install the sound gear at a bargain rate. In the early days of this technology, sound came from a Gramophone disc played like a Gramophone record in synch with the picture. As many as 2,460 theaters signed up for the deal, providing Tiffany with a guaranteed distribution network. For an understanding of the difficulties of early sound technology, the Vitaphone Wikipedia website is illuminating. Vitaphone was vulnerable to severe synchronization problems, famously spoofed in MGM’s 1952 musical about the Silent Era’s transition into Sound – Singin’ in the Rain. If a record was improperly cued up or bumped, the sound would stray out of sync with the picture, and the projectionist would have to try to manually acquire sync. The problem disappeared within a few years when soundtracks were printed in synch with the image on the 35mm film itself. As sound movies swept the silent off the screen, Stahl felt ready to take on the next technological milestone: a full-length sound feature in Technicolor. The major studios had all rushed spectacular Technicolor musicals into production on their new sound stages, tying up almost all Technicolor’s twelve cameras. To jump ahead of the competition, Tiffany decided to make the world’s first outdoor spectacular in color and 3D. However there is no record of Mamba being shown in 3D. They had to get the movie into theaters fast, and there was no time to perfect the process.
Mamba was shot in approximately 10 weeks between September and December 1929 on what is now the Universal backlot, probably using left over sets from The Golden Dawn to recreate Neu Posen, a fortified border town separating British and German East Africa, the two competing colonial powers, on the eve of The Great War. This wide establishing shot of Neu Posen is an example of a time honored in-camera effect known as the glass shot, where peripheral aspects of the setting are painted on glass which is then positioned in front of camera to blend in with the action visible beyond. Thus, painted jungle obscures the studio buildings adjacent to the set. The foreground lake is still used by Universal for movies and its theme park stunt show.
The deadly snake of the title is Auguste Bolte, the richest man in Neu Posen, Casting, as always, was important. The role needed a star character actor.
Acclaimed Danish stage actor Jan (Jean) Hersholt was chosen. With screen roles ranging from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed, his name while not a headliner, was meaningful. Hersholt is perfect in the part, avoiding the scenery chewing approach of many early sound era villains in favor of a grumpy smoldering malevolence.
Jean Hersholt plays Bolte as a corpulent, unkempt, boorish plantation owner, constantly boasting of his wealth, who whips his servants, and sexually abuses local women. He is despised by the European community, whose respect he craves. So, he purchases a beautiful bride, Helen Von Linden, daughter of an impoverished nobleman, by paying her father’s debts, in the hope this trophy wife will earn him the prestige he feels entitled to.
Eleanor Boardman added some marquee value as the luckless German heiress Bolte manipulates into marriage. A successful photographic model from age 16, she entered silent movies in 1922, playing leading roles in 25 pictures before MAMBA. The year before she had starred in her husband King Vidor’s Oscar nominated The Crowd. They were a power couple of their day.
Boardman’s performance in The Crowd was widely recognized as one of the outstanding performances in American silent film. In this, her first sound role, her acting is sincere intelligent and restrained.
As the luckless bride at the nuptials, Boardman’s face speaks volumes. Matters get worse from the wedding night onwards due to her reluctance to consummate the marriage, in a scene that was cut by the Australian censor.
The scene in which Bolte demands his conjugal rights, pressing his hand on her breast before she repels him, is mild by today’s standards, but it had the Australian censors of 1930 clutching their pearls. In fact, it is an eloquent MeToo scene, written way ahead of its time and undoubtedly the work of the only woman in the writing team.
Winifred Dunn wrote her first produced screenplay at age 18 and was soon, according to trade papers, one of the “busiest scenario editors in Hollywood”, credited with writing on over 40 productions. In 1925, major star Mary Pickford recruited her to work collaboratively on several projects. Dunn was in tune with women’s issues. She knew that all the scenes of humiliation and spousal abuse inflicted on the heroine would resonate with the women in the audience married to difficult men. The prospect of marital rape, too lurid and confronting for Australian guardians of public decency, serves to further heighten suspense at the heroine’s plight for the rest of the movie. “ When I want you, all the locks in the world won’t keep me out.” is the kind of dialogue the Production Code would soon forbid. Similarly, scenes where a husband raises a whip to his disobedient wife, declaring “Everything I own carries my mark” would be stricken from scripts for the next 20 years.
A noble German officer Lt. Karl Von Reiner prevents the lash from landing. He and all the German characters in the story bear the influence of a German born member of the writing team.
Ferdinand Schumann-Heink, born in Hamburg, the son of a famous opera singer, emigrated to America, and served in the US Army during World War 1, while his brother joined the German navy, and died when his U Boat was sunk. Schumann-Heink understood the ironies of war. Perhaps he based the character of Auguste Bolte on arrogant nouveau riche profiteers that flourished in Germany’s colonial heyday. A grasp of German manners and sensibility is also evident in the depiction of the Karl Von Reidel, the romantic lead, played by Ralph Forbes.
Ralph Forbes came from a British acting family. After playing supporting roles to Lilian Gish and Norma Shearer, he achieved leading man status when he played Ronald Colman’s brother in Paramount’s 1926 big-budget Beau Geste. A scar on his cheek caused by a college football accident, was airbrushed from his headshot by a vigilant publicist. But in MAMBA the blemish is amplified by make-up, to be a typical dueling scar a young Prussian officer might have received at Heidelberg University. It lends credibility to Forbes’ portrayal.
Boardman and Forbes have genuine chemistry. They project a delicate sexual tension in their scenes together. There’s a sense of repressed yearning in their exchange of close ups as the film progresses
While not an A list cast individually, Hersholt, Boardman and Forbes, seen here with director Albert S. Rogell in a break from shooting, were cumulatively strong enough to attract movie fans. Al Rogell broke into the film business at age 15; by 22 he was directing serials and shorts subjects. His specialty was tight action dramas and westerns, making him well suited for the task. Rogell would go on to amass 122 directing credits in film and television till his retirement in the late 1950’s. His confident affable demeanor is reflected in this picture posing with cowboy star Tom Mix, who he directed in The Rider of Death Valley two years later.
Rogell’s unbroken three minute moving camera shot establishing the town is masterful. A column of native workers, carrying ivory tusks, walk, heads bowed, past a whip-carrying British soldier. This starts the film with a disapproving comment by American creatives on colonialism. More on political undercurrents later.
The camera cruises by ponies painted with black and white zebra stripes followed by an ostrich trotting through the street. Then a river comes into view, with canoes berthing, goods being unloaded. A wide variety of African detail follows before the camera arrives at the first dialogue scene which sets the background to the story. A masterful Scorsese shot before Scorsese, though the Variety reviewer, while praising the photography, complained “ early panoramic shots are hard on the eyes.” In the following scene, we learn that the rival colonial powers that share the town have each raised detachments of native troops. Indeed, peacefully interacting tribes allied with rival powers would be forced to fight each other in the war to come This tragic aspect of WW1 would be depicted forty-five years later in Jean Jacques Arnaud’s French colonial drama Black and White in Color.
MAMBA’s next scene is where the writers’ sense of irony is most obvious.
A German and a British soldier come across a group of African children play fighting in the street. One group wear spiked German helmets, the other British insignia. The two soldiers lecture the kids that Germany and Britain are “fine friends.” “Throw away your swords and popguns, and be like white men. Why, there are millions of us all over the world and we never fight.” This advice is given, while engaging in badinage slyly scornful of each other’s nation. The German mutters “Sheinkopf” as an aside, while the British soldier taps the German playfully in the chest, but just a little too hard. When the children leave, the British soldier concludes: “Too many blacks here in Africa, too few of us whites to hold ‘em in line, once they get the fightin’ idea into their heads.” You could read that as a racist character’s lament for the end of colonialism, or, as I prefer, you could consider it to be the American writers’ statement of the inevitable outcome of history.
You could see the subplot of Bolte rejecting the child he has fathered by a local African, as symbolic of the treatment of Africa by colonial powers. Liberal writers had to be clever with their messages. I see the movie’s final shot of the British Union Jack flying over the colony as an ironic question mark, rather than a celebratory confirmation of status quo restored. The picture could have ended traditionally on the lovers’ kiss. There is so much to enjoy in both the politics and the political incorrectness of the film. Despite the writers’ good intentions, the handling of racial issues reflects 1930 Hollywood, paternalistic, racially insensitive, at best, but it makes the film all the more interesting to deconstruct. Audiences will be abuzz with opinion as they leave the theater.
A lot of attention went into tuning make-up, design and lighting to the best aspects of 2-Strip Technicolor, while trying to minimize its limitations. The Cinematographer was Charles P. Boyle, who would amass 84 credits, like Oscar nominated Anchors Aweigh, which integrated cartoon characters with Technicolor live action, before concluding his career at Disney with the iconic Old Yeller. These images taken from screen grabs do reflect the richness of the 2-strip color palette.
Director Rogell had to work around delays due to Technicolor camera availability but managed to get four cameras for the big scenes. The budget ballooned, causing Tiffany cash flow problems. The company was funding the movie largely out of revenue coming in from completed films in release which was sometimes irregular. In order to fool the creditors, the production reportedly kept two sets of identical costumes available so that the cast and crew could keep working in case one set was confiscated. Production cost landed at about $500,000, a colossal amount for Tiffany, which was accustomed to make movies for $100,000. Rogell managed the problems well and delivered a 78 minute movie with camerawork, like the opening tracking shot, and the editing of action scenes that is surprisingly modern for the period.
His staging of the climactic battle scene is spectacular and well covered, with angles regularly integrating attackers with defenders, making the flow of the conflict clear.
There are a few false notes, like the speeded up shots of the charging natives, presumably to make them more frenzied looking. But overall it plays well. And for an audience in 1930 it must have done. High drama, crowd scenes, blazing buildings, and blood – all in color and sound at last!
What an impact this movie must have had on the previously monochromatic cinema-going public. I wonder if a 16-year-old lad from Pennsylvania, named Cy Raker Endfield might have seen MAMBA in 1930 or in subsequent reissues. He would go on to co-write and direct ZULU, in 1964, the iconic African colonial war movie.
These were the days when people wore jackets and ties to the set. Here are the key men who made MAMBA. Well, some of them. Grips and electrics not included. Women are noticeably absent. Crew photos have evolved since.
The 5 Technicolor studio-bound musicals released to substantial box office ahead of Mamba served to build the public appetite for big color drama. The recent Wall Street Crash had not yet affected cinema attendance, now at a peak.
As contrast to the wholesome color musicals on offer, Tiffany mounted a substantial campaign emphasizing the lurid: violence, adultery, and the tropical African setting – in color. It was an exploitation marketing approach Roger Corman and American International Pictures would decades later perfect.
MAMBA premiered in March 1930 at New York’s Gaiety Theater at the top price of $2 per ticket. It ran two weeks, a record at the time. Reviews were good. Photoplay Magazine concluded: “ ends with melodrama … and revolting natives “
Playdates across America followed. There are some reports that MAMBA’s eventual box office gross was $1.3M. No records remain of its international receipts. It was banned in Germany for being “ denigrating to Germans”; a tribute to Jean Hersholt’s performance.
Tiffany was surely on the verge of being admitted to the studio “A League”. Perhaps Stahl and his team had made a few enemies along the way. Somehow Tiffany’s access to exhibition outlets shrank. Apparently the “A League” made deals with exhibitors to supply multiple star laden pictures provided their theaters never played a Tiffany-Stahl release. This was to cripple a rising competitor. Illegal restraint of trade, but it was the Wild West of entertainment law at the time. John Stahl sold his shares in the company after MAMBA, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall. Denial of market access is an issue still with us in the digital world.
With revenue on Tiffany’s new product line substantially reduced, debts piled up. The recession started to bite. Box office dropped 30%. Tiffany Studios final production had a prescient title.
Eventually Tiffany filed for bankruptcy in 1932. The studio complex was later bought by Columbia Pictures. Another transition was in play. The highly inflammable nitrate stock used to shoot all silent and many early sound movies was soon to be replaced by the safer emulsion stock. Their negatives were considered obsolete, as indeed were silent films; they were of no value. Exhibitors wanted pictures that talked.
In 1938 producer David O. Selznick needed a generous supply of fuel for the burning of Atlanta sequence in his forthcoming Gone With The Wind. He recognized that the now obsolete nitrate stock was a potent and enduring source of flame, as fires in movie theaters had shown, so Metro Goldwyn Mayer purchased Tiffany’s nitrate original film negative library and scattered it across the civil war Atlanta set in Culver City, then ignited by the studio’s pyrotechnicians . The cameras rolled, and tons of nitrate negatives burned for hours providing consistent fiery backgrounds. As Rhett Butler drove his wagon between blazing buildings, the original negative of MAMBA was going up in smoke, along with vast numbers of silent movies, some classic, lost forever.
Within decades only two reels of a used print in America remained in existence. MAMBA was considered lost, until early 2009 when Paul Brennan, film assessor for events at Heritage Cinemas in Sydney, Australia, stumbled upon an entry at the IMDb message board.
“I have just had the opportunity of viewing the complete 1930’s Tiffany Production of Mamba… …Unfortunately, this was seen without the accompanying Vitaphone [RCA Photophone] disc soundtrack… The early two-colour Technicolor was amazingly bright and made this screening a surprisingly pleasant experience. …according to the authors of Forgotten Horrors, ‘only about 12 minutes of silent footage remain.’ I can refute this information as there exists in Australia a complete 35mm version of this film, in good condition.”
Paul contacted the author of this post, a retired cinema projectionist and collector of abandoned 35 mm movies, Murray Matthews, pictured here with his wife Pat, alongside Paul Brennan. The Matthews had located a complete nitrate print of Mamba in an old warehouse in a remote area of South Australia. All nine reels were in great shape. They were even stored in original Tiffany cans. Only four of the nine Vitaphone soundtrack records were to be found All nine Vitaphone sound discs had been preserved luckily.
Australia and New Zealand was the end of the distribution line. Sometimes it took years for a movie to reach this far from Hollywood. The prints were often in bad shape or incomplete when they finally arrived. MAMBA probably survived intact because the Australian distributor demanded the quick dispatch of a brand new print in exchange for an advance against future revenue. Australian projectionists must have handled it carefully over its five year run in light of its final condition. When the rights expired and the picture was to be shipped back to Hollywood, Tiffany Productions had simply ceased to exist. So the sole print of MAMBA remained forgotten in Australia gathering dust in a warehouse till Pat and Murray Matthews rescued it.
Paul Brennan persuaded the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia to make a digital copy of the print and the 4 surviving sound discs to his friend Swedish Cinema history buff Jonas Nordin, who accomplished the laborious task of re-synchronizing the sound – now at a different frame rate – to the digital picture. The demonstration of the 4 reels with synchronized sound was enough to get other parties involved to fund a full 35 mm restoration from the surviving print, with a soundtrack taken from original Vitaphone discs that had luckily been preserved in America. Much thanks is due to UCLA, and Kino Lorber also for stepping up to the plate.
The 35mm restored print of MAMBA will soon be available to Festivals and specialty cinemas. Without the dedication to the preservation cause by everyone involved, this unique snapshot of Cinema history would never have been seen again in its original form. Thanks. Pat & Murray Matthews, “the guardians of the nitrate” tell their story here.
Jonas Nordin wrote about the restoration process here.
Paul Brennan is interviewed for Film Buffs Forecast here. He’s hilarious.
Here’s a story about one of my very non-PC guilty pleasure movies. (Not safe for work!)
PROPS CREW don’t get enough respect, I’ve always thought. The right prop enhances the credibility of an actor’s performance. In emergencies property masters have to improvise. On the reboot of the PORKY’S franchise, subsequently titled “Pimpin’ Pee Wee”, I experienced what a director dreads on a tight schedule: the theft of a vital prop just before the scene is to be shot.
You see, the character known as Meat was having trouble getting laid because the sheer size of his member frightened prospective candidates. A porn star comes to the rescue in his pay-off scene, which I thought would be a bit blah without a sight gag. I had set up an Austin Powers-style hide-the-penis gag in a dimly lit room. Meat’s enormous erection would be seen rising from his reclining body as a backlit silhouette, accompanied by Zarathustra-like chords evoking Kubrick’s 2001. Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom etc.
The aroused member was a beautifully sculpted stone phallus, acquired from a Hollywood sex toy shop, mounted on a rod secured to a C-stand. From the camera’s point of view, the shadow of Biggus Dickus was positioned to align perfectly with the silhouetted outline of Meat’s loins. On cue, the rod would be slowly elevated from horizontal to vertical. We had it all set up, ready to go after lunch. That’s when Murphy’s Law kicked in.
During the lunch break, someone, perhaps an extra, walked off with our distinguished phallus. It being mid-December, perhaps he saw it as an ideal Christmas gift for that special someone, but for us, it was the centerpiece of a key scene. The nearest sex shop was an hour away in traffic. We were cock-blocked in Canyon Country.
Luckily, we had Mike, a resourceful props man in the hot seat. With the clock ticking, Mike rapidly sculpted a replacement for the missing member, matching the necessary dimensions with gaffer tape! He got us shooting within twenty minutes and the shadow of Meat’s mighty member rose in perfect alignment.
Props departments rarely get enough recognition for what they contribute to the texture of a film. Hail Prop Master Mike! Appropriately, I added the following reassurance to the end titles:
No dildos were harmed in the making of this motion picture…
The visual effects shot – an optical illusion sufficiently persuasive for the audience to suspend disbelief – has always fascinated me. Nowadays VFX are the domain of the computer. But it was not always so. Effects used to be done in camera. Here’s a simple illusion, snapped while walking past my neighbor’s field.
Momentarily it looks like the tree is sprouting from the fence. But then you realize it’s the effect of forced perspective. As a kid I was drawn to films with lots of magical eye candy so George Pal and Ray Harryhausen movies became early favorites.
“How did they do that giant castle/volcano/tornado/earthquake/parting of the Red Sea shot?” I wondered, as the credits rolled on each new VFX-enhanced movie. Miniatures played a big part. My first introduction to a miniature was in 1963, when the school Film Circle visited the set of Becket starring Richard Burton, as the 12th Century King Henry the Second, and Peter O’Toole as Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury whose murder the king unintentionally ordered with the words ” Will nobody rid me of this meddlesome Priest!”
Elizabeth Taylor, recently married to Burton, arrived on the set during the lunch break with a small entourage. We spotty-faced teenagers gazed at the icon with awe. She smiled acknowledgment, but her face really lit up at the sight of her husband returning from lunch with his co-star Peter O’Toole. Burton clearly saw her but walked right past her without acknowledgment. The Cut Direct. What was that about? I saw her smile change to a jab of hurt. Hmm, stars have human foibles too.
We were given a tour of the enormous sets. Shepperton Studios Stage H barely contained an actual size replica of the inside of Canterbury Cathedral, the largest set that had yet been built in Europe. This was the work of our host, the film’s production designer John Bryan, whom I had met the previous year at the location shoot of Tamahine at Wellington College, my school. He took pleasure in showing us an early Hollywood device still in use for making a large set even bigger at minimal expense: the perspective miniature. He had commissioned a miniature of the half of the cathedral dome over the altar that was visible from inside the front entrance. This miniature was semicircular, three feet in diameter, and painted in fine detail. The dome was then suspended from wires above the camera and lowered into a wide angle shot of the cathedral, so that it sat in perfect alignment with the top edge of the set.
A split diopter lens on the camera then balanced the focus between the foreground miniature and the deep background beyond. Bryan explained that same effect could also be achieved by a matte painting of the dome on a sheet of glass positioned in front of the camera in the same alignment with the walls beyond. Here is a screen capture from another scene in Becket using the same technique.
A reduced size replica of the swinging bell is mounted in a reduced size version of the belfry, set up in front of the camera on a high platform, viewing down at the King’s arrival. A full sized bell tower would have been cost prohibitive.
The silent era pioneered the use of hanging miniatures.
Here a quite substantial miniature has just been positioned to add floors and a tower to the buildings beyond.
The set for the 1925 Ben Hur’s chariot race was only one side of the arena, where all the action was shot. The race around the other identical side of the arena was achieved by simply flopping the negative. Left to right speeding chariots then hurtled right to left, matching the correct screen direction once chariots had rounded the corner.
Careful examination will reveal that above the wall surrounding the stadium and the first rows of bleachers, there hangs a miniature with moving ‘puppet’ people that can rise and fall with the human extras. The main reason for using a miniature in this way is that, unlike a painting, the light on the built set will always be the same as that on the miniature making it possible to shoot in a variety of different ‘lights’ during the day. I have such respect for the early pioneers of the art of Visual Effects.