This is my contribution to the Diamonds and Gold blogathon, which is looking at actors and actresses later on in their careers. Please do visit and read the other contributions! This piece is also the (somewhat belated) launch of my projected series of reviews about films starring Laurence Olivier – I aim to write about a few more between now and early May.
Laurence Olivier and Carol Lynley
When it comes to his film career, Laurence Olivier is of course best known for his classic roles, including his great Shakespearean performances. He’s certainly not the first person you’d think of to play an ageing police superintendent in a 1960s thriller set in swinging London, and featuring a pop group like The Zombies! However, that’s just what he does in Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing, a compelling Hitchcock-style thriller in black and white which had me on the edge of my seat. I won’t be giving away any of the later plot twists in this review, as it is the sort of film where the shocks are all part of the experience. (Preminger copied Hitchcock with Psycho by decreeing that nobody could be admitted to the cinema after the film had started.) As well as featuring Olivier, it also has highly enjoyable late-career performances from Noel Coward and character actress Martita Hunt, best-known for her portrayal of Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations. Yet another plus is an early role for Anna Massey. The film is available on DVD in both region 1 and region 2
This is my contribution to the Sleuthathon organised by Movies Silently. Please do visit and read the other entries. The film I’ve chosen is controversial because of some plot elements. I won’t discuss this aspect until the end and will give a spoiler warning, since, as so often with Hitchcock, this is a film where you definitely don’t want to know what’s coming in advance!
Jane Wyman stars as young actress Eve, who turns detective to prove the man she loves is innocent of murder. That’s the starting-point for this unusual Hitchcock thriller, also starring Marlene Dietrich and Michael Wilding. For my money, the movie disproves the claim that he couldn’t do comedy, with many hilarious moments from British character greats such as Alastair Sim and Joyce Grenfell. At times the humour does slow the pace, but it’s all so enjoyable that it’s hard to care – and the tension still builds to an unbearable level whenever the plot calls for it. In particular, the ending of the film is increasingly tense, achieving the same sort of edge-of-the-seat agony as many better-known Hitchcocks.
Hitchcock was keen to work in London at this time because daughter Patricia was at drama school there, and he gave her a small part as a character with the wonderful name “Chubby Bannister”. Despite a mainly British cast, probably with an eye on the US box office, he chose an American actress for the lead role. I’ve just been watching Jane Wyman’s most famous films made with Douglas Sirk, so I was interested to see her in a very different part here. This was made only four years before she played an older woman in Magnificent Obsession, yet here she is cast as a fresh-faced ingénue who still lives at home with her mother. Well, with her mother (Sybil Thorndike in sublime grande dame form) half the time, and her father (a gloriously grumpy Alastair Sim) the other half.
It’s great that so many classic movies are now available for home viewing – but nothing compares with seeing them as they were made to be shown, on the big screen. So far I’ve only managed to see a relatively small number of older films in this way, but I’ve found they tend to stick in my mind more vividly than those I’ve only seen on TV. Last weekend I was lucky enough to be at the historic Hackney Empire cinema in London for the premiere of the BFI’s (British Film Institute) new restored print of Hitchcock’s silent boxing/romantic melodrama The Ring, accompanied by music from Soweto Kinch’s jazz band. I won’t write a full review (there are many excellent reviews of this film online, which I can’t add much to) but just wanted to say something about this movie and the BFI’s Hitchcock season. The Ring is one of the ‘Hitchcock Nine’ which the BFI has been busy raising money to restore – his nine surviving silent films. The £2million target to restore all of these with brand new musical scores has almost been reached, and four restored silent movies are being premiered as part of the London 2012 Festival, but the BFI is not quite there yet and still needs more donations.
Sorry not to have updated for a while – I’ve been busy and then was away on holiday. However, this is just a note to say that I was interested to hear a report about how Birmingham Central Library has discovered what could be the UK’s largest collection of silent movie scores, including a unique Charlie Chaplin theme tune. The library’s Youtube channel also has two videos showing Ben Dawson, a pianist from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, playing some of the music discovered in the collection and talking about the pieces.
The BBC did a short report about this which mentioned that the scores may be used to help create music for nine silent Hitchcock films being restored by the BFI. A couple of brief snippets of unnamed films from the BFI archives (I don’t think they are the Hitchcocks) are set to music here and I think there may be a glimpse of John Barrymore in the first one, although to be honest I’m not sure if it is him or not – he is wearing a wig and doesn’t stand in profile. If anyone can answer this one either way, I’d be interested to know.
Ceiling Zero is among the films in the BFI Howard Hawks season
I was excited today to discover that the British Film Institute in London has a comprehensive-looking Howard Hawks season coming up in January. The list of movies is on their site with an introduction by David Thomson. It will include Hawks’ earliest surviving film, Fig Leaves (1926), and other silent rarities, as well as early talkies like The Criminal Code (1931) and many better-known films from the rest of his career. As well as the silents, I’m also extremely tempted by the thought of seeing my favourites like The Crowd Roars (1932) and Ceiling Zero (1935), both starring James Cagney, as a troubled racing driver and womanising pilot, or Twentieth Century (1934), with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard – or The Dawn Patrol (1930), starring Richard Barthelmess, on the big screen. Realistically, as it is a long way to London, I’m not likely to be able to see more than one or two of the wonderful array of films, but will report back on this blog on whatever I do manage to see, anyway!
The BFI has also got what sounds like a great Frank Capra season running at the moment. On top of its programme of showings, it has ongoing appeals to restore nine rare early Alfred Hitchcock silent films and to find 75 “most wanted” lost British films – including missing features starring Errol Flynn, Laurence Olivier, Dorothy Gish, Peter Lorre, James Mason, Phyllis Calvert and many more famous actors, and also including work by directors such as Hitchcock, again, and Michael Powell. I don’t know if they have had any luck in digging up copies of any of these missing treasures, but here’s hoping.