Kevin Brownlow / David Lean: A Biography / 1996

David Lean directs Robert Newton and Stanley Holloway in This Happy Breed, 1944.

This post excerpts from David Lean’s biography, mostly re Robert Newton movies. Discussed below: Major Barbara 1941, This Happy Breed 1944, Brief Encounter 1945, Oliver Twist 1948. Things that, according to his biographer, David Lean refused to talk about [EDITING]: aborted project about Mutiny on the Bounty, marriages, love affairs, Ann Todd. Son Peter: David walked out on him when little more than a baby. Lean, re the war: “I remember Vera Campbell, who has been my assistant and was now a cutter herself […] You would hear the whistle of the bomb, and then bang, and at every bang she took a little hop. I said to her one night, ‘Vera, you’ve got to stop hopping.’ I was frightened enough myself. You heard those sticks of bombs exploding and you knew they were coming in a line towards you. I never went to the air-raid shelters. Never wanted to. I regarded it as a sort of moral collapse, I suppose, which is rather stupid. ‘Now, come on, pull yourself together, face it out, don’t go down the rat-hole.'” [Lean says he saw acknowledging the war as moral collapse.]

David Lean directs Robert Newton, This Happy Breed, 1944.

MAJOR BARBARA, 1941. Producer Pascal had wanted to do business with Zaharoff, arms dealer. Now, Major Barbara’s father = arms dealer. George Bernard Shaw play. Harold French hired as co-director. But, Lean claims to have directed it. Pascal arranged for shooting at Denham Studios. Because of war, empty. 2 stages taken over by government as food storage depots. When Pascal finished, Denham requisitioned by Lord Beaverbrook’s Ministry. Gabriel Pascal refused to speak with Robert Morley, who played Undershaft, when Morley couldn’t properly enjoy and smoke a cigar. Pascal refused to talk to Morley. “Tell Mr. Morley to stop being a homosexual.” Harold French: “David took my into the cutting room […] It was Shaw’s dialogue, but the camera wasn’t on Morley as Undershaft. David had cut it so brilliantly that he’d given the scene to somebody else. Undershaft hardly appeared at all. You heard his dialogue but the whole thing was switched around.” [Showing/Not showing, Presence/Absence.] Major Barbara made at height of Blitz. Denham studios, NW of London, close to Northolt Aerodrome, which was heavily defended as fighter airfield. And close to Denham airfield, where pilots trained. Korda had used Denham to make air force propaganda film, The Lion Has Wings, and Germans threatened to “bomb Denham out of existence.” Luftwaffe destroyed office block and a screening room. Every time air-raid warning -> stop shooting -> take cover underground. Sirens infuriated Lean. “Bloody air-raid.” Film falling behind schedule. Scheme: spotters put on studio roof, protected by sandbags. Siren would ruin sound. Ronald Neame: “When the normal siren went it ruined the sound if we happened to be shooting but that was all. David would say, ‘cut’ and we’d wait until the air-raid had stopped. But we did not go to the shelters because we had our own people on the roof, and their instructions were the moment they sighted a German plane they should ring the firebell where we were shooting and we went straight to the shelter. For two or three weeks we continued shooting and the firebells never went off. We just cut when the sirens went off, waited thirty seconds and carried on. The Electrical Trades Union complained bitterly. They said, ‘it’s all very well for you lot on the ground, but we’re up here in the gantry. By the time we get down to the bloody shelter the bomb may have dropped.’ So we way we sorted that out was that every electrician had a rope, fastened to the spot rails. The plan was that if the bell went, they would come down the rope. We were in the middle of this scene with Rex and Wendy when for the first time this bell goes off. For a moment, everyone freezes, because it hadn’t happened before, then everybody started running. The first to run were me, David and the camera crew; we all ran leaving the camera running. The next day on rushes there is this great set, there’s Rex and Wendy in the foreground. Dialogue. The bell goes, everybody freezes. Rex looks round, Wendy looks round, then into the top of the picture drops all these ropes and down the ropes come all the electricians. Everybody is running, and running faster than all the rest when he realized what was happening was Rex Harrison. Wendy had not been told about the bell because she had not been on call the day it had been arranged, so she didn’t know what had happened. So she stood there looking around. It provided enormous hilarity in the rushes the next day.” Lean directed scenes of Robert Newton and Donald Calthrop in Salvation Army shelter on his own. When alarm went off, everyone raced to shelter, Calthrop and Newton would get their bottles, settle down on the property furniture for a solid period of self-indulgence until the company reemerged. Wilfred Lawson. Calthrop died during filming. His manner changed alarmingly when he had too many whiskies. During film, he was told two of his sons had been killed (one in fact survived), began drinking bout, died of heart attack. Neame: “Gabby was very dramatic about this. There was a two-minute silence on the set the day after Donald died.” Charles Frend, editor, nervous breakdown. In editing room, struck his head on wall three times and collapsed. Lean: “You can all too easily find yourself in this state in the cutting room, because editing is a highly complicated process.” [This is a big claim. Was David Lean really this nervous, this close to breaking down during the editing process? Could all of Frend’s stress really be attributed to editing? In any case, it is interesting that Lean identifies the complicated editing process as the reason.] Vera Campbell left editing room to help bombed-out friends find digs in Denham. Lean livid. Campbell: “I burst into tears and I said, ‘Well, there is a war on, you know, David.’ He didn’t care. The war didn’t seem to affect him.” [PRESENCE and ABSENCE of WAR, p 143. And yet, Lean’s crying bouts, etc.] David Lean married Kay Walsh, November 23, 1940, one week after shooting’s end. The two moved to Melgan Cottage in Denham Village, where Lean practiced gardening, which he came to love. [See THIS HAPPY BREED garden shot.]

THIS HAPPY BREED, 1944. David Lean’s private opinion was that ordinary documentaries were not proper films. Seemed unimpressed with Crown Films unit. Biographer Kevin Brownlow shows Lean Listen to Britain, by Humphrey Jennings, and Lean “merely polite about it.” Brownlow senses “resentment, even after half a century, about the documentary boys, who had apparently made it plain that their films were infinitely superior to most feature films made in English at the time.” Lean: “The documentary directors hated us feature people. They used to look on us as sort of tarts making an easy buck. They were quite wrong. So we had a kind of distant war going on, which was a pity, and so I was never mad about these documentary directors.” Lean makes documentary La Bataille Pour L’Axe, later L’echec D’une Strategie (Failure of a Strategy). Made for Ministry of Information while This Happy Breed in production at Denham studios. 1944, given to editor Peter Tanner: “The picture was planned as a very matter-of-fact account of the war (on both sides) from the fall of France to the build-up to D-Day. It was to be factual and would contain no propaganda. The decision was taken to make it on the lines of March of Time.” Tanner: “David’s chief complaint was that he was bound to the length of shots in the original newsreel, which were often much too short or failed to make the point he needed. He used to sit swearing and fuming and running the material at high speed through the silent head of the Moviola. He used to ask for a certain shot that he had seen originally at the Imperial War Museum or the Mol and get quite annoyed if I didn’t recall it instantly. He would then tell me what shots were on either side of the one he wanted. Amazing.” Lean had remarkable memory for specific shots. […] David came in and asked for a shot. It wasn’t where it should have been. It was a shot of a tank moving through explosion. He became more and more exasperated as we searched and failed to find it. […] I had pulled that roll out a hundred times and unrolled it too– but not far enough. There was something else at the front. The tank shot followed. But it shows that David never forgot a shot and would refuse to continue until he had it.” The film cannot compare with the routine work of Humphrey Jennings. David’s film, over-dependent on maps, looks like the work of someone who knows little about the war. [A map represents the space; is not the space. War presence and absence.] 40 years later, Peter Tanner reminded Lean of documentaries. “He looked at me quite blankly and said that he couldn’t recall them at all. I started to go into detail and he said, ‘What was my contribution?’ I said, ‘You were only the director! At which he roared with laughter.” [David Lean’s memory.] Anthony Havelock-Allan and Neame could not remember them either. Cy Young compiled research, presented to Havelock-Allen, who said: “I don’t think they had any importance. I never heard the results, never heard how well we’d done them or how well they’d done in the countries in which they were shown.” New company, Cineguild, created by Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame. 1st production, This Happy Breed. After In Which We Serve, they still wanted propaganda element. Propaganda for stoicism, humour, resilience of British people. Modern touch and more attractive? = Technicolor. 1st Technicolor release was 1917. Few since. Noel Coward played Clapham family head on stage. Lean deemed wrong for film and suggested Robert Newton. Lean: “Robert Newton may not have been right, but he had a good stab at it. I had a great weakness for Robert Newton. He used to drink far too much. And when he had a couple of drinks, he would speak the absolute truth, which could be horrifying. I remember him talking to a friend of mine after lunch, when he had a couple of drinks, and he leaned across the table and said, ‘Now I’m going to tell you about you.’ And he did, bang, on the dot, you know. Withering. He could be cruel, but what he said was undeniably true. I loved him.” [Truth. Drink. Wrong for the part. A weakness for Robert Newton.] Celia Johnson didn’t like the picture: “Me, I don’t seem like a real person and that is so important on the movies.” Lean: “Celia was wrong really, although she’s a wonderful actress, she’s nothing to do with Clapham, even acting at her best.” Neame: “Celia was the only actress who thought acting was of secondary importance to living. She was first and foremost a wife and she loved her little home and she found Bob Newton difficult to work with. We all did a bit. Bob had been told by Noel that he must not drunk and that any time he was drunk on the set he would forfeit five hundred pounds of his salary. It was in his contract. His salary for the whole film was, I think, nine thousand pounds, and this was very serious for him, so he didn’t drink at all during the first weeks of the film.” They let Celia Johnson go early on Saturday, because petrol shortages, and she had no car, and if she missed train, she had to wait 2 hours. Lean tried to make her stay for one more take, at the risk of making her late. Neame: “And so Celia looked at her watch and said, ‘Five minutes.’ I’ll always remember this. She played that scene with Kay Walsh – it was about three and a half minutes long – and by the time they’d finished their rehearsal there wasn’t anybody on that set without tears in their eyes – electricians, everybody – because it was the most beautifully played emotional scene. The only one who wasn’t affected was Celia, who looked at her watch and said, ‘Well now, can I go please?'” [EFFICIENCY] Johnson, writing on Lean, previously?: “I like David Lean more and more. He is not only extremely efficient but very nice and thinks I am good which is always endearing.” During shooting, Lean’s brother Edward directly involved in war effort, with price on his head, worked with BBC and British Intelligence. Meanwhile, Lean showed little concern. Celia Johnson, re people at Denham Studios: “This is really the most extraordinary place,” she wrote. “No one appears to take  the faintest interest in the war. Literally not the faintest, though now and again they are annoyed because they can’t get five hundred horses without going to Ireland for them.” When This Happy Breed went into production, 1943, war was turning to Allies’ favor. Blitz over, much of London in ruins. South would soon face V1 rocketing. But, Lean wanted to open film with 1919 London wide-angle. Standard view from Waterloo Bridge impossible because bridge under reconstruction, buildings around St. Paul’s cathedral almost all damaged or destroyed by bombs. Got apparently undamaged panorama by placing Technicolor camera atop gasometer in Battersea. Scene where Vi (Eileen Erskine) breaks news of brother Reg’s death in motor accident. Shot in studio. They didn’t have enough light for Technicolor. They didn’t have complete Noel Coward script. Ronald Neame suggested tracking shot. Bert Batchelor, ETU shop steward: “We can’t get you this amount of light. We haven’t enough brutes here to light it.” Lean insisted. Batchelor reminded, there was a war going on, merchant crews were dying in the Arctic Sea trying to bring us oil and Lean wanted extra power for what appeared to be a whim. But Lean insisted. Gerald Pratley, The Cinema of David Lean, p.46: “A literal depiction of such a terrible moment could not possibly be more moving or believable than this little gem of content by implication.” [see Lean’s distaste for documentary.] Newton had kept drinking firmly in check, except once when he insulted Noel Coward. Later arrested in Haymarket for being drunk and disorderly.  Final scene (cut) where Newton is about to leave Sycamore Road and wheels infant in pram. He says to baby: “There’s not much to worry about really, so long as you remember one or two things always. The first thing is that life isn’t all jam for anybody, and you’ve got to have trouble of some kind or another, whoever you are. But if you don’t let it get you down, however bad it is, you won’t go far wrong… You belong to a race that’s been bossy for years and the reason it’s held on as long as it has is that nine times out of ten it’s behaved decently and treated people right…” Kay Walsh read speech, said: “The baby can’t sit up and say ‘Rubbish!’ I drew David’s attention to it. I said, ‘It won’t do. This is Chamberlain.'” According to Lean, after a “terrible argument” between him and Neame, who liked it, “We cut out quite a bit. But still it was there on the screen and it would embarrass me still, I think.” Biographer Kevin Brownlow points out: “Curiously, David’s memory was at fault here because, in the event, the entire speech was cut.” [David Lean’s memory. Compare with tank episode. He remembered not-cutting ‘Chamberlain’ speech, when in fact he had. He did not remember the documentaries, which he made. He wants to hyper-cut Chamberlain. He cut him but still wishes he had cut him.]. Lean showed mundane tasks, washing, drying, kitchen sink. This was “revolutionary.” Britain’s top moneymaking film, 1944.

GETTING THE WAR WRONG [my subtitle]. Havelock-Allen introduced Lean to his hero, William Wyler, famous director. Had made classic tear-jerking propaganda film Mrs. Miniver, and now in Britain making color documentary Memphis Belle. Accompanied bomber crews on mission over Germany. Kay Walsh: “He said he was flak-happy, and that he was doing penance. He was so ashamed of the food he’d put in the shelter scene in Mrs. Miniver. He was a darling man. [Shame at getting the war wrong. Read in context of ‘Lean cuts’/the perceived false not at the end of This Happy Breed that was removed.]

BRIEF ENCOUNTER. [DRINK, and the END of the WAR] May 4, 1945, BBC announces German surrender in Northern France. Jonson: “At the studio excitement became intense at lunch-time by the report that all Technicolor cameras had gone to the Palace, and bets were laid and work haphazard on account of having to rush out to listen to the radio between every shot. A sign of tremendous upheaval was stressed by the unprecedented buying of a bottle of rather nasty white wine by Tony Havelock-Allan at lunch-time on our table.” [Drink.] Norman Spencer: “David particularly wanted to see the crowds. We joined the throngs and pushed through boisterous, dancing people outside Buckingham Palace and Parliament Square and had to force our way through the people on foot to get to the party.” Kay Walsh: “It was stuffed with film technicians and actors like Trevor Howard. And there were a great many drunks. It was not a day of rejoicing for me. I was very unhappy at that party. David was looking for his escape route again.” That evening Lean encountered William Walton in St James Park. Walton broke vow to avoid drink, they celebrated and congratulated each other on having survived. [Drink and War.] Concern over reception. At first Great Expectations screening, in Rochester, a “pretty rough town in those days,” [biographer: Rochester was a foolhardy place to preview such a middle-class film because it was right next to Chatham Dockyards, and the cinema was packed with sailors.] woman in front row laughed. And laughs more later at other love scenes. Lean: “They were rolling in the aisles – partly, I must admit, laughing at the woman, she had such a funny laugh. I remember going back to the hotel, and lying in bed almost in tears thinking, ‘How can I get into the laboratory at Denham and burn the negative?’ I was so ashamed of it.” [Editing. Lean cuts. Shame. David Lean’s memory.] After Brief Encounter, a stranger approached Lean at a railway station. Lean: “The man was rather a horsey type, and he was in an absolute fury. He said, ‘I am told you are the gentleman who directed a film called Brief Encounter. I would like to express my disapproval of you. I am exercising the greatest restraint not hitting you.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry about that. But what do you mean?’ He said, ‘You showed that lady – Celia Johnson I think is her name – considering being unfaithful to her husband. Do you realize, sir, that if Celia Johnson could contemplate being unfaithful to her husband, my wife could contemplate being unfaithful to me?'” French loved it but couldn’t believe two people could be in love with each other and not go to bed.

OLIVER TWIST, 1948. Followed Great Expectations. Critic Gerald Pratley: “There was considerable disappointment on the part of many of his admirers that at a time when Italian neo-realist directors were shooting films about post-war problems, Lean should choose to remain in the past and make a second film about Dickens.” [Biographer: Griffith claimed to have cross-cutting from Dickens] Robert Newton favorite for Bill Sikes- after similar role, Major Barbara, and career clout of Odd Man Out. Reputation for drunken behavior had by now got to insurance companies and it was possible Rank would not employ. Other actors often reluctant to play with him. Robert Donat wanted the part, didn’t get it. Alec Guinness, who played Fagin: “I did a test with Robert Donat, who wanted to play Sikes, so we were both seeking after something. I got mine by the skin of my teeth and Robert didn’t. He looked very good and he was a beautiful actor, but I don’t think he’d got the vitality to cope.” [Guiness says Sikes role required “vitality to cope.”]  The search for a boy to play Oliver Twist. “Is there an Oliver Twist in modern Britain?” [Like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory] Lean and Stanley Haynes had worked out introduction for Bill Sikes but couldn’t capture it. Cameraman Guy Green: “David had devised a shot where Fagin was with the boys in his lair and a scuffle breaks out with the Artful Dodger. Fagin throws a pewter mug of beer – the operator whip panned as it hit the door – the door opened and Bob Newton appeared. And Bob had to say a line which he couldn’t get right. So we kept having to play the beginning of the scene, pan across, hit the door, and Bob would fluff it and we’d do it all over again. It went on for hours. It was a simple line – ‘What yer goin’ to do, Fagin?’ – but he kept raising the inflection at the end and ruining it.” Biographer Brownlow: “A more schedule-conscious director would have printed the best take for the visuals and post-synchronised the line that Newton kept tripping over. But David would never do anything by halves. The scene had to be perfect and he would go on until it was. Looking at the shot in the film, one is so awe-struck that camera operator Oswald Morris could follow the beer-mug as it flies through the air, in impeccable focus, that one hardly takes in Bill Sikes’s line.” [Whose scene is it? See earlier, with Underwood. Presence/Absence. Drink, in this case, versus drunk. Lean’s insistence that Newton get it right, despite cost. Rather than editing later, over-compensating by shooting many takes.] Re scene where Nancy is killed, Lean: “I am not mad about violence on the screen. I know you have to have it every now and then but I’m absolutely sick of seeing gratuitous violence. I think violence is much more frightening if you leave it to the viewer to imagine [..] I was rather pleased with the rest of the sequence. I showed Sikes sitting there as the guilt began to creep over him. I showed her comb, her hairbrush, something on the floor, with the dog looking at it. You know, that’s what movies are. Let the audience fill it in.” [Presence/Absence. Lean identifies the essence of movies as the tension between what is shown and what is implied.] Robert Newton is slightly drunk, accompanied by an 8 year old, when he must climb onto a roof. Secured with belts linked to wires, “Kirby’s Flying Ballet harness.” Child actor John Howard Davies: “Once I had a Kirby, I wanted to jump off and find out what it was like. I did get slightly worried about Robert Newton climbing that roof, because the structure did not seem to me to be terribly sound.”

NOTE, from p. 519, re Doctor Zhivago: When Lean read Pasternak’s novel, he encountered Tolstoy quote, wrote it down: “The more a man devotes himself to beauty, the further he moves away from goodness.” Decided to shoot ugliest scenes, like killing of cadets, in beautiful light, while love scenes would be drained of color and set in the cold.


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