I am a bit surprised, as "St. Martin's Lane" (released in the USA as "The Sidewalks of London") wasn't, shall we say, an spectacularly successful film. Though, as Edward Copeland pointed recently, nearly everyone has heard about the musical "Chicago" while most people is ignorant about the existence of the film "Roxie Hart".
behind the camera of "St. Martin's Lane", from left to right : photographer Jules Kruger, director Tim Whelan, producers Erich Pommer and Charles Laughton
While it is true that the films produced by Mayflower Pictures (the company set in 1937 by German Producer Erich Pommer and Laughton) failed to meet the high hopes that the union of such illustrious film personalities seemed to herald, they have their points of interest which, in my humble opinion, make the film well worth watching.
In the case of "St. Martin's Lane" , there's a touching performance by Laughton as a doomed-to-fail yet ultimately hopeful busker, a pre-"Gone With the Wind" Vivien Leigh as a volatile cockney girl, a very young Rex Harrison as a posh song composer, a filmed record of Harmonica Soloist Larry Adler's virtuosism , as well as a documentary record of the pre-WW2 London: many scenes were shot actually in West End streets and real street entertainers appear performing themselves.
Vivien Leigh (Libby) and Laughton
One of the usual criticisms of the film is that accomplished as it is the portrait of low-life London, the high-life and glamour musical scenes fall flat. While true, I feel that the key to this is that the musical scenes were, as those of the back alleys of the West End, seen through a realistic looking glass: used, as most of us are, to lavish film musicals (with numbers which can only exist as such on the screen), we may be deceived at watching how an actual musical show may have looked like in the 30s.
(Article updated:Friday October 1st 2008: more people has had the lucky chance of seeing this, so I've added the links with their comments)
One of the possible features for a Special Edition DVD of "The Night of the Hunter" would be the more than eight hours of surviving rushes of the film. UCLA Film Preservation Officer Robert Gitt recently assembled a good part of this material in a documentary titled "Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter", which as one reviewer in the links below has put it, is like if a master class of film direction given by Laughton. While I think this documentary would deserve a DVD release by itself, I also believe that it would make a terrific extra for a Special Edition DVD.
The story of how this footage has reached our days is a curious one: as mentioned in the previous post, Laughton wasn't keen on breaking the concentration of his actors, so instead of yelling "cut!" he would keep the camera rolling and try for another take, instructing the actors as if in a theatrical rehearsal. This meant that a large amount of filmed material of documentary value was generated.
Most of this, of course, was to be deleted in the editing room, and, had Laughton followed the then prevailing habits of film making, all this footage would have been thrown to the bin. Instead, and in spite of the commercial failure of the film, he opted to keep it, as if he had hopes that the future would meet with more appreciative audiences. His act of faith has preserved the process of the making of the film as in a time capsule: those who love "The Night of the Hunter" may experience the same emotion watching these rushes as Howard Carter did when he discovered Tutankhamun's tomb.
While working for the American Film Institute (AFI) in the 70's. Gitt visited Elsa Lanchester in order to collect material related to “The Night of the Hunter” and she told him that he had boxes of outtakes at home and he could take them with him, too. This material was stored first by AFI and later by UCLA Film and Television Archive. Over the years, Gitt worked to re-assemble this material and finally produced a documentary with it in 2002.
Those lucky ones who have been able to see the film in special screenings in cinematheques around the world describe this documentary as an unmissable event. As mentioned in the previous post, this film provides filmed evidence against the stablished myths about Laughton hating children and not directing the kids in the film, and give a first-hand impression about Laughton's thoroughness at work, as well as his relationship with members of cast and crew.
There are a number of posts already queueing about this, so it's time to set an index: :: Click here to find arguments to ask for a Spedial Edition DVD of the film. ::Click here to e-mail your petition. ::Click here to behold the list of the bold petitioners.
You can also find these other related posts: ::Click here to read a review of Preston Neal Jones' " Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of Night of the Hunter " ::Click here to see a series of interesting online reviews and goodies related to the film.
(Article updated: March 2008) Starting here, I'll be posting short reviews about items related to "The Night of the Hunter", and I will start with a book which is a treat for all lovers of the film. Stay tuned for updates and future posts! Title: Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of Night of the Hunter Author: Preston Neal Jones Published by: Limelight Editions, 2002
Everything you ever wanted to know about "The Night of the Hunter", or nearly, can be found in the 400 pages of this book. It thoroughly covers the successive stages of the making of the film, from the preparatory work to its aftermath. The book presents a series of interviews -deftly weaved in chronological order- with members of cast and crew, among them: actors Robert Mitchum, Lillian Gish and Don Beddoe, Producer Paul Gregory, film photographer Stanley Cortez, art director Hyliard Brown, second unit director Terry Sanders, editor Robert Golden and writer Davis Grubb.
Davis Grubb's brother Louis, composer Walter Schumman's widow Sonya, and actor William Phipps, a good friend of Laughton and Mitchum, share reminiscences which provide further insight. The author has also sourced himself well in previous bibliography and multitude of archival sources. Apart from that, we find there fascinating graphic material, such as stills from the film, on-the-set snapshots, layouts ad preparatory drawings, illustrations et alia...
From this Kaleidoscopic presentation, we are close to getting the whole picture. All testimonials are presented in a way which doesn't interfere with the reader's own judgement, and the information uncovered brings a number of interesting news about the film and, in some stances, helps debunk some false myths about it.
For instance, the script has been traditionally attributed to James Agee, but he just produced a first script, the final draft being by Laughton, who opted, nonetheless, to give credit to Agee, who sadly died before the film was finished. This is no speculation, as proved by the abundant communication (written, verbal, graphic) between writer Davis Grubb and director Laughton, which shows that the director didn't limit himself to visualize someone else's words, but strived to gain further understanding in order to be able to give his best to his own personal rendering of the novel.
Also, it has been so far commonly assumed that the notions spread by Laughton's widow Elsa Lanchester "Laughton hated kids" and "couldn't bear to direct the child actors in the movie" were true to fact, but this is solidly disproved in the pages of the book, not merely from the words of those who were present in the set (which describe a good entente between director and children), but also from the filmed evidence that Preston Neal Jones got from witnessing laughton's direction of the children in the surviving rushes of the film (more about this in an upcoming post about Robert Gitt's documentary).
We get also fascinating glimpses of Laughton's directing methods: he didn't have the habit of shouting "cut" and the camera was kept rolling between diferent takes, a measure that helped the actors' concentration not to be broken. The film was shot in the silent-movie manner: Laughton gave directions to the actors as the scene was being shot (in post-production, Laughton's voice was, of course, cleared). Being an actor himself, Laughton's manners' towards cast and crew were starkly different from those he had suffered himself while working at the orders of some directors-dictators, autocrats of the set.
While he had a well-defined idea of what he wanted to do in the film, he also fostered creative input coming from his collaborators. Stanley Cortez, for instance, graphically described his fruitful exchange of ideas with Laughton as "mental intercourse". We can also pay heed to actor Peter Graves, who stated that working for Laughton, as compared what he had experienced working for John Ford, was like going from hell to heaven.
In the aftermath of "The Night of the Hunter", a tantalising account is given by Cortez and Sanders about the preparatory work of what would have been Laughton's second film, "The Naked and the Dead" (after Norman Mailer's novel), which reveal that he wanted to make it as visually and narratively innovative as "The Night of the Hunter" was. And we are also revealed that, had not the commercial failure of "The Night of the Hunter" put an end to his career as a director, that he was keen on directing a film adaptation of Thomas Wolfe's novel "You Can't Go Home Again": Laughton was an admirer of Wolfe ever since he was introduced to his work in the radio programmes he did for Norman Corwin and included excerpts of Wolfe's novels his reading tours.
This post is only a brief hint of the riches contained in the book... The reader is welcome to discover the rest of the treasure.
I recently came across a thread in the IMDB message board: it was suggested there that a fine film such as Charles Laughton's only effort behind the camera, "The Night of the Hunter", would deserve to be published in DVD in a good special edition (a regular edition was already released some time ago by MGM/UA).
I think it is a very interesting idea... what about joining forces to present a huge list of petitions to a DVD publisher?
And what could that edition have? well, here's a little list for starters: :: The film itself, from the recently restored print :: UCLA Film Preservationist Robert Gitt's documentary "Charles Laughton Directs the Night of the Hunter"(made from deleted and filmed-on-the-set rushes) :: Simon Callow's 1987 documentary about Laughton (a Yorkshire TV-ITV production) :: Alternate soundtracks with comments about the film (by surviving members of Cast and Crew, or experts like Simon Callow, Preston Neal Jones or Robert Gitt) :: Even though it has already been released in CD format maybe it would be a good idea to include the soundtrack with Laughton's narration as originally released. ::... And what about Walter Schumann's score by itself? :: Other rushes not included in Robert Gitt's documentary :: Stills from the film :: Subtitles would also be appreciated (and make the DVD more marketable, ahem) :: Etc, etc, etc... These are only but a few suggestions, but feel free to add other ideas.
Just imagine your dream DVD edition of "The Night of the Hunter"... Just imagine we can get it, if we ask for it: nobody else is going to do it for us, if we don't.
Post-Data This is no idle petition... if we succeed, we can try and ask for more. Fellow Laughtonian Pierre Bellemare suggested that future campaigns could be aimed to ask for release of old recordings by Laughton, like "The Storyteller" or his adaptation of Shaw, "Don Juan in Hell" (the recent CD release by Deutsche Grammophon of a Charles Laughton/Ronald Colman Dickens recording suggests that such items have a public)... I would personally add to the list a re-masterized release of the old programmes Laughton did for Norman Corwin: a true delicatessen
Anyone interested in joining forces to ask for the release of a Special Edition DVD of "The Night of the Hunter" is welcome to e-mail a petition.
Please state the name with which you want to appear in the list. You may complement your name with your occupation, or with a geographical reference: alternatively, in the case of those who have a blog, it would be enough with the name of the blog (I will add a link to it if so wished).
Update: a new text was added to this post in September 15th, 2006
I recently got this photograph, which has possibly spent ages in the depths of an archive vault, among other ignored treasures. This something more than a mere picture from an old play, it captures...
...A turning point London, October 1927. The actors appear in "Paul I" a play by Dimitri Merejkowsky about the life the Mad Czar, son of Catherine the Great. George Hayes played the title role. The young man in the three-cornered hat who stands in the middle of the scene is Charles Laughton, whom Komisarjevsky has been rearing since he spotted the flair of his 26-year old student at RADA. Komisarjevsky was an intelligent director who valued talent above looks, and also regarded highly actors with imagination and creativity. He knew the potential of his protegé.
The character played by Laughton is Count Pahlen, one of the conspirators against the emperor, defined as Machiavelian by one reviewer. James Agate, who praised his performance, said that in his work "(...) there was suggestion of enough intellectual vigour to go round a dozen plays" which well describes Laughton's prodigal way of acting: he would never treat as unimportant a secondary character, he would make a living being even out the most humble of stage spear-carriers. Where others would assume a perfunctory attitude, Laughton went full speed ahead.
Front, from left to right: Laughton, Carl Harbord, Lydia Sherwood
So far he has been in secondary roles, from early short appearances, as those in the Russian plays staged at Barnes Theatre in 1926, to character roles capable of outshadowing a lead as in "Liliom". Pahlen will be the last of a row of secondary roles with which the young actor has awed public and critics: in his next play, "Mr. Prohack" he will play a lead. He would continue to play leads from then onwards for most of his life. For someone whose looks were not those of a matinée idol it was, and remains, a feat.
In the cast of "Mr. Prohack" he met Elsa Lanchester, who played the short role as Prohack's secretary. In a way, "Paul I" is the last stage before the beginning of his "public life": in biographies, and due to the fact that the main source about Laughton's life was his widow, his life and career up to "Mr. Prohack" is not as well recorded as one would like to, in fact, Charles (whether young or old) remains elusive, and what we know about his life is ultimately as seen (juggled?) through Lanchester's looking glass.
The shape of the things to come? The knowledgeable Laughtonian May find in the photo something familiar: Doesn't Charles' Pahlen remind you of Bligh and Javert?
The Cast: In the photo, I can only identify Laughton and, from other pictures of the production Carl Harbord and Lydia Sherwood... Maybe anyone could help in identifying the rest of the actors in the scene? The cast was as follows: Grand Duke Alexander: Carl Harbord Elizabeth, his wife: Lydia Sherwood Paul I, Emperor of Russia: George Hayes Grand Duke Constantin: Elliott Seabrooke Lieutenant Marin: Arthur Macrae General Count Pahlen, Governor of Petersburg: Charles Laughton General Talyzin: Hugh Barnes Colonel Prince Yashvil: Bramwell Fletcher General Bennigsen: Vivian Beymon Coronel Argamakov: Ian Davison Doctor Rodgerson: Dan F. Roe Empress Marie: Dorothy Green Princess Anna Gagarine, Lady-in-waiting to the Empress: Dorothy Cheston Colonel Baron Rosen: Dan F. Roe Lieutenant Bibikov: W.E.C. Jenkins Cornet Gardanov: G. Vernon Prince Platon Zoubov: Scott Sunderland Prince Nicolas Zoubov: Barry K. Barnes Guards of the emperor: Kirilov: W.E.C. Jenkins Ropchinsky: Arthur Macrae
Direction of the Play and settings designed by Theodore Komisarjevsky
An curious caption This is from the text behind the still:
This shows Laughton years ago in "The Patriot" which later served as a film vehicle for Emil Jannings with whom Laughton is constantly compared
This caption is partly inaccurate. Emil Jannings played the part of the Czar, while Laughton had been Count Pahlen (the role which in the film was played by Lewis Stone). "The Patriot" (1928) was directed by Ernst_Lubitsch and the script, albeit based in Merejovski's play, had been modified by three subsequent hands: so "The Patriot" was not exactly "Paul I".
As mentioned in the caption, when Laughton reached Hollywood in 1932, he was greeted by some as "The new Jannings". Jannings, who had preceded Laughton in Hollywood as a star character actor, left America with the advent of talkies, as his strong German accent was deemed not suitable for sound pictures. Laughton, though, would soon prove to be more than a mere English-speaking substitute of the great German actor.
"The Patriot" seems to be lost except from a few extant reels. I think it's sad that a film by Lubistch -and with Jannings!- is lost while cellulloid items such as "Plan 9 from outer space" are perfectly preserved and have special DVD edition
Acknowledgements: I wouldn't have been able to tell the story behind the photograph without being properly sourced, so I must thank the Mander and Mitchenson Theatre Collection for kindly providing me with the required reference.
Following with "The Masked Marvel": one of the interesting things about it is that it deals with the theme of a double life, something which Laughton could have portrayed well.
Laughton was always keen on giving a character a well-rounded, multi-layered self. Never an actor to conform himself with a flat, one dimensional delivery, he had successfully embodied respectable citizens with a skeleton in the closet, such as in "Payment Deferred" or "The Suspect". Those cases, though, deal more with people concerned with the cover-up of an accidental -or temporary- disruption (i.e. crime) in their routinely lifestyle than a fully fledged double life. "The Masked Marvel", in that sense, would have given him the chance of playing a man living a double life in a sustained way (Not that he would have had to gone too far to source himself, ha).
In this context I think that it would be appropiate to quote A.E. Wilson's (1) very perceptive description of Laughton's villains: "Charles Laughton very often hands out a neat line in villainy of the subtle hand. He is not the bold and desperate villain who could as soon drown, poison or tie to the railway lines or mill-wheel the discarded victim of his cruel deceit as he would smoke or crush a cigarette. He is of the furtive and secret kind who would blush to let his bad deeds be known and who really has no stomach and relish for wickedness (2). This is not bold, black villainy as the good old Adelphi knew it; it is rather a wishy-washy sort of grey according to the old standards."
"(...) furtive and secret kind"... One wonders whether Mr. Wilson had an X-ray eyesight, or maybe Laughton did want to tell, in an oblique way, but tell, after all?
(1) From the book "Theatre Guyed. The Baedeker of Thespia" (1935) by A.E. Wilson. Introduction by Sidney Horler. Illustrations by Tom Titt. Published by Methuen (2) Not that it was always that way: Laughton played well bold, black villainy in "A Man With Red Hair" or "White Woman" .
When I first came across an early promotion of the film "Nacho Libre", there was something familiar about the story... as this blogger , I had read in Cameron Crowe's interview book with Billy Wilder about a film script idea he had for Laughton. Billy & Charles finally settled for "Witness For The Prosecution"... Which leaves one wondering what kind of film this could have been.
What one can be reasonably sure is that "The Masked Marvel" would probably be as different from "Nacho Libre" as Billy Wilder is from Jared Hess or Charles Laughton is from Jack Black...
The main point behind me doing it is that the red-blooded -and well-meaning- Laughtonian should not only enjoy his work indoors but, as much as possible, spread the good news to others. Proselitize gently, if you may, but proselitize... Don't leave your dear ones in the dark about what the real good thing is.
Those of you who have seen Muhomatsu no issho (The Rickshaw man, 1958) may remember the scene in the summer festival. Matsugoro (Toshiro Mifune), the humble rickshaw man, volunteers to play the big drums (taiko). He seizes the drumsticks, as if to summon the God of Thunder himself, and starts beating. The audience is awed, carried away by the rythm... an old man rises, barely believing his ears: "that's the rythm of Gion... why, I thought there wasn't anybody who knew how to play it anymore!"
Well, when you watch Charles Laughton's work, it's like hearing again a long-forgotten rythm, like tasting once more a flavour you considered lost. He was unique in his acting. Through it he reached summits where nobody has dared to set a foot again. And the remarkable thing is, he did it against all odds: he didn't have stage parentage, he didn't have the looks, he was a late starter and, in less tolerant times, he wasn't straight to boot.
You have probably come across reductive views of his work: "he's Flamboyant", "he's a ham". Quite often these definitions are thrown by people who just follow what someone else said before: they replicate foreign opinions without daring to put them in question and see by themselves... Now, look with your own eyes and you'll find an actor who offers substance, imagination, subtleness. An actor who makes characters come alive. An actor engaging you and making you reflect. An actor considering his art as a means to teach you.
We can only try to imagine how was his work in the theatre, as Brecht put it, what an actor does on a stage is such "fleeting work". J.B. Priestley clinged to the belief that somewhere in a fourth dimension, theatre performances are still there, and wished time-travels were possible to enjoy memorable performances again. Then he wrote "Film needs no time travelling. Here on the screen - looking rather odd and old fashioned perhaps - is exactly what you wrote, what the actors performed, years ago".
Luckily for Laughton, he didn't despise the medium (sound film was then in its infancy), and was as committed to his film work as much as he was to the stage. So through the cellulloid time machine we can travel back in time, to the thirties, and watch Nero, Dr. Moreau, the clerk in "If I Had A Million", Henry VIII, papa Barrett, Ruggles, Inspector Javert, captain William Bligh, Rembrandt, surviving snippets of emperor Claudius, and, topping the decade, Quasimodo... You can follow forward into the forties and, never mind what you've have been told: you'll find that his performances in "This Land Is Mine", "The Suspect", "The Big Clock" and "The Bribe" are worth the ride. As you enter the fifties the time machine falters as studios seem to ostracise him and he's mostly seen in episodic roles and concentrating his energies on the stage, however, "The Night of The Hunter" suddenly flashes: you can't see him, but you feel he's there. Reaching the end, among his four last appearances he brings forth three unquestionable hits: Sir Wilfrid Robarts, Gracchus, Seab Cooley... and this -can't you beat that!- when he's old and ailing: his glory days are left behind, but he's still on the top.
... And for the top of these pyramyds he stands, still challenging many a living actor and director, Forty years after his death.
Well, you are welcome to join the gang: Laughtonians of the world, Unite!
Dwelling in an arriki-town beside Barcelona.
Obviously interested in Charles Laughton! Yet it is true that there are more things in life: tiger-nut milk, Hideko Takamine or downhill races on ball-bearing wheel carts, just to name three items...