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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Cobblers at Tournai, 1919

"The Cobblers" performing Aladdin at Tournai. (Photo published on March 1st, 1919) They are all memberst of the 7th Northamptonshire Battalion except those where it is indicated otherwise. From left to right. Standing: Emperor: Private Parkings, Abanazar: Dr. Felton, Vizier: Sergeant Dr. Kelby, Policeman: Lance Corporal Bayley (13th Batt., Middlesex Regt.), Ni-cee (maid to princess): Sergeant-Major F. Hitch, Prince Peko: Private Redmond (9th Batt. Royal Sussex Regt.), Wishee Washee: Private Potter, Widow Twankey: Second Lieutenant F. Judge. Sitting: Princess Balronbadour: Private Hutson, Aladdin: Lance Corporal Pickering (13th Batt. Middlesex Regt.), Santa Luna, Slave of the lamp: Lance Corporal Wright

In 1936, by the time he was promoting "Mutiny on the Bounty", an interviewer asked Charles Laughton what made possible that, having been working in hostelry until barely seven years before, he could have turned into a succesful actor, and, not only that, to have become in that short span of time one of the most respected and sought-for actors in the world at the time.

Laughton's answer was it was a matter of chance, and cryptically added "It took a World War and an act of God" to make him an actor.

Adding a bit of explanation, explained that the "act of God" was his younger brother Tom: "he decided to go into hotel bussiness one day, so I said 'here, take this, I`m going to the stage". Tom Laughton's own version is more detailed, and tells us that Charles didn't enjoy his responsability as hotel manager, a responsability that had befallen him due to the fact that he was the first-born of the family. As opposed to that, he utterly enjoyed every minute of his spare time devoted to amateur theatricals in Scarborough. Charles' family didn't approve his theatrical enthusiasm, and wanted him to keep his mind only in hostelry. Then came Tom to intercede for his parents' cause. Thinking that he had a winning argument, Tom told Charles that he was lucky being the eldest, for he, as the second son, had no chances of inheriting the family hotel and had had to make a living in something else. Tom's strategy failed, as Charles happily seized the occasion to offer Tom his place on the family bussiness, and left to become an actor.

But what about the war? He just says, without much further explanation, that "The war shook me into considering acting as a life work", and one is left pondering: what did he exactly mean by that? One wonders if, having been told cautionary and disencouraging tales by his family about the precariousness of an actor's work (i.e. as opposed to the safer living of hotel bussiness), Charles found that there were ways of life far more precarious and uncomfortable than a thespian's, verbi gratia, that of the soldiers fighting a war. One also considers, on the other hand, if war had on him a similar effect it had on another another Great War veteran, the American painter Horace Pippin, who would declare about his own war experience that "The war brought out all of the art in me, I came home with all of it in my mind, and I paint from it today" (1)

A further clue, however is given by Laughton himself, who, discussing very briefly his time as a soldier, went on to single one experience of which he evidently held a fond memoir : "I saw Leslie Henson play in a pantomime in Lille- it was 'Aladdin'. He was damned funny as usual" . In fact, he would recall in a 1933 interview that "the performance kept alive my latent ambition (to become an actor)". Maybe this was it: the realization that, no matter the bitter experiences, or the glum surroundings, the theatre had the powerful effect of lifting one's spirit. So possibly Laughton reached the same conclusion than the eponimous character played by Joel McCrea in Preston Sturges' masterful film Sullivan's Travels".

But Leslie Henson wasn't the only one performing Aladdin in France around this time. It was also performed by "The Cobblers" a troupe formed by soldiers of the 7th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment... which was the unit where Charles served in France.

But before talking further about "The Cobblers", we might as welll give a smattering about entertainment in World War One.

How the British soldiers were entertained (1914-1918)
Early in the war, the military authorities realized the potential of entertainment for the troops: for the young men in training at home, it offered a more wholesome alternative to spend their spare time than other less reputable ones like alcohol, gambling or prostitution. For soldiers at the fighting fronts, it was also a temporary respite from the harsh realities of trench warfare. For those convalescing from wounds, it was a welcome balm.

The provision of entertainment was often due to the initiative of relevant individuals: many famous actors and actresses of the day would put a show for the benefit of troops, tour in training camps, or in certain cases, even in the vicinity of the front lines, which they would do with the acquiescence of the military commanders. Such were the cases of Lena Ashwell , Gladys Cooper , Harry Lauder, Frank Benson or George Robey , to give just a few names.

On the other hand, there were profesional and amateur performers who were serving in the forces. Among the professionals, we have cases like Leslie Henson, who formed a touring troupe called The Gaieties, or Basil Dean, who would efficiently organize theatres and shows for the Army canteens. Dean and Henson would be the men behind the creation, in the following war, of ENSA, an organization which pertained to the forces, and provided the servicemen with entertainment. However, those serving in ENSA during Second World War worked exclusively as entertainers, whereas those profesional and amateur entertainers in khaki during First World War were'nt usually spared from their regular duties as soldiers (2): those working in a show might be excused from some military routines while preparing a spectacle, but not from returning to their duties once the curtain was down. The casualties at the front meant that the formation of these troupes could be quite variable. Because of this, there was a great empathy among performers and spectators: they knew what made them tick, and a bit of irreverence for humour's sake was tolerated, which provided an extra relief as well.

One of the almost mandatory and usual formations were the Divisional troupes: owing to the large number of men available in a Division (3), there was a good staple of talent to choose from. While the output of these troupes could be variable in quality , depending of the unit, it was usually a well appreciated relief. Commanders were keen on encouraging these performances, and giving some help to make the stagings possible, but the shows weren't officially sponsored, and this was even truer in smaller units (like Battalions). Thus, more often than not the troupes didn't have proper stages to perform in, or costumes... But, quite undaunted by that, they would creatively work to improvise them, quite often with very remarkable results.

There were no girls in the army, so "some of the boys showed how attractively they could be made up as girls". Two female impersonators of "The Cobblers", on the Left, Sergeant-Major F. Hitch, on the right, Private D. Hutson, or "Ida, the Cobblers' Girl", as he was alternatively known.

Since no there were no women in the army at the time, some of these performers in uniform would transform themselves into lovely ladies, not unlike the female impersonators of the Elizabethan theatre, or the Onnagata in the Kabuki Theatre. The best among these female impersonators would be quite sought after to perform, and could be real stars among their comrades.

The Cobblers

The Cobblers, with some Battalion officers (Circa 1916?). From left to right. Lieutenant A.F.T. Bullock, Sergeant Hunting, Captain H. Grierson, Lieutenant Durrant Swan, Lieutenant-Colonel Edgar Mobbs, Second Lieutenant Murray, Sergeant Wenn, Private Driver. Front Row Lieutenant Wharton, Corporal Chapman and Lieutenant Debenham.

Why was that troupe named "The Cobblers"? The 7th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment was one of the Kitchener formations of the early war period. This Battalion was mostly formed by citizens from Northampton, a city known for its shoemaker industry, hence the nickname "The Cobblers" .

According to the available reference, the troupe was first formed in 1916. The battalion had already suffered grievous losses during the Battle of Loos in the previous year. Edgard Mobbs, the international Rugby player who had a relevant role in the recruitment of the Battalion (and who was by then commanding it) encouraged its formation, and even contributed to the programme of the Concert Parties. This early formation of the Troupe would entertain the Battalion and its visitors up to the Battle of the Somme, where the 7th Norhamptonshires would again suffer many casualties.

Lacking other information, we jump to February 1919, a few months after the armistice, when we met a new formation of The Cobblers performing "Aladdin" in Tournai to the benefit of the children of Belgian Soldiers (The soldiers not only entertained the kids but also fed them, with money provided by the Battalion's canteen funds)

It is not unlikely that the choice of the pantomime was due to the fact that Leslie Henson's Gaieties troupe had sucessfully performed "Aladdin" at the reconstructed Lille Theatre earlier in the winter of 1918-1919. It is to be wondered if Henson lent any costumes to the 7th Northamptonshires, even though by what is written about the performance, it seems that the men created imaginatively their own costumes with what they had at hand.

None of the members appearing in the 1916 formation of The Cobblers can be seen in the 1919 photograph. In fact, there are members from other battalions of the 73rd Brigade (to which the 7th Northamptonshires belonged) among the members of the cast... This illustrates quite well the many changes undergone by the battalion due to casualties since the creation of the troupe.

And where was Charles? Well, we certainly don't see him among the members of the cast appearing in the photograph, even though the accompanying article states that those appearing are only part of the cast... Being the stagestruck kid he was, I'd say that it is not unlikely that Charles was very eager to help, and I wonder if he didn't assist the troupe as a chorus boy, as part of a stage horse (or camel?), or a stage hand. At any rate he must have been, without a doubt, a very keen spectator.

This performance by "The Cobblers" must have been one of the last activities of the Battalion with Charles still there. The article covering the "Aladdin" performance was eventually reported in the Northampton Independent in March 1st, 1919, and Laughton had been demobilized in February 14th 1919. It can be said that the effort in benefit of those Belgian children certainly wasn't lost on Charles: a few years later, he and his fellow amateur performers from Scarborough would also perform to aid the League of Help, an association which gathered donations to help with the reconstruction of devastated French and Belgian towns and villages.

(1) Incidentally, Laughton would have some of Pippin's work in his art collection, prompted by his friend the collector Albert C. Barnes

(2) Cases like Leslie Henson or Basil Dean were, at the time, more the exception than the rule.

(3) Infantry Divisions had an establishment of up to 20.000 men (at full capacity: this number, of course, could vary due to casualties, etc.)

Thanks, ackowledgements and sources
The information and documentation about the Cobblers was kindly supplied to me by Ms. Kate Wills, who is a dedicated researcher on the subject of First World War and Entertainment. Apart from Mrs. Wills information, and old news pages from the Northampton Independent provided by her, This post's sources include an interview to Laughton by Patrick Murphy published in segments at The Sunday Express from November to December, 1933; A 1936 interview with Laughton appearing in Picturegoer's Weekly Supplement; Elsa Lanchester's 1938 book Charles Laughton And I; Tom Laughton's Pavilions By The Sea; L. J. Collins's comprehensive Theatre at War 1914-18 and David Woodall's "The Mobbs Own. The 7th Battalion, The Northamptonshire Regiment. 1914-1918"

Some links of interest
:: Charles Laughton's known First World War experiences at the Huntingdonshire Cyclists website, plus a little update on the matter in this 'ere blog.
:: You might also be interested in checking Horace Pippin's memoirs.
:: A good link on First World War entertainment, at the comprehensive site Great War and Different.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Eating chesnuts, drinking muscat

Here we don't celebrate Halloween as in other countries: we mostly drink muscat, eat chesnuts and panellets , clean the graves at cemeteries and swap scary stories. Still, for those of you keen on Halloween (anglo-saxon style) I will give you this link towards which fellow Laughtonian Edward Johnson kindly directed me to, which contains the cool screensaver which I'm reproducing above, and hopefuly some of you will like to use it on your computers during these days. Oh, and if you want pumpkinshere's something for you, too

Well, on with some bits of news, fellers and felleresses ;p

The Devil and the Deep, finally on DVD!
Many of you have probably grown weary about the film majors' constant blabbering about respect of the copyright of the items owned by them, and endless whining about piracy.

Most unfortunately (as I see it) all this talk has not, so far, been accompanied by, well, the release of this precious material they own, and which is mostly kept in the vaults far away from the prying eyes of the public, a public which so far couldn't enjoy a lot of classic films unless it was in a bootlegged copy, which usually meant they couldn't be viewed unless in a defective version, with a poor (if not distressingly gawdawful) image and sound quality, and of course, without the extras, subtitles and assorted goodies that many a film lover appreciates in a really swell DVD release.

However, there could be winds of change a-blowing in this matter. In my previous post here I mentioned that The Bribe would be finally available in a special "on-demand" release within Warner Bros Archive Collection (Zone 1). Apparently, this type of initiative has begun to get a following, as Turner Classic Movies, along with Universal, are also going to release old films in their stock, which hopefuly means that many an old Paramount film owned by Universal, so far inexplicably locked up and kept away, will be finally available, at least in Zone 1 (even some old Paramount pictures have already been released in Zone 2).

As you can read in the link above, in the earliest batch there is The Devil and the Deep. This early film work by Charles is not without interest: Apart from being a predecessor of the prolific genre of Submarine Films, it was Charles first "official" work in Hollywood (his actual debut was actually in James Whale's The Old Dark House). While his acting there may have still have the imprint of the stage, it is a performance worth re-evaluating, and he is well accompanied by a competent Gary Cooper, a sublime Tallulah Bankhead and a very young Cary Grant.

A whispering aside on DVD zones
You have probably noticed that whenever I talk about a new DVD release I mention the DVD zone to which they belong. I know that many film buffs, knowing that a DVD release they might be interested in may not fall in their "assigned" zone, have already a multizone DVD player. For those who don't, or are considering the purchase of such a contraption, I should mention that it would be worth asking the electronics store clerk about it.

Still, it might be interesting for you to know that, certainly for a good number of brands manufacturing DVD players, the zone setting can be changed/reset with the remote control. It seems that many a DVD player is originally manufactured to play in all zones, and then "set" to play only in one. Julien, a kind visitor of this blog, just sent me an e-mail giving me details about it, and told me that, for instance, you can find webplaces like this one, which tell you of the codes you need to reset your one-zone hardware. Since some of you may be considering the purchase of a Blu-Ray player, I might as well give you this other link(again, thanks to Julien for that), a site which reviews hardware and may be give good references to consider a possible purchase of DVD/Blu Ray players

Still, as I said, be sure to ask the store clerk when you purchase a model (and I hope that you go to a good and proper store, the type which cares about their customers and employs competent personnel)

This having been said, I have always wondered why on earth DVDs don't come in the all-compatible Zone 0, which can be enjoyed regardless of the corner of this planet where you live. This problem never existed for Compact Disks (which can be played on any corner of the world) so I wonder why DVDs should have such questionable frontiers, harumph!

Ben Harper talks about Night of the Hunter
Well, as you can imagine, not Ben Harper, but the actor who played the role, Peter "Mission Impossible" Graves. You can read an interview with him starting here in which Graves talks about his career, from Night of the Hunter to Airplane and beyond.

Peter Graves had already mentioned that he enjoyed working under Laughton's orders (specially if compared with his experience with John Ford as a director, in a film in which he was working at the same time he was acting in Night of the Hunter), and here he again praises Charles' work as a director. It is interesting to note his opinion on the reasons that made The Night of the Hunter to be Laughton's only film behind the camera: according to him, a directing career would have required a greater energy than Laughton's age would have permitted. This may contradict the image of the remarkable energetic Laughton we could still enjoy (three years after NotH) in Witness for the Prossecution, but Graves point is worth taking into consideration, specially if we bear in mind the chronicles of The Night of the Hunter's shooting, which reveal a very eager, involved, nearly 24-hour commited, film director... Basically, the Pep Guardiola way which, of course, can be quite wearying in the long run.

Paul Baker passes away
One of my usual complaints about how Charles is chronicled is that in some quarters he is regarded solely just as a "film actor". While today his screen work the one that counts -mostly because it is the one still surviving for evaluation-, there are items of his stage career which tend to be overlooked. There's in fact a stage experience which is absent from any biography written so far, and it is about his collaboration with Paul Baker.

Baker (whose obituary you can read here)) was known for his innovative teaching of drama in Baylor University and other places. It shouldn't be surprising that Charles Laughton (which was keen on teaching and had a similarly unorthodox approach to theatre) would eventually collaborate with him.

In his biography "So Far, So Good" Burgess Meredith recalled a very avant-garde staging of Hamlet by Baker, "in which Hamlet was surrounded by three oher Hanlets, playing different aspects of the melancholy Dane!". I wonder if, back then, Baker, Laughton and Meredith would have been given such free rein had they played in Stratford-upon-Avon.

You can read yet another obituary of Baker, with a picture of the aforementioned Hamlet version.