Tag Archives: Deborah Kerr

‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’: The Greatest British Motion Picture

Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover.

Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover.

I’ve admired “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” (Rank Organisation, 1943) for decades, but until Criterion released it on Blu-ray, my enjoyment has always been impaired somewhat by the quality of the Technicolor. Criterion’s DVD release from about a decade ago was a vast improvement over what I’d seen before, but I still disliked the Easter-egg pastels. British Technicolor, as I understand it, uses different chemicals from American Technicolor, which creates an entirely different palate. Most of the aficionados I’ve heard talk about color (Martin Scorsese, for instance) prefer the British Technicolor process; I do not. I like the vividness of American Technicolor — “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “An American in Paris” and “Magnificent Obsession” are three great examples of the kind of color I like best. Perhaps I’ll go into this in more detail in another post, but for now the point I want to make is this: with the new Blu-ray transfer of “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” one of the only two real objections I had with the picture has been removed: it looks fabulous. (There is, however, one challenging aspect that comes as a result of the new, super-sharp image: the age makeup that is used throughout the picture is unmistakable. Whether or not this is distracting, however, will surely depend on the individual. I rather like the additional layer of artifice it adds to the story, which is decidedly artificial and artistic, rather than realistic and documentarian.  Many of the outdoor locations (especially the battlefields) are obviously shot on sound stages (I like this, too).  But I can quite understand how a lot of people will find greasepaint wrinkles and white shoe-polish in the hair difficult to accept as indications of the depredations of age. C’est la guerre.)

Let me get my remaining objection out of the way at once: it’s the crummy score by Allan Gray. Mind you, it’s crummy, but hardly appalling in the way that so many modern scores are appalling: it isn’t used as aural wallpaper; it’s used with discretion and it’s nearly always clear what purpose it serves. The only problem I have with it is that I don’t like the way it sounds: the romantic theme is the most satisfactory thing in the score, but to my ear, it’s not as gorgeous as it should be (I can’t help wishing Korngold could have scored this picture!) — it’s not as fine as the writing and the acting. The comic underscoring is too broad and corny — it doesn’t tickle my funnybone; it digs its elbow into my ribs in a most disagreeable fashion.  Of course, it could be a whole lot worse: Allan Gray’s wretched score for “The African Queen” is far more bumptious and irritating — he’s at his worst when he thinks “it meet/To put an antic disposition on,” which he does throughout that picture.  In “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” which is less comic than “The African Queen,” he’s less overtly antic . . . but, alas, it appears that I am not merely anti-antic, but also anti-semi-antic.

The history of “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” is a long and tortuous one, beginning with Winston Churchill’s failed attempts to stop the picture from being made, to its being hacked to bits and restructured for American audiences in its first run, then to its almost total disappearance, and finally to its complete restoration in the 1990s. What must have audiences thought of it when it was slashed from 163 minutes to 90? On the commentary track, Martin Scorsese, who first saw it on a black and white television back in the 1950s, says it was impossible to follow what was going on. In its pristine restoration, it is a masterpiece: the single greatest British picture of them all. As far as I know, there’s not even a close second. It’s one of only a handful of works of genius ever put on film. Unlike many great pictures, it’s also a huge amount of fun. It is alternately hilarious, serious, charming, poignant and heartbreaking. It is lovely to look at and even more delightful to know. The more often I see it, the deeper my love for it grows. But do yourself a favor and watch it on Blu-ray, which will give you the truest experience. The DVD will do in a pinch, but the Blu-ray offers a much better picture and soundtrack. (The clips I have included are not, alas, from the Blu-ray — but they’re good enough to get the idea across.)

The acting from everyone in the cast is superlative. Deborah Kerr was only 21 when she made the picture; according to director Michael Powell, he was constantly astonished by her intelligence and talent. After one romantic scene halfway through the picture, Powell says on the commentary track, “Isn’t she fine? She always hit the right note. Most actors — even actresses — are not particularly intelligent; Deborah was particularly intelligent.” During another scene Powell says, almost in a state of bewilderment, “And she never put a foot wrong. She knew things in the part that she couldn’t have possibly known as a girl.” And indeed, her performance is almost unimaginably superb. She plays three separate roles that add up to what I think may reasonably be considered The Eternal Feminine: three young women who come into the life of our hero over the course of his career. Take for instance, this scene, in which she handles the dialogue with the finesse of an actress (I mean a great actress, of course) twice her age and with the sort of moral authority that comes only from extraordinary intelligence. Though I’ve admired Deborah Kerr for as long as I can remember, her performance in “Colonel Blimp” fills me with something more exalted and exhilarating than mere admiration.

Commonsense and Bad Manners

Her intelligence and diction remind me always of that line from “The Agamemnon,” which Taplow construes for Mr Crocker-Harris in “The Browning Version“:  θαυμάζομέν σου γλῶσσαν — “We marvel at thy tongue.” That’s the wonderful Roger Livesey who gets cold tongue for his supper. Michael Powell hoped to cast Laurence Olivier in the lead role, but the military refused to grant him temporary leave from active duty. Olivier was a much bigger star at the time, but I don’t think he had nearly the soulfulness and conspicuous honesty of Livesey — and none of the pathos. Once you’ve seen Roger Livesey in the part, no other actor seems possible: he’s just about the most charming and lovable actor who ever performed in front of a camera.

“Colonel Blimp” tells of the forty year military career of General Clive Wynne-Candy, running from the Boer War until the middle of the Second World War. In the course of those four decades, we see how manners, morals, styles and warfare change — we see whole ways of life come to an end and old duffers who try to figure out how they fit in in a world they don’t understand — a new world that is being created by young men who know nothing about who and what came before them. Clive Candy meets his greatest friend by accident. After a chance altercation over a point of honor in a Berlin café, Candy finds himself challenged to a duel (with sabers) against an opponent he has never met. Both he and his Prussian officer opponent give each other a good pasting — Candy takes eight stitches to the upper lip; his Prussian opponent, twelve stitches to the forehead. While they are recuperating in the same hospital, they meet over a rubber of bridge and become lifelong friends. This is the scene where they meet in hospital.

Very Much

The charming German lady, Frau von Kalteneck, is a wonderful actress by the name of Ursula Jeans. She was the wife of Roger Livesey and also the sister of the sublime comedienne, Isabel Jeans, who was the first Mrs Claude Rains. Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff is the great Viennese ham, Anton Walbrook. Walbrook is awfully wonderful as Lermontov, the demented ballet master in “The Red Shoes,” but I don’t think he was ever better than he is in this one.

Several weeks go by in a hurry and we arrive at this, the next scene in the picture. Clive (Livesey) has fallen in love with Edith (Kerr), but doesn’t know it. Theo (Walbrook) has also fallen in love with Edith, and does know it. Edith has fallen in love with both Theo and Clive and doesn’t know what, if anything, will become of her.

I Came to Berlin to Find a Rat, and I Found Two of the Grandest People I’ve Ever Met

While it is certainly tempting at this point to go into some detail about at least a few of the major themes in the picture, I think I will forswear that temptation for the time being. Instead, I’ll show you two of my favorite scenes, both of which present thematic material forcefully, beautifully and, I think, poetically. (They are both certainly beautifully spoken and acted — “Colonel Blimp” has more interesting, beautiful voices than any other picture I know.) Both scenes are in the way of being quite unabashed propaganda; both present the most enchanting propaganda I’ve ever come across.

The first comes at the end of The Great War, a war we’re to accept as a fable with a moral, which, in as few words as possible is:

Right Is Might

I can’t tell if the scene, out of context, seems a bit thick. But in the context of the picture, Clive Candy’s world has been so thoroughly created in the two hours that precede it, the moralizing is entirely earned and very moving indeed. I don’t know of another picture that makes decency so exciting and satisfying. It’s propaganda of the very highest order. I particularly admire the set, which took a month to set up and two weeks to clear away after shooting wrapped.

In the last third of the picture, Theo, having lost his wife Edith, and wanting to get out of Germany before it’s too late, arrives in England, seeking asylum. When the official gives him a hard time about not leaving Germany in 1933, as so many others did, Theo delivers a thrilling monologue. When Michael Powell handed him the pages and told him that it would be shot in one long take, Herr Walbrook almost passed out. While you watch this scene, notice how Powell removes, little by little, the ambient sound as the monologue progresses till there are no street noises, typewriters, bells, footsteps . . . nothing but the human voice. I find the effect magical. I won’t do this often, but I’ve included two versions of the scene. One is the full scene, nine minutes long; the second is the great monologue with a little set up dialogue preceding it. If you don’t have nine minutes to spare, by all means, check out the second one first. Then you can always come back and see the scene in its entirety some other time. As I say, I won’t do this often, but this seems to me a special case. (N.B.: The short version is much louder.)

The Full Scene

Few of the actors in the smaller parts are familiar to modern audiences, but many of them were lions of the London stage — some of them shared the stage with Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. The President of the Tribunal in the scene above is played by a popular West End actor, A.E. Matthews. In his youth, Matthews worked at a London bookseller; when he learnt that Sir Henry Irving had worked not only in the same bookshop, but at the very same desk as he, he decided to devote his life to the theatre. During his long and distinguished career, he worked with everybody from Ellen Terry to Elaine Stritch.

The Great Monologue Only

20th Century Ozymandias

The Master

Noël Coward:  His friends referred to him as ‘The Master.’

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

— Percy Bysshe Shelley

A number of years ago, when Turner Classic Movies featured Claude Rains as their Star of the Month, the five-minute promotional video they put together was narrated by the late, great Sir John Gielgud.  (When Rains was Star of the Month for a second time, Gielgud’s appreciation was replaced by one spoken by Richard Chamberlain.  It was, I hope I need hardly add, not quite the same thing.)  In his narration, Sir John said that Rains had been one of his teachers at school, and that when he was a young actor, he often imitated Rains — “until I decided to imitate Noël Coward instead.”

Noël Coward, the ultimate man about town.

Noël Coward, the ultimate man about town.

Who today even remembers Noël Coward?  The WNET program “Theater Talk” has devoted several shows to the man; the panelists and hosts gush on about his staying power, his “immortality.”  I’m afraid they’re quite wrong.  His name is still well known among theatre folk, but few civilians under the age of fifty ever heard of him.

Reporter:  Mr Coward, have you anything to say to “The Sun”?

Coward:  Shine.

The other night, I watched a three-part documentary called “The Coward Trilogy.” Each part runs roughly fifty minutes.  In this generally excellent documentary, John Lahr and Sheridan Morley have interesting things to say about Coward’s life and career, but the most interesting commentary is by Coward himself and by his friends. 

Coward as Ozymandias (with his head still on).  From a series of pictures taken for Life Magazine when Coward appeared at  the Desert Inn in Las Vegas.  The live recording of his act was a best-seller.

Coward as Ozymandias (with his head still on). From a series of pictures taken for Life Magazine when Coward appeared at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. The live recording of his act was a best-seller.

Reporter:  Mr Coward, have you anything to say to “The Star”?

Coward:  Twinkle.

His wit is undeniable, his talent immense, but I find that there’s something ineffably sad about Noël Coward . . . He had friends all over the globe — the most interesting, intelligent, talented friends imaginable — and they all genuinely loved him — they even remembered to tell him so.  Until the late 40s, his life was a series of successes.  He wanted to be famous and was, for a time, one of the most famous men in the entire world.  He was one of the rare mortals who actually got pleasure from his talents and success.  When his star began to fade in the 50s, he still managed to make a tremendous amount of money from his personal appearances at the Café de Paris and in Las Vegas.  

Coward:  Las Vegas:  it was not Café Society; it was Nescafé Society.

He also was more happily in love than most great men ever manage to be (though his love affairs weren’t all smooth sailing).  He was an incorrigible social climber, but he actually succeeded at it.  The Queen Mother herself came for a visit to Firefly, his beautiful home in Jamaica.  Louis Mountbatten counted Coward as one of his best friends.  And of course, Coward was knighted, an honor that came late, but came nevertheless.  So why should he make me feel twinges of unhappiness?

I suppose it has almost entirely to do with the matter of longevity.  The most famous man in the world has been utterly forgotten within forty years of his death.  He left hundreds of songs, scores of plays and short stories, dozens of movies . . . and none of them leave a deep enough impression to make his name mean anything to the modern world.  He died only a few years before John Wayne, but everybody still remembers John Wayne.  Everyone still remembers Ian Fleming (who was Coward’s neighbor and best friend in Jamaica), even though Fleming wasn’t a quarter as prolific as Coward.  Few people in the modern world have read a word of Fleming’s books, but the character he created keeps his memory alive.  Coward, on the other hand, created dozens of memorable characters — or to put it more Cowardly, characters who would be memorable if anyone remembered them.


How many copies of this were sold?

‘Who Will Buy?’ How many copies of this were sold?

Then there’s Coward’s attitude toward life that saddens me.  On the surface, his scintillating wit suggests that he always rose above his failures with good grace, but when you look more closely, there’s considerable thrashing about:  Portrait of a Man Drowning.  Many of his later songs are little better than ill-humor set to out-of-date music.  In “Sail Away,” for instance (which was his last musical success), there’s a song called “Beatnik Love Affair.”  Beatniks were still around in 1961 when “Sail Away” was written, but they had been the subject of ham-fisted parody for so long that Coward’s inclusion of this song seems desperate and even pathetic.  Moreover, he doesn’t come close to getting the idiom right, which is the first requirement of successful parody — it’s simply a Coward song flyspecked with wrong notes to give it “edge.”

'Sail Away' Boston tryout.

‘Sail Away’ Boston tryout.

It’s always unwise for middle-aged and elderly writers to attempt to write scornful parodies of the youthful culture that has supplanted their success.  Late in his career, Cole Porter tried and failed at the same game:  his parodies of rock ‘n’ roll (in “Silk Stockings” and “Les Girls”) are appalling and leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.  Coward’s early career was all about about youth and new directions in the theatre — “The Vortex” was considered so deeply shocking that it nearly didn’t get past the Lord Chamberlain.  But by the fifties, Coward had become the sort of peevish old coot he had risen to success by mocking.  Scorn for the young is never a smart career choice — even if the scorn is deserved.

Add to this that Coward was a tax exile.  To the end of his life, he said that England was his favorite place in the world, but the Labour Government made it impossible for him to live in the country he loved.  Mind you, living in Jamaica and Switzerland and keeping an apartment in Manhattan is no terrible thing, but I shouldn’t want to be an exile.  During the war years, Coward was impressed time and again by the valor, tenacity and humor of his own people (“They’re the only people in the world I absolutely trust,” he said in an interview), but after the war everything changed.  Coward wrote quite poignantly about his hostility toward the direction his beloved country had taken.  He felt England had abandoned all the things that had made it great and was heading toward ruin.  Was he wrong?

Add to this that within the first few years of his meteoric success, the strain of being witty became so great that he suffered at least one nervous breakdown (and perhaps two).  Add to this that for much of his last ten years, he was ill:  he began to forget his lines on stage, which terrified and depressed him; his legs were in constant pain.  All those years of cocktails and cigarettes took their toll.  All the fun he had and pleasure he gave to audiences is therefore bookended by mental and physical collapse.

Gertrude Lawrence and Coward in their prime.  She was his favorite co-star.

Gertrude Lawrence and Coward in their prime. She was his favorite co-star. On the opening night of ‘The King and I,” he sent her a telegram that read: ‘A WARM HAND ON YOUR OPENING.’

And then there’s the talent itself that I find curiously heartbreaking, even as it delights me.  The very thing that once made Coward a household word — his brittle flippancy — is also the thing that makes him less than first rate.  I find him an enormously appealing and attractive person.  I admire his toughness and his work ethic:  he was one of the hardest working men in show business.  When he went to the grand opening of the Cathay Hotel in Shanghai, he contracted pneumonia, which kept him flat on his back in bed for three days.  He spent the time writing what turned out to be his best play, “Private Lives.”  He wrote a lot of songs that I love.  The last play I ever appeared in was a one-act from his “Tonight at 8:30” trilogy.  I’ve read his diaries more than once, and am slowly working my way through his letters, which are full of wit and the most marvellous good sense.  The letter he wrote to Marlene Dietrich urging her to get over her foolish, self-destructive affair with the abominable swine, Yul Brynner (whom Coward calls “Curly”), is a masterpiece of sanity and loving advice.

Dick Cavett: You’re, you . . . what is the word when one has such terrific, prolific qualities?

Coward: Talent.

I love Coward, but I’m constantly aware of his weaknesses.  It’s not only his flippancy that ultimately tells against him; it’s his shallowness that condemns him to irrelevance.  That’s really what’s wrong with even his best work:  it’s shallow.  In “A Song at Twilight,” one of the last plays he wrote for himself, he comes as close to revealing himself as he ever managed; Coward’s overt intention is to be daringly “honest,” but the play is contrived and melodramatic.  And old fashioned.  And shallow.  I own a very good production of it on DVD, starring Paul Scofield and Deborah Kerr.  Scofield is superb, but Kerr is strangely terrible:  she’s my favorite female movie star and a brilliant actress, but in this play, she overplays her hand on nearly every line.  Paradoxically, her error is actually what the play deserves:  had she been less arch, the play would surely seem better than it actually is.  Her mistake does her no credit, but it trains a million watt arc lamp on the play’s moonlit shallowness. (Conversely, Kerr’s beautiful, emotionally nuanced performance in the shameful “Tea and Sympathy” fooled millions of people into believing it was a work of wisdom and sensitivity.)

And finally, I come back to Coward’s unhappy, but inevitable, desuetude.  If the world hadn’t changed so much after WWII, Coward would still make sense and he would still be well-known.  But the world did change and his plays no longer make any real sense, alas.  I could wish that the world hadn’t changed, but what would be the point?  So poor Noël Coward and his world must be enjoyed merely as a relic of a long-ago time.  I suppose it all comes down to this:  my affection for his work makes me feel so wretchedly old.