Tag Archives: The African Queen

Classic Christmas Carol: ‘Scrooge’

Poster from American first run.

Poster from American first run.

“Scrooge” (Renown, 1951) is far and away the best movie adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” Of the dozens of things that are wonderfully right with this adaptation, I want to focus on three. First, there is the masterful Alastair Sim, who for forty years was one of the wittiest and most resourceful clowns in British pictures. Second, there is the excellent script by Noel Langley, who was the head writer for “The Wizard of Oz” (and who, by a happy coincidence, was born on Christmas Day). And third, there is the superb musical score by Richard Addinsell.

Opening Scene

This opening scene, I think, offers abundant evidence of the general excellence of Noel Langley’s screenplay. Peter Bull’s voice-over narration is a much abridged version of Dickens’ opening paragraphs, but the conversation among Scrooge and the two businessmen is entirely Langley’s invention. To my ear, it all sounds perfectly Dickensian while it provides a great amount of exposition without sounding the least bit expository. I particularly like Scrooge’s encounter with the deadbeat debtor: “I don’t conduct my affairs in the teeth of inclement weather” is Langley’s invention, but it’s hard to believe Dickens didn’t write the line himself.

There is an anachronism in this scene, however: August Bank Holiday was established in 1871, approximately twenty years after “A Christmas Carol” was written.

Scrooge and Marley

Here is the scene in which Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern). Alastair Sim’s two minute pantomime of mounting dread while balancing a bowl of gruel on his lap is a masterpiece of comedic acting. Sim has a wonderfully mobile, expressive face — nobody ever goggled better — he can make you laugh out loud by the way he raises his eyebrows or lowers his lids or lets his jaw go slack, but he never, ever pulls cartoon faces. All of his reactions are firmly based in the reality of Scrooge’s terrifying predicament; Sim’s facial expressions and body language convey Scrooge’s growing terror with incredible specificity and clarity; his wordless comic moments are miracles of eloquence, but most of all, they are hilarious. At the beginning of the clip below, when he first hears the spectral voice call his name, Sim very carefully lowers his spoon to let its revolting contents spill back into the bowl that he has perched on his lap; when the spoon is empty, he releases it and it, too, plops into the bowl. And you can see he’s already taken the first uneasy steps along the path to abject terror. It’s a brilliant little piece of business: he presents us with a physical manifestation of fear that is both realistic and funny, while also making sure we see that the gruel he’s trying to eat is incredibly thin — a droll reminder of the appalling extent of Scrooge’s miserliness. It’s also a perfect illustration of one of the most fundamental principles of comic acting: “Show the Props.” Great comic actors always do wonderful things with the props they handle. Show me an actor who dislikes working with props and I’ll show you an actor who isn’t funny. In this scene, and throughout the rest of the picture, Sim uses props to reveal character. After he drops the spoon, pay close attention to how precisely he charts the course from disquiet to dread to alarm to fright to wild-eyed panic. As a demonstration of sheer technical skill, it’s a tour de force: but it’s more than technical virtuosity: it’s also full of humanity and it’s riotously funny. Sim is endlessly surprising; he never stops catching you unawares, yet his surprising choices always make perfect sense. For my money, this scene has some of the best acting ever put on film.

When the door suddenly flies open before Marley enters, the roar that Sim produces is astonishing, the bellow of a furious grizzly bear: he’s scared out of his wits, but he’s also enraged. His physical performance is equally stupendous: animalistic and elemental — Man pushed to the last extremity of rage and terror. Yet somehow he also manages to be wildly funny while being entirely committed to the reality of Scrooge’s distress. Everything he does is hilarious, but he never lets you catch him being intentionally funny. And, really, few actors have ever matched his ability to mine comic gold from seemingly ordinary lines of dialogue. I love his reading of the line, “In that case, can you sit down?” “Can you sit down?” has been in every adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” I’ve ever seen (in the book, the line reads “Can you — can you sit down?”), but Sim is the only actor with the intelligence and wit to place the emphasis on “can” (which, I make no doubt, is how Dickens himself heard the line). This subtle change of emphasis alters and elevates the line from the humdrum to something quite extraordinary (albeit in a small way): by stressing “can,” Sim isn’t phrasing a command (i.e., “Sit down.”) as a rhetorical question (i.e., “Won’t you please sit down?”); he’s asking about the particulars of an incorporeal being’s physiognomy: “Has a ghost the ability to sit?” It’s a tremendously interesting line of inquiry, and it’s evidence of the keenness of Scrooge’s intelligence. There’s everything right with it, and it’s but one example of the startling uniqueness of Alastair Sim’s line readings. “An underdone potato!” never fails to make me laugh. Only Ernest Thesiger could get so much mileage out of the word “potato.”

Richard Addinsell’s Score

Most moviegoers rarely notice musical underscoring. Ask the average moviegoer to tell you what he thought of the plot and the dialogue of the last picture he saw, and most likely he’ll have an opinion about their relative merits; ask him about the quality of the acting, and he’ll be able to tell you whom he liked and whom he didn’t. But ask about the score and he’ll say he didn’t notice it, even though there’s a good chance that there was a lot more music than dialogue on the soundtrack, and an even better chance that the music was atrocious. Unfortunately, for those of us who haven’t learnt the trick of tuning out bad music, scoring in pictures is a constant source of anxiety. Indeed, far from learning how not to hear underscoring, I’m more aware of it than ever before. A good score is often enough to make me enjoy an otherwise idiotic picture (for instance, I’m so crazy about André Previn’s score for the endlessly tedious “4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that I nearly always watch it till the bitter end), but no picture is great enough to survive a bad score. (“The African Queen” has a score I loathe; fortunately, it’s used infrequently enough that it doesn’t spoil the entire picture for me. When it’s parping along, however, I have to remind myself to stop grinding my teeth.) There are three or four composers working today whose names are enough to prevent me from paying to see the picture in a theatre.

It’s my belief that Richard Addinsell’s score for “Scrooge” has at least as much to do with the picture’s overall greatness as the stunning performance by Alastair Sim. The only difference is that Addinsell’s work is so fine that its effect is almost entirely subliminal. In the clip below, the music doesn’t come in until Scrooge leaves the counting house. But listen to how marvellously the bass clarinet suggests Scrooge’s personality and temperament, but without being too intrusive or insistent. Addinsell’s score adds weight and atmosphere, but it doesn’t tell you how to feel.

Dickens, Sim, Langley, Addinsell and the Sublime

Out of context, this next scene will not mean as much as it does when seen in the course of the movie, but it is still exquisite. Here’s how Dickens narrates Scrooge’s arrival at Nephew Fred’s house on the first evening of his enlightenment:

In the afternoon he [Scrooge] turned his steps towards his nephew’s house.

He passed the door a dozen times before he had the courage to go up and knock. But he made a dash, and did it.

“Is your master at home, my dear?” said Scrooge to the girl. Nice girl! Very.

“Yes sir.”

“Where is he, my love?” said Scrooge.

“He’s in the dining-room, sir, along with mistress. I’ll show you up-stairs, if you please.”

“Thankee. He knows me,” said Scrooge, with his hand already on the dining-room lock. “I’ll go in here, my dear.”

He turned it gently, and sidled his face in round the door. They were looking at the table (which was spread out in great array); for these young housekeepers are always nervous on such points, and like to see that everything is right.

“Fred!” said Scrooge.

Dear heart alive, how his niece by marriage started! Scrooge had forgotten, for the moment, about her sitting in the corner with the footstool, or he wouldn’t have done it on any account.

“Why, bless my soul!” cried Fred, “who’s that?”

“It’s I. Your uncle Scrooge. I have come to dinner. Will you let me in, Fred?”

Let him in! It is a mercy he didn’t shake his arm off. He was at home in five minutes. Nothing could be heartier. His niece looked just the same. So did Topper when he came. So did the plump sister when she came. So did every one when they came. Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!

After the detailed account of Scrooge’s arrival and his conversation with the maid, Dickens hurries over the rest of the party, giving us only the atmosphere of boisterous jollity and goodwill, which he sends dancing by us in a swirl of anaphorae (Three iterations of “So did . . . when he/she/they came”; four iterations of “wonderful”) — and leaving us to imagine the details.

Now here is how the scene is presented in the picture. The tune we hear is “Barbara Allen.” This is what happens when you put Alastair Sim together with a brilliant screenplay and an exquisite musical score.

Throughout the picture, “Barbara Allen” is used as the leit motif for Scrooge’s beloved sister Fan, who died while giving birth to Nephew Fred. So when Scrooge arrives at Fred’s house, the tune is already familiar to us (very possibly, only subliminally), and it sets up our anticipation of the catharsis we know is about to come. The pairing of the viola and cello in the opening bars — so simple, so noble, so gracious and heartfelt — is almost unbearably moving. The maid’s wordless performance — especially the kindliness of her smile — is a thing of beauty. Then comes the moment of the Sublime: Scrooge takes his first look at his beautiful niece, the mildness of Sim’s eyes while he takes her in, his half-humorous regret at all the wasted years, the beauty of Sim’s voice as he asks for her forgiveness, and finally, the return of the low strings playing “Barbara Allen,” the beautiful way the niece responds, her ravishing smile, the gentle way she kisses him — it’s absolute perfection. The Sublime.

By the way, Fan’s death in childbirth is another one of Langley’s inventions. It has been featured in so many adaptations that it comes as a surprise that nothing of the sort occurs in the book. Indeed, the entire notion of approaching Scrooge’s coldness and miserliness as subjects for psychological analysis is Langley’s. Dickens tells us only that at some point in Scrooge’s young adulthood, his fiancee (she’s nameless in the book; Langley calls her Alice; in other adaptations, she has often been named Belle) accuses him of having become more concerned with accumulating wealth than with loving her, and breaks off their engagement. How Scrooge left Fezziwig’s employ, how he rose in the world, how he grew hard — all contributions by Langley: Dickens explores none of these things; he gives us the results, not the influences that led to them. Langley’s approach, then, is entirely alien to Dickens, yet he succeeded so brilliantly that every post-1951 adaptation that I’ve seen follows Langley’s model more closely than Dickens’ own.

‘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