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Thread: David Lean (1908-1991) Part I - the little films

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    David Lean (1908-1991) Part I - the little films

    I intend this post to be a very long... one I can add to and invite discussion.

    For the past few weeks, outside my novel writing, I have been reading about the life and work of David Lean. After examining several works (I shall post those below), I have found Mr. Lean somewhat a paradox. From one biography, I discovered he had a religious upbringing, and that he did not see his first film before the age of 18. In another biography, they stated he spent numerous hours hanging out in movie theaters as a boy, watching films. I also find his relationship with Noel Coward puzzling. After he worked in various jobs (clappor and so on) Lean started work as an assistant director and then changed over to editing. He seemed content with that career, working for eleven years (1930-1941). In 1941, he worked as a production assistant on "Major Barbara."

    However, his first big break came in 1942, when he met Noel Coward. Coward's painting partner was Winston Churchill. The soon to be Prime Minister persuaded Coward to write a screenplay based on the heroics of Captain Lord Louis Mountbattan, which later became "In which we serve," written, produced, and co-directed by Coward. He even wrote the score! The film was so popular, Coward won an honorary Oscar.

    This introduction of the two men resulted in a four film collaboration that took Lean from obscurity into the limelight. Of these four films, only "Blithe Spirit" and "Brief Encounter" are still played on outlets such as Turner Movie Classics. "This happy breed," has not been shown for years. "Blithe Spirit" became so popular in the West End, that it broke all box office records which stood for forty years. "Brief Encounter," based on another play by Coward called "Tonight at 8:30" an ambitious cycles of ten plays where he and Gertrude Lawrence shuffled the bill each night, offering up three (that's some memorization!). One of these cycles, called, "Still Life" Coward expanded into a screenplay that became "Brief Encounter."

    Lean and Coward were friends, and stayed in close contact for many years until Coward moved away to Jamaica due to illness.

    BLITHE SPIRIT (1945) - Adapted from the play by Noel Coward, he claimed he wrote the entire play in five days start to finish and cut only two line before the production premiered to sell out crowds. Kay Hammond as Elvira and Margaret Rutheford as Madam Arcati became so associated with the roles on stage, they repeated their parts in the film, with only a dissappointing Rex Harrison to replace Cecil Parker as Charles, the beleaguered husband haunted by the ghost of his first wife, Elvira. The film is a rather straighforward presentation of a stage play, with many sets resembling those of the original production. Lean did not venture too far from Coward's vision, as the playwrite practically directed this film, too.

    The basic premise begins with the death of Charles' first wife, Elvira, shortly after their marriage, in a motor car accident. Charles goes on to marry a second wife, Ruth, played by Constance Cummings. Ruth is persuaded one night to bring in a soothsayer to perform a seance, during which the madam accidentally ressurrects the spirit of Charles first wife, Elvira. She seems bent on destroying Charles second marriage, and in the end causes another accident resulting in Ruth's death. The two women then haunt Charles who isn't long for this world when he brushes them off believing he is glad to be rid of them both.

    The real star is the eccentric and comical Madam Arcati, a role invented on stage by Margaret Rutherford, latter known for her role as Miss Marple. Many great actresses have played this part. Mildred Natwick played it twice in New York and on television with Coward; Geraldine Page played her in the revival on Broadway in 1987 with my old school chum Judy Ivey, for which Page received a Tony nomination.

    Lean is not known for his comedies, and this film seems to be the only time he ventured down this path, sort of cutting his teeth at the helm, mind you.

    It is Lean's next film, "Brief Encounter" that Lean finally begins to show substantially more substance in his choice of shots, as the work is also darker and more subtle, allowing Lean greater latitude, which eventually leads to some of his best work of this period.

    Biographical works on Lean:

    DAVID LEAN: A BIOGRAPHY BY KEVIN BROWNLOW
    DAVID LEAN: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT BY LADY SANDRA LEAN
    BEYOND THE EPIC: THE LIFE AND FILMS OF DAVID LEAN BY GENE PHILLIPS
    DAVID LEAN AND HIS FILMS BY ALAIN SILVER
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    Brief Encounter

    BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945) – (screen play adapted from a play by Noel Coward, written by the team of Coward, Lean, producer Havelock-Allen and future director Ronald Neame)

    This film is a departure from the light-hearted bill of fare that started Lean’s career (Blithe Spirit). Told in first-person narration, we find middle class Laura Jesson, (Cecilia Johnson) a suburban housewife going to town on the train for shopping, and to take in a cinema matinee. She is bored with her marriage and her life that have taken a routine dull existence. She accidentally meets Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) in the refreshment room of a railway station (whose elaborate buffet quite exceeds those of the time, since this occurred during WWII, a period of severe shortages). They discover in conversation both are married, middle-aged, and have two children. The doctor works for a local hospital on a consulting basis.

    The couple begins to meet on weekly basis in the railway station on a friendly basis at first, but they quickly find themselves attracted to one another. Perhaps it is the lure of the forbidden, or genuine love, we are never certain. Neither Lean in the film nor Coward for the stage production ever makes this point clear, which may be why at the crucial moment when the couple decides to consummate their relationship, the attempt fails due to accidental intervention by the doctor’s friend. The film ends tragically with the couple torn apart. The doctor is leaving the country and must break off their meetings. In what should have been a loving farewell, a chatty friend of Laura’s spoils their parting. Desperate Laura chases after the train, only to contemplate suicide on the platform, a moment that is made ambiguous in the stage production according to author Frances Gray in her work entitled, “Noel Coward” (1987) “…if not for David Lean’s artful camerawork… the audience would approve of Laura’s final sacrifice.” However Laura's voice clarifies her feelings in the film.

    The affair between two middle aged and middle class people tended to shock some people outside London. But those in the city saw this sort of thing as common. Coward tried to appeal to those of the middle class for his play, as they constituted the bulk of his audience. However, Lean's screenplay reflects the tension created by the war that many people could easily identify in themselves, hence its popularity. Richard Dryer's 1993 book on the film drew parallels between the original writer Coward's closeted life as a homosexual and what many men of the time endured, carrying on secret hidden lives filled with angst. Whether this is true or not is conjecture on the author's part, while it does fit the pattern. However, Lean and Neame more than likely had simple marital infidelity and its conflicts on their minds in fashioning the screenplay.

    Here we must step back and examine David Lean’s work as an art form, rather than merely box office fodder. Others on this site, such as Chris Knipp and Oscar Jubis are more capable than I am in making these judgments. I shall try my best.
    First, let us examine the train station. This naturally presents itself as a moody place. The lighting should therefore reflect that mood. “Paint with light,” Jean Renoir said. As the artist, Lean is able to take this obscure part of an 11-part play and expand its scenes, even adding new ones not implied in the stage production. The original play took place only in the railway refreshment room. This breaks “Close Encounter” away from being a photographed stage production as he did in “Blithe Spirit” and transforms it into a truly cinema piece, filled with the use of dramatic tension created by cinema’s pacing (editing), lighting, camera angles, placement, and movement, along with dramatic acting styles far more subtle than any stage play. Although the overuse of Rachmaninoff is disturbing to this connoisseur of music (one of my majors); the music does lend itself to romance in the eyes of many filmgoers.

    “Brief Encounter” is the first inkling of even greater things to come from David Lean. While some of its styles are clearly dated, we begin to understand how Lean will incorporate these early film styles into his later epic masterpieces.
    Last edited by cinemabon; 08-28-2007 at 09:31 AM.
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    Great Expectations

    GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946) – writing team of Lean, Havelock-Allen, McGivern, Kay Walsh (his wife), and Ronald Neame (producer).

    After the war, Lean turned to the classics for his next adaptation. Whether he owed, adapting this novel to the screen, to Alec Guinness or not, is a matter of who is telling the story. According to Guinness, he adapted the book to a stage play in 1938, playing the part of Herbert Pockets. David Lean, then an editor, saw the production and vowed to make it a film after the war with Guinness reprising his role. Though the two men respected and worked together on five more films, perhaps the best performances of Alec’s career, they did not get along and often argued on the set. Guinness did not like Lean’s autocratic ways as a director and often objected to his suggestions. A famous publicity still that shows the two men in conversation on the set of “Great Expectations” required, according to Guinness, “my utmost patience to remain in such close proximity.”

    Lean, on the other hand, states he started Alec Guinness film career and takes credit for making the actor a star, which Guinness always resented.

    In the 1960’s, I had to read Charles Dickens book, “Great Expectations” which it turns out was not originally published as a novel at all but a serial in the magazine, “All the year around.” (Dec 1860 – Aug 1861) Like most of his work, Dickens only wrote short vignettes, or chapters. Only after his death were many of these works put together into novels. “Great Expectations” is a story of moral choices, class distinctions, and miscues that result in near catastrophe for the protagonist, Pip.

    As in both the novel and the film, they begin by explaining that with a name like Phillip Pirrip, it was easier for the young man to simply say, Pip. We find Pip on Christmas Eve (though this was not part of the film), running across the moors to place flowers on his mother’s grave. As he did in the opening of “Brief Encounter” where he used a camera trick to dissolve from the husband into the lover/friend; Lean uses a perspective trick to take us from a live action shot to the studio. Green’s seamless cinemaphotography and dolly work move through the tombstones with a child’s perspective. We see creepy limbs and tree trunks with faces. Lean stayed away from using dramatic music, and instead we only hear the howling wind. Pip encounters a convict (Finlay Currie, whom you might remember as Balthazar in Ben Hur) having escaped the Hulks, British prison ships. He threatens Pip to bring him food and a file from his brother-in-law, a blacksmith.

    Lean uses voice over to accentuate Pip’s fears as he runs back with the ‘vittles’ to satisfy the convicts needs. The man later confesses to having taken the items, befriending Pip in an odd way, and tying the two characters together throughout the rest of the work.

    Pip’s fortunes take a different turn when he is invited to Miss Havisham’s large old and rather strange manor house. Here, production designer John Bryan has a field day. When Pip is taken inside by the cold-hearted Estella (Jean Simmons), the dim light of the candles reveal staircases upon staircases that lead to endless dark places, resembling an MC Escher drawing.
    Of course, anyone that read the novel knows what Pip will find inside. I pictured it all too clear myself when I first read it, as Dickens goes into great detail describing what Pip discovers inside the room. The movie personifies this setting so well, that subsequent film attempts are quickly dismissed by critics, as Bryan’s sets are so exquisitely detailed as to defy duplication. Green’s dark lighting of the set add to its gothic qualities. The setting becomes another character in the story, revealing more about the novel’s individuals than the actors do.

    Miss Havisham is the pitiful bride-left-at-the-alter, where time stopped for her, and life is now rotting around her. She still wears the same wedding dress (though the film left out important details about her suitor). One can only imagine how the place must smell. Despite her wealth and standing Mrs. Havisham also represents the view Dickens took toward the wealthy, as a spoiled rotten class. Martita Hunt, renown for her portrayal in the stage production, also joined the film cast along with Guinness. Her haunting voice and subtle facial variations still hold up as a magnificent performance. Oddly, Jean Simmons later played the same role in the 1989 remake.

    Although sixteen versions of the story have been made between film and television, the Lean version is probably the one most refer to when they consider the story. One of my favorite scenes involves the adult Pip, John Mills, who started and ended Lean’s career (his first film and Ryan’s Daughter, which won Mills an Oscar). Pip has just experienced a terrible event and walks delirious through the crowd in London. Lean recalled the scene in an interview and redid the same thing in Dr. Zhivago, where Laura walks against the crowd, her thoughts lost in a daze. Lean and Mills were born just two months apart. Unlike Guinness, he and John Mills enjoyed their on-set relationship, making five films together that resulted in Mills two most memorable roles.
    Ironically, Dickens original ending had Estelle marrying a second time and meeting Pip on the street. They exchange a brief dialogue after which Pip exclaims she is better off without me. The publisher requested a change to one near the ending in the film.

    With this film, we clearly see a changed David Lean. No longer under the influence of Noel Coward, “Great Expectations” represents Lean’s emergence as a director that can truly paint with light. The first 30 minutes of this film leave one breathless with possibilities. His straight forward telling of Dickens famous novel is just a start toward what will become a trademark in a David Lean film, a male protagonist, vulnerable, strengthened or weakened by life’s experiences, with male dominated casts, beautifully photographed. Lean’s cinema photographers do his direction justice. It also helps Lean he started as an editor, allowing him to get sufficient coverage on the set to put together perfect timing later… the silhouette of Pip in the doorway, reprised at the end of the film; cutting between scenes without reliance on fades or wipes; the careful dolly movements on Pip as he moves through the mist.

    I could go into great lengths describing the storyline, which if it isn’t familiar to you, then by all means, please watch this film. Unfortunately, the only print currently available is the very scratched and poorly timed Criterion edition, which no one bothered to restore. As a result, several scenes have huge tear lines running through them along the left side of the screen. I can only fantasize about seeing this as a fresh 35mm print projected for the first time.
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    Oliver Twist

    “OLIVER TWIST” (1948) – written by Lean and Stanley Haynes (notice the smaller writing team this time).

    Flush with his success from “Great Expectations” (his second Oscar nomination for Best Director) Lean reassembled many of the same people he worked with from the previous film, Guy Green photography, Ronald Neame producer, and set designer John Bryan.

    “Oliver Twist” is the second novel of Charles Dickens, also presented in serial format in Bentley’s Miscellany from February 1837 to April 1839. This is one of the first instances in English literature that had a young boy as the protagonist throughout the story. Using the novel as a youthful setting allowed Dickens to attack the way English society viewed young boys as uncouth ruffians, often disciplined with severe beatings. Settings in the workhouse gave leave for Dickens to attack the Poor Law of 1834, showing how the middle class exploited the poor for their own gain. His humanizing of ‘Nancy’ also showed Londoners another side to the world of prostitution, one filled with desperate women seeking out a way of life the only way they could.

    Again, Lean follows the book closely with a couple of major exceptions, which I will mention in a moment. He opens during a rainstorm (by now a cliché) in which a pregnant woman seeks shelter to deliver her baby. The inside cruel world of the workhouse does not provide pity to the dying woman. Shortly after the child is born, it is incorporated into a system that uses and abuses children. With the odd name of Oliver Twist, the boy starts out life as a common laborer, making profits for middle class businessmen eating lavish meals within eye sight of the boys fed only gruel, a combination of water and cooked grain, hardly enough to keep them alive. When he loses a bet, he must approach the large Mr. Bumble and utter the line that has been repeated numerous times since, “Please sir, may I have some more.” In his book “The dark world of Oliver Twist” J Hillis Miller indicates that the ‘more’ Oliver refers to may go beyond gruel, especially regarding the treatment these boys often received, which may have acted as symbolism for Dickens. Lean’s use of camera here sets the standard for all other versions to follow, often imitated but not well.

    A back tracking shot of the child holding up the bowl to the ominous large adult is repeated in the other two major versions, Reed’s “Oliver!” and Polanski’s “Oliver Twist.”
    Oliver is sold off because of his ill timed remarks to an undertaker (the first deviation from the novel, Dickens first sells him to a chimney sweep that ‘abuses’ the boy) using him as a mute or mourner to follow children’s funerals. When a jealous co-worker (Noah Claypole in the novel) torments him, he runs away to London. Upon arrival, he befriends the deceitful Artful Dodger, Jack Hawkins, played very skillfully by a young Anthony Newley. Newley is one of those rare instances of child talent turned even better adult talent as he would later be famous for writing such plays as “Stop the world, I want to get off,” with songs like, “Who can I turn to?” and the music to “Willy Wonka” among many others.

    Dodger brings stray street boys to Fagin, the leader of a boy gang. Fagin (closely symbolizing the devil in Dickens’ story) uses the boys as pickpockets while running a fencing operation for stolen goods. In 1837, George Cruikshank made monthly steel etchings of the characters to match the printed stories. To be faithful to the original drawing, Guinness had his make-up mimic the original etching of Fagin. However, many Jewish people did not see it that way, and became offended that Guinness helped to advance a stereotype of the “big nose, money grabbing Jew.” The film was consequently banned in Israel. Guinness resented this comparison and vehemently denied any association. Yet, even to this day, many people find his portrayal offensive and the one part that detracts from an otherwise flawless representation of the story. Ironically, Guinness’ wife of 62 years was Jewish.
    In all fairness to Guinness, he played the part as Dickens wrote the character whether intentionally anti-semetic or not, which is how Dickens may have been in real life. Whether Dickens was anti-semetic or not is unknown and can only be speculated.
    Fagin is in league with several unsavory characters, the worst being Bill Sikes, a thief and possible murderer, although that is proven later in the story. The very delightful English actor, Robert Newton, plays the part very well. He would be known for his role to this day if he had not played in “Treasure Island” two years later. He turned out his most successful and probably most imitated role of pirate Long John Silver, a part that haunted his career from then on, as he repeated it in countless productions, even making a television show of the same name. Even now watching the film, I had difficulty keeping my mind from thinking, “Arrrgghh!”

    When Fagin sends little Oliver out with Dodger to pick pockets, Oliver is caught, though blameless. Again, Dickens and Lean emphasize the cruelty of the times toward children when the judge nearly sentences the boy to hard labor “which surly would have killed him.” Mr. Brownlow, a kindly gentleman steps in and saves the fainting boy from his undeserved fate. When he sends Oliver out on an errand, Sikes and Fagin capture the boy, bringing him back to their hideout. Sikes uses Oliver in a robbery that goes wrong. (This is the second major deviation from the novel, the part of Rose Maylie is eliminated) Afraid for the boy’s life, Sikes’ girlfriend, prostitute Nancy (Lean's soon-to-be ex-wife Kay Walsh), finds Brownlow and arranges to return Oliver.

    Afraid the boy will reveal their operation, Fagin sends Dodger (also a deviation) to spy on Nancy. They alert Sikes who then kills Nancy in a fit of rage before she can deliver the boy. A crowd forms to find the girl’s killer. They eventually discover Fagin’s hideout and shoot Sikes as he tries to escape with Oliver over the rooftops, a grisly end to nasty character. Robert Newton’s Sikes is nearly caricature compared to the more subtle acting style of Oliver Reed from the ’68 version. Both however make us glad to see Sikes receive his comeuppance. Little Oliver is returned to Brownlow who then discovers his true identity. The Polanski version includes Fagin’s scene with Oliver mentioned at the end of the novel, just before he heads to the gallows.

    David Lean, set designer John Bryan, along with photographer Guy Green invite the audience into the world of mid-19th century London, visually presented with all its tattered faults. A grimy world, a dark forbidding place where the poor must scratch out a living any way they can. Lean deftly moves the camera through the crowded sets in a claustrophobic way, as if this world were closing in on us as it is on the desperate and tragic characters. Green beautifully photographs these sets with the utmost professional care, casting long shadows (early film noir) as if the sun never directly shone down upon these mean streets.
    This is especially true in Fagin’s hideout, where wooden beams break up the frame, styles repeated by Reed and Polanski.

    While I feel in retrospect that Lean did an excellent job with “Oliver Twist,” it did not sit well with either the critics or audiences of its day, especially in America, where it received no nominations of any kind. Again, the 1999 Criterion print needs cleaning rather badly. This film deserves that kind of restoration.
    Last edited by cinemabon; 08-30-2007 at 06:33 PM.
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    The Passionate Friends

    THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS (1949) – Adapted from a story by HG Wells written in 1913, Lean brings back screenwriter Stanley Haynes for the adaptation and Eric Ambler (an un-credited co-producer) for scene polish. Once more Lean’s film is photographed by Guy Green (Oswald Morris acts as camera operator goes on to win Oscar for his work in cinematography), produced by Ronald Neame (also an Oscar winning director) and sets by John Bryan.

    Many refer to this film as “Brief Encounter” with an upper crust attached. The similarities are very similar. A female voice, Mary Justin (Ann Todd) narrates a series of complex flashbacks regarding an affair with a man, Professor Steven Stratton, who also happens to be Trevor Howard. This time the woman is married to prominent banker, Howard Justin, Claude Rains. During a trip abroad, the previous friendship turns into a triangle of jealousy when Howard suspects Mary of renewing the affair with Steven, ironically at the same hotel where they had their tryst years ago before the war.

    Lean’s use of editing and camera tricks is far more evident here during scenes where Rains thinks about something and we see his thoughts materialize in a variety of visual cuts and sound cues. For example, during the ticket scene, where he is supposed to be dictating a letter and keeps thinking about his wife’s tickets, “First Love” where she is meeting Steven. At the hotel in Switzerland, Rains follows his wife with the binoculars out on a boat. He cuts back and forth between Rains’ face and what he sees via the binoculars. The scene climaxes when he swings the lens into focus on his secretary’s worried face, staring down at the boat, adding to his paranoia.

    Speaking of irony, leading actress Ann Todd is married to David Lean’s first cousin, Nigel Tangye. She is fresh from her acclaimed performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Paradine Case.” Their introduction and then subsequent passionate involvement on the set leads to them casting off their spouses and eloping during the production. He would devote the next three films to her, thought the last, “Breaking the sound barrier,” has a much smaller part. While “The Passionate Friends” did well commercially in England, the picture fell completely flat elsewhere.

    One interesting note: just prior to filming, the British government lifted travel restrictions in effect since the war began. Lean took the crew on location to Switzerland. In one beautiful scene, the characters stand together gazing off at the horizon. The camera pans left to swelling music and striking scenes of snow covered peaks, a device he would use later in “Lawrence of Arabia.”
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    Madeleine

    MADELEINE (1950) – written by Stanley Haynes and Nicholas Phipps, Haynes acting as credited producer this time. Lean brings back his team of Guy Green on cinematography and John Bryan on sets. Margaret Furse having costumed “Oliver Twist” and “The Passionate Friends” also returns.

    The story is based upon Madeleine Smith, a nineteenth century Glasgow socialite the defendant of a notorious murder trial in the summer of 1857. Two years earlier, in the spring of 1857, she began a torrid affair with ‘foreign born’ Emile L’Angelier, a nurseryman and laborer. For nearly two years, the couple met in secret and carried on a correspondence that explicitly spelled out their passion. Madeleine’s parents found him unsuitable as a spouse and insisted she break off contact, which she did in February of ‘57. Emile responded by bringing the letters to her family threatening to expose her if they were not allowed to marry. On March 23rd, 1857, the proprietors found Emile in his hotel room, dead of arsenic poisoning. When the police found the letters, they promptly arrested Madeleine and the publicized trial began. During the proceedings, her lawyer pointed out that Emile took medication, which actually contained arsenic, claiming an accidental overdose in her defense. The jury gave a verdict of ‘Not Proven’ with no subsequent retrial. She left Scotland and moved to London where she married. She tried to stay anonymous, always carrying the stigma of being a murderess once people discovered her identity. It is said she eventually moved to New York where she died under an assumed name, thought that assertion has never been proved.

    It is not clear why David Lean made this film other than a vehicle for his wife, Ann Todd. She is certainly the focal point of the film, which carries Lean’s trademark use of editing for effect, mood lighting, a variety of sharp camera angles, along with period sets and costumes. Yet Todd’s performance is considered too restrained and wooden by many, making her character less sympathetic. Several scenes are worth mentioning, such as her entrance into the courtroom, up a long flight of stairs with a flat door across the top. When the door is opened, in pops the heads of the curious. He cuts between her face and theirs. Green’s mood lighting and Bryan’s close sets again give the same quality to this period piece we saw in “Oliver Twist” and in “Great Expectations” where the cobblestone streets meander through the city casting long shadows on the road. In another scene, a man declares Madeleine’s ‘heart is black with sin’ as he whips the crowd into a frenzy of hatred outside the courthouse. When Madeleine’s carriage approaches, Lean cuts from outside, as the angry mob pummels the carriage to inside, Madeleine and her supporters huddled together in fear, hearing the masses pounding against the walls, the sound thunderous.

    “Madeleine” was not a commercial success, nor did its over use of technique resound with any critic. Still, it has its moments where one can see Lean’s influences and how those will play out later in shot choices he makes for his epics.
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    Breaking the sound barrier

    In 1949, two of the three founders of the Cineguild, David Lean and Ronald Neame, experienced difficulty working together and after an extended disagreement, dissolved their partnership. Neame went on to direct, while Lean moved over to Alexander Korda’s London Studios. Lean’s first film was the project, “Breaking the sound barrier.”

    “BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER” – (1952) Copies of this film are very difficult to find, although VHS is available, the DVD version is not. What I know, what I can say, is based not on my personal viewing but on information I gathered from a variety of sources.

    From my understanding, this film represented a technical breakthrough in innovation at the time, trying to represent the effect of jet aircraft. Lean did this in several ways, the most notable with sound. “We see the jet coming at us, it zooms past, followed by the sound… just as a normal jet would.” This is the last film Lean would feature his current wife, Ann Todd. While the previous film, “Madeleine” was both a commercial and critical flop for Lean, “Breaking the sound barrier” was a big hit in both England and America. Historically speaking, American Chuck Yeager is the person who actually broke the sound barrier with his X-1 rocket plane, though later the de Havilland D H 108 (as portrayed in the film) was the first jet aircraft to do so in England.

    The film’s story revolves around a wealthy oil magnate, John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson) owner of an aircraft company. His daughter Susan (Ann Todd) marries test pilot Tony (Nigel Patrick) who is killed off about half way through the film. After she walks out on her callous dad, he continues to push his “Prometheus” aircraft with the next pilot. He eventually breaks the sound barrier. Susan and her unborn child reconcile with daddy at the end.

    Screenwriter Terence Rattigan based the “semi-documentary” story on the life of Geoffrey de Havilland, and his son, who lost his life during an actual test flight for speed over the Thames River estuary. Lean’s use of editing ‘montages’ became one of his trademarks at the time, a technique he would also use in “Lawrence.” Lean’s next film is not only a personal favorite of mine, but brought him back into prominence as both director and artist.
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    Hobson's Choice

    HOBSON’S CHOICE (1954) – Adapted from the stage play written by Harold Brighouse produced in June 1916; the title is a pun, meaning that a Hobson’s choice, as the expression goes, is no choice at all. Screenplay by Lean, Wynyard Browne, and Norman Spencer. Studio head, Alexander Korda, suggested the project to Lean, although twice filmed prior to Lean’s edition in 1920 and 1931 by other directors.

    The film is a return by Lean to his favorite venue, city cobblestone streets filled with a variety of interesting shops and curios. In fact, the opening of the film is a long dolly shot through a rain soaked street only to end on Hobson’s shop, as if Lean were saying to his fans of “Oliver Twist” I’m back. Cinematographer Jack Hildyard, returning to work with Lean after “Sound barrier,” creates the proper mood lighting a trademark Lean quality found in his earlier work. The shoe store, which is the principle setting, is full of deep shadows and sharp angles, harkening back to the house in “Great Expectations.”

    The story is a familiar one in England. Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton) is somewhat of a bullying owner of a shoe store, ordering around his gifted yet daft shoemaker Willie Mossop (John Mills, second choice to Robert Donat), and his three daughters, Maggie (Brenda de Banzie), Alice and Victoria. He often spends his time at the pub, returning home to find that eldest daughter and spinster Maggie has kept things running smoothly and Willie continues to keep a quality product on the shelves. Hobson is also a miser, never paying his daughters, eager to marry if only to get out from under their oppressive father. Maggie takes charge convincing Willie to marry her and starting their own business in another part of town. The daughters take up boyfriends, too, and soon Hobson finds himself alone in competition with Maggie and Willie. In the end, to save his business, the two shops merge with Maggie in charge, Willie back to making shoes as a partner, and Hobson relegated to a salary, enough to keep him liquor.

    Lean’s casting of Charles Laughton is more Korda’s idea, directing his first big international star, as Laughton worked both sides of the Atlantic. Bringing forth the blubbery Hobson, Laughton clearly steals the show making the film his, with a rather sympathetic yet stern characterization bordering on sexism. Still, he leaves enough of Hobson likable that we feel sorry for him despite his fall from grace. The most obvious telling scene to his character is the moon-chasing drunken Hobson, jumping from puddle to puddle to stomp out the moon’s image only to fall into a pit. Lean uses animation to paint the moon in every puddle and heightens the scene’s climax with dramatic tension with Hobson tittering back and forth around the hole into which he eventually falls. Laughton’s comedic timing with Lean’s direction make this one of Laughton’s best moments on film. John Mills is surprisingly funny as dimwitted Willie. On the night of his honeymoon, with no dialogue, he pantomimes his way through several emotional states before finally marching into the bedroom. The use of shtick makes the physical comedy universal and holds up even today, as my son laughed aloud during several scenes, a major accomplishment. Even Brenda De Banzie comes through with an emotional payoff scene where she and Willie confess their true love for each other, and not simply a business relationship.

    “Hobson’s Choice” went on to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin film festival. This film is the pinnacle of Lean’s small films, a climax to an era where Lean focused on the individual, where actors brought dialogue to life despite the use of camera tricks, mood lighting, and busy sets. By cutting his teeth during this period on so many warm and friendly films, Lean then breaks out of this mold and joins the pantheon of the big screen, the big budget, and Hollywood. Just as William Wyler made a similar move at the start of his career, starting with small personal black and white films, so does David Lean transition from the small screen to the large. His last film for Korda is “Summertime” (“Summer Madness” in England) after which, the name of David Lean will forever be associated the Sam Spiegel epics.
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    Cinemabon, you're making an excellent contribution to the site and, obviously, to our knowlege of Mr. Lean's career. I am reading these posts with great interest. I plan to provide commentary and opinion as time permits within the next few days.

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    Summer Madness aka Summertime

    “SUMMER MADNESS (AKA SUMMERTIME)” (1955) – Again Alexander Korda played a pivotal role in selecting Lean’s next project; adapted from the play, “The time of the cuckoo,” by Arthur Laurents, screenplay by Lean, H E Bates, and Donald Ogden Stewart (un-credited). Returning again, cinematographer Jack Hildyard, helping Lean to create his first color film since “Blithe Spirit.” The majority of the film was shot in Venice, Italy with only some scenes shot at Shepperton Studios outside London. Supposedly Lean had to pay local merchant a stipend during the shoot as they complained the film crew drove away tourists. Watching this film, however, they should have paid Lean as this is probably the best Venice ever looked on film.

    The story is a familiar one to fans of David Lean and even begins like “Brief Encounter” with the arrival of a train. An American spinster, Jane Hudson (Katherine Hepburn) falls in love with a married man, Renato de Rossi (Rassano Brazzi) while on holiday in Venice, Italy. This part was probably difficult for the aging Hepburn to play, as at 48, the idea of playing a spinster does not bolster ones reputation for youthful beauty. However, Kate pulls out a tremendous performance for the film. She and Lean become good friends, and Hepburn introduces Lean to many influential Americans in the process.

    In the film’s most telling moments, Hepburn arrives in Venice at sundown running toward the only bit of land in the city, the famous Piazza San Marco, an open square surrounded by the beautiful façades of buildings. In typical Lean fashion, Hepburn walks against the crowd to gain access with only the gradual building sounds of church bells in the soundtrack ending in a striking montage of the square. Later, seated at a table, Hepburn sees couples everywhere, even two women that seem alone and then chased after by two young men, reminding her she is utterly alone in a city filled with lovers and friends. Even her temporary escape from the brash Rassano Brazzi, first attracted to her legs, leads her to the water’s edge where, again, the two fountain figureheads spouting water side by side remind her of her loneliness.

    As Lean’s last ‘small’ film, the touching if not heartbreaking end of the film also marks an end to an era for Lean. After this film, he will make a tremendous transition in his life, leaving the comfort of London behind and traveling around the globe, shooting on location, using large casts, big budgets, on projects that take years to complete. Next up, David Lean, the epic years, a master in the making.
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    *Apparently you decided In Which We Serve is too much of a "Noel Coward film" to be considered as the first "Lean film" and you'd probably be right.

    *I don't claim much expertise when it comes to Lean. It's not that I haven't seen his films, I've seen at least 10, it's just that I haven't really thought of them as a unified body of work to say much with authority. My experience with Lean's film as follows:
    Only one of his films was released in theatres during what I'll call my formative years as a film buff, roughly from age 6 to 21. It's Ryan's Daughter, released when I was 9 years old and maybe I watched it (because I was already a compulsive movie watcher then) but I must admit I don't remember any of it. It's possible that the first Lean film I watched in a theater was his last, A Passage to India, in 1984. TV broadcasts of Zhivago and Lawrence don't count, especially because at the time they were shown in pan-and-scan. So, it wasn't until my mid to late 20s when I watched Zhivago (which I don't like much) and Lawrence, (which I consider a masterpiece) that I became conscious of David Lean. Then I started visiting the "little films". I was tremendously moved by one of the Coward collaborations, Brief Encounter, and impressed with two Dickens adaptations: Oliver Twist and, especially, Great Expectations. Your referring to Hobson's Choice as the "pinnacle" of Lean's small films probably indicates is your favorite. Not mine. Not because of Lean's direction and certainly not because of Laughton's amazing performance. I probably (been a while) don't think too highly of the source material. If you think so highly of it, perhaps I should revisit (same applies to Ryan's Daughter, obviously).

    *More personal revelations. Why didn't I seek out Lean's films while in HS and University? I used 2 guides for exploration of older movies:

    1)Sragow's The American Cinema, which classified directors according to several categories. Mr, Sragow relegated Sir David Lean to the "Less Than Meets the Eye" category for reasons I can't remember.
    2)Sight and Sound's worldwide poll. Each decade, the premier Brit film mag publishes a poll. Neither Lean as director nor any of his films received any votes until 1992, when S&S decided not only to poll critics but also directors. In the 2002 Directors' poll. Lean was listed as #9 favourite director (tied with Renoir and Scorsese) as Lawrence of Arabia made the top 5!!! The crits were still not impressed.

    Is it that Lean's films no matter how accomplished are still considered too impersonal, as in "not reflecting a unique personal vision"? Or perhaps, as I've read elsewhere, that the bulk of his films are set in the past and lack contemporary resonance?
    Last edited by oscar jubis; 09-04-2007 at 11:44 AM.

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    First off, thanks for your interest, Oscar. I'm taking a sabatical from my sequel to "The Distant Voices" and chose Lean for a diversion and for other reasons.

    While I suppose of the 'little' films I do enjoy "Hobson's Choice;" my true favorite is probably "Great Expectations" for many reasons. I believe Lean and Guy Green carefully crafted each scene, taking the time (as he did later with Freddie Young) to put art on the screen as well as tell a story. Each shot is carefully lit, with deep shadows, and compelling angles, as if we were watching an old dutch painting, where backgrounds filled with detail are slightly blurred, our eyes riveted on the central characters.

    Critics in the past have found fault with Lean, especially his epics (which I will cover in part II including quotes from Pauline Kael and others).

    As to his personal vision, many artists connected with cinema did not like working with Lean due to his style of directing. However, as a storyteller, I believe he came into his own when he met Sam Speigle, and I will go into that more in part II.
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    Like I said on an earlier post, these posts are excellent. It's my opinion they (your original posts not my replies) also belong in the section called "Cinema Studies" (next to Festival Coverage). I plan to come back periodically for reference.

    Great Expectations is also probably (I haven't seen them all) my favorite of the early films and for the same reasons you state: the storytelling, the art direction, and the way "Lean and Guy Green carefully crafted each scene"_critics wishing to give most of the credit for the look of the film to the highly-regarded DP need to consider that, for instance, it was Lean who insisted on using 24mm and 35mm lenses, the widest in those days, when shooting scenes with the child actors (as reported by Lean biographer Kevin Brownlow).
    As a matter of fact, my sole complaint about Great Expectations is the casting of Valerie Hobson as the adult Estella. Her performance is, in my opinion, the film's weak link. She doesn't come close to matching the intensity displayed by the young Miss Simmons.

    You and I disagree only in your caracterization of the dvd image as "very scratched" and "several scenes having huge tear lines". My monitor shows a few scratches visible almost only when the screen fades to black, and tears only in the scene just prior to the adult Pip waking up in his childhood bed next to his brother-in-law. I found two dvd reviews and this is what they have to say about the image:

    "They went back to the original master, naturally, and obtained a fine-grain print that looks splendid on DVD, with only occasional instances of wear." (dvd town)

    "Criterion's transfer of the film is excellent. Although a few specks and scratches appear, the black and white image glows in wonderful fashion, with every small detail visible. And this is certainly a film where details count." (dvd verdict)

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    The law is a bachelor!

    Oscar, you’ve forced me to watch the film again, which I did very carefully this time, hoping my initial impressions were wrong; they were not.

    From the opening credits, one can see scratches in the upper right corner that are unmistakable. The entire first few scenes are filled with dust and artifact, mostly in scenes where fog or night shots emphasize every bit of flaw. However, at 54 minutes, during the first scene with Alec Guinness and John Mills eating dinner, a huge scratch opens up on the left side and continues through the cross fade into the next scene. Streaks continue in the middle of the frame and on the right side at 57 minutes. At 58 mins, another obvious scratch opens on the left side. At one hour and nine minutes, several minutes worth of bad scratches and nicks appear all over the frame. With the worst scene culminating between Drummond and Pip outside the coach at one hour and 22 minutes, several white scratches spoil the entire middle and end of the scene.

    Restoring old films is a painstaking art. I recall looking at the 70mm negatives of “Funny Girl” and “Lawrence of Arabia” wondering how they could possibly be put right. Computer graphics artists must work frame by frame, as they did with the 70mm negative of “My Fair Lady” to restore the print to its original pristine quality. That kind of money has yet to be spent on many old films, and this is one of those cases. This 1998 print used by Criterion may have been updated and repaired without my knowledge since, however, I could not find a newer print through Amazon.

    Your mention and criticism of Valerie Hobson is spot on. A twenty year old Estella would hardly have a double chin (as seen when she turns to the side). For that matter, John Mills was much too old to play Pip as an apprentice. Perhaps later, but not until after the Pip character had matured into a gentleman. Mills was Lean’s age at the time of shooting, 38!

    In watching this again, several shots and scenes struck me as quite memorable. I loved the tracking shot in the courtroom where the judge is reading off his finally verdict and we realize that every person in the shot is to be hanged. The long shot of an endless row of characters ends with the nearly angelic face of the convict, Findlay Currie, his eyes glancing skyward as if searching the heavens for forgiveness. The scene at Wemmick’s home (Ivor Barnard, used again in “Oliver Twist”) with the deaf old man is both comical and strange in how he addresses his father as the old one.

    Finally, there is Jaggers, perfectly realized by Francis Sullivan (He also played Mr. Bumble in Lean’s “Oliver Twist” ironic when he compares the law to an ass!). In at least two different scenes, we see Jaggers scrubbing his hands, reminiscent of Pontius Pilate washing his hands of Jesus’ fate; certainly how the ambitious lawyer must view many of his less than stellar clients.

    As an author, Dickens had it made when writing his novels for publication, only having to write one chapter at a time, releasing them as serials. He often wrote the following chapters based on public reaction. However, he certainly had a great proclivity for using the English language… “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
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    I would have to watch the dvd again to see if the flaws show as prominently on my tv set.

    Wish I had found out earlier:
    THIS HAPPY BREED
    on TCM today at 2 p.m.

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