Trevor Hogg profiles the career of acclaimed filmmaker Sir David Lean in the first of a three-part feature…
Even as the Germans bombed London during WWII, the British film industry soldiered on, allowing a new directorial talent to emerge – David Lean.
Overshadowed by an academically smarter younger brother, the floundering eighteen year old found his true calling when he bought a Pathé-Baby 9.5 m.m. camera. With the aid of the contacts of his accountant father, David Lean was able to get an apprenticeship at Gaumont Studios. Once there, the trainee made an unexpected discovery. “I was knocked backwards,” recalled Lean, who used to watch directors assemble their raw footage into a movie, “by the effect one could get by cutting from a long shot to a close-up, or a close-up of a woman intercut with a close-up of a man. It all seemed so real, much better than it seemed in the studio when we shot it.” From that moment on, the eager camera assistant spent what time he could in the cutting room and his persistence paid off; a major blunder by a newsreel editor enabled him to then move into the vacated position.
Because of David Lean’s editing ingenuity, the Gaumont Studio’s departing News Editor took his protégé with him to British Movietone News. No sooner than he had arrived than the new hire was loaned out to cut his first feature length picture entitled These Charming People (1931). The rookie approached his assignment as if it was a newsreel, which did not go over well with the producers of the movie. “I had vastly overcut it,” confessed the acclaimed filmmaker. “It jumped all over the place. It was abominable.” Consequently, he found himself subjected to a demotion.
Fortunately, Lean’s reputation was not permanently damaged; a colleague’s recommendation led him to work in Paris on the Foreign Legion melodrama Insult (1932). “After awhile I became a sort of film doctor,” he revealed. “If they had a film that was much too long, or a film they were in trouble with, I used to come in and re-cut it.” In further reference to his days as a British movie editor, the Academy Award winning director remarked, “I worked on a lot of bad pictures, and bad pictures are very good for one’s ego, because the worse they are, the more chance you have of making them better. And I started to think, as numerous people who work with me think, that I could do better than they could – and that gave me a real urge to do something in the way of direction.” The wish to become a director would be fulfilled by a theatrical legend.
“This is Noël Coward.” said the distinguished voice on the other end of the line. “I wish to speak to David Lean.” As a result of that phone call, Lean went on to receive his first co-directorial credit working alongside the famous English actor and playwright. In Which We Serve, released in 1941, was inspired by the sinking of the H.M.S. Kelly off the coast of Crete in May of the same year. The first draft was written for a six to eight hour seafaring epic. To rectify the situation, Lean suggested Coward see a recent motion picture called Citizen Kane. Impressed by Orsen Welles’s dramatic utilization of flashbacks, the playwright cutup the narrative of the WWII tale and used the men clinging to the Carley float to move from one section of the movie to another. On the film’s set, the responsibilities were split in half with the actors being handled by Noël Coward and the camera setups by David Lean. Even with the support of Lord Mountbatten, finding a distributor for the war propaganda film proved to be difficult. Ironically, after the movie was publicly screened several of its cast members – John Mills, Richard Attenborough, Bernard Miles, Kay Walsh, Celia Johnson, and Michael Wilding went on to become stars.
Delighted with the commercial success of In Which We Serve, Coward wanted his co-director, and cinematographer Ronald Neame to adapt all of his stage plays into films. To handle the request, a business partnership was established between Lean, Neame and producer Anthony Havelock-Allen in the form of Cineguild. The first feature length production for the movie enterprise occurred in 1944, with David Lean situated alone in the director’s chair. “It’s awfully hard doing a stage play, it really is,” remarked Lean. “You’ve got to bring in so many ideas to make it a screenplay. A film demands an intimate look at the scene which cannot be done on the stage.”
This Happy Breed was a small scale play written by Noël Coward spanning several decades in the life of an ordinary British family. A couple of controversial decisions where made by Lean. “When I first wanted to do the picture in colour, everybody thought it was disgraceful. I had all the highbrows at Denham [Studios] saying, ‘Why on earth are you doing it in colour?’ I said Why not? It’s new and it excites me.” The other was not to cast Coward as the family’s patriarch, a role he had performed on the stage. David Lean explained his reason for choosing Robert Newton rather than the story’s originator. “Noël used to think nothing of his writing ability and nothing of his ability to compose music. What he loved and yearned for above anything else was praise as an actor. And quite, honestly, I don’t think he was a terribly good actor unless he came out with a cigarette-holder and a dressing gown.” This Happy Breed went on to become Britain’s top moneymaking film for 1944.
A year later, despite the lingering resentment over the casting snub, Noël Coward was not deterred from working with his director again. Initially, however, Lean was reluctant to make Blithe Spirit his sophomore effort. “I said to Noël, I’m not ready to do this sort of stuff. I know nothing about comedy, especially high comedy. And with this you haven’t a yardstick with which to compare it.” He also had reservations about the supernatural elements found in the tale. “It’s completely unreal. A ghost of a dead wife in the house, the present wife can’t hear her, the husband can and he talks to her – I don’t know how to handle it.” When told this, the undaunted playwright responded, “Nonsense, my dear. Of course you can.” Unfortunately, audiences disagreed with Coward causing the movie to be a commercial failure. One consolation was that Blithe Spirit did win an Academy Award for special effects.
Also released in 1945, was the third cinematic feature directed by David Lean, which would later inspire the Billy Wilder classic The Apartment (1960). The first draft entitled Still Life took Noël Coward ten days to write, but major revisions were required. “I read it and said, Noël, I don’t think it’s any good.” reiterated Lean. “This woman arrives at a railway station and gets some soot in her eye, meets this man and they arrange to meet the next Thursday and it goes on and in the end they part. It’s got no surprises in it. It’s not intriguing. You’re not saying to the audience, watch carefully this is interesting.” When pressed by Coward to give him an example, the British filmmaker responded. “We start with a fairly busy waiting-room. There are two people sitting at a table talking, a man and a woman. Through the door comes another woman who sits down at the table. As she sits talking and talking, you realize there’s something not quite right going on and a train comes into the station. ‘That’s your train,’ says the woman. ‘Yes,” says the man, ‘I must go. Goodbye.’ He shakes hands with the other woman and then you go back and explain that this is the last time they see each other. And you play the first scene in the picture – it made no sense to you at all and you didn’t hear half the dialogue – again, and that’s the end of the film, with an added piece perhaps with the husband. He [Coward] said, ‘Say no more,’ and off he went for about four days, and he came back with what was essentially Brief Encounter.”
David Lean did not expect the movie, which made him a public figure and provided him with his first of eight Oscar nominations for Best Director, to become profitable. “We defied all the rules of box office success,” he marveled. “There were no big star names. There was an unhappy ending to the main love story. The film was played in unglamorous surroundings. And the three leading characters were approaching middle age. A few years ago this would have been a recipe for box office disaster, but this wasn’t the case with Brief Encounter. The film did very well in this country [Britain] in what are known as ‘the better-class halls’ and [it had] a similar success but on a smaller scale, in New York.”
Of all the cinematic adaptations of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, the most revered continues to be the British director’s 1946 version. After reading a dreadful script written by a Dickensian expert, David Lean decided to take matters into his own hands. “As I read the book for the umpteeth time,” he declared, ”I wrote down in a sort of headline form those scenes, or parts of scenes, which I thought would make a good movie, and I left out anything I thought dull.” The idea was a good one though there was a major problem that needed to be addressed – the lack of continuity. “Then we sat down and tried to link the episodes and fill in the gaps.” stated Lean. “That’s how it worked, and it worked rather well. What we did, we did proud, if we had a Dickens scene, we gave it full value.”
With regards to selecting his cast, Lean reunited with John Mills who played Pip; for Herbert Pocket he chose a young actor who would go on to star in another five of his films – Alec Guinness. He was so impressed by Guinness’s stage presentation of Great Expectations that it convinced the director to film the literary masterpiece. Shortly after the movie was released Lean said, “What we were trying to do was to create that larger-than-life picture which is really most characteristic of Dickens’ kind of writing. The scenes of the boy, Pip, lying terrified in his bedroom after a night of fear, creeping downstairs at dawn and then stealing the food for the convict out on the marshes was something Dickens wrote as if he were inside the boy himself. We tried to make the audience share Pip’s fear. If we hadn’t done this, we should have been faced with quite a different problem – making the audience accept what is really a pretty exaggerated piece of melodrama.”
The overwhelmingly positive reception by critics and moviegoers resulted in the film winning Oscars for Best Black and White Art and Set Decoration, and Best Black and White Cinematography; as well, it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Noël Coward once gave David Lean some career guidance when he declared. “My dear, never come out of the same hole twice.” The director ignored the sage advice in 1948 when he produced another Dickens classic. “All I could think of,” Lean explained, “because I had read it and thought it would make a jolly good movie, was Oliver Twist.” The movie’s production manager, Norman Spencer, in making reference to the cinematic inclinations of Lean remarked, “David used to regard the audience as a friendly enemy. He used to say, ‘I’d love to make a film in which there’s no dialogue for at least the first quarter of an hour. I want to see the chap in the audience with a cigarette – he can’t bring himself to light it because he’s so gripped.’” Spence went on to add, “He always tried to start his picture without dialogue, and Oliver Twist is a marvelous example of that. It really works one hundred percent.”
To get himself chosen for the role of the villainous Fagin, Alec Guinness transformed himself during a makeup test. When he walked onto the set Guinness gave his director quite the shock. “He came on looking not far removed from what he looks like in the film,” recalled Lean. “Of course I was bowled over by it and he got the part without another word.” As for the title character, an appeal went out for boys between the ages of twelve and fifteen; there were over fifteen hundred applications. The final choice of John Howard Davies happened by accident; his father used to work with Lean as a writer when the filmmaker was a newsreel editor.
“I am not mad about violence on the screen,” stated Lean. He went on to explain his innovated approach in showing the killing of Nancy and the aftermath of her murder. “To do the death of Nancy as described – Bill Sikes hitting her on the head – would be disgusting. So I thought of the idea of the dog bolting for the door when Sikes picks up the cudgel. That’s not in the book, but it worked like a treat – the dog trying to get out, with the cries and bangs laid over it, and much more frightening than showing it because the audiences fill in the gaps they haven’t seen.”
Even with the growing controversy surrounding Alec Guinness’s portrayal of Fagan as being “the worst caricature of a Jew ever depicted in an English-language film”, Oliver Twist went on to be nominated for Best British Film at the inaugural BAFTAS. After he returned from a much needed holiday, David Lean found more trouble waiting for him in the form of his next project, The Passionate Friends.
Read part two and part three right here.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.