Trevor Hogg profiles the career of acclaimed filmmaker Sir David Lean in the second of a three-part feature… read the first part here.
“It was one of the worse times I’ve had in my professional life,” reflected David Lean on the circumstances surrounding Ronald Neame’s sophomore directorial picture The Passionate Friends. “I should have never allowed myself to be put in that position. I wanted to help Ronnie, so I was torn in two directions. I saw the rushes and realized at once that it was no good. Then I took over. I stopped for two weeks, got the script and rewrote it with Stanley Hayes. We wrote like hell.”
Based on a sprawling tale of adultery by H.G. Wells, the movie heightened the growing competitiveness between the Cineguild partners. It did not help matters that Lean wrongly believed that Neame lacked the makings of a good director. The other thing bothering the filmmaker caused him to do something unusual. Camera operator Oswald Morris stated, “David hated noise on the set. Even when people were lighting they had to be quiet, and he came up with the idea that maybe they’d be quieter if there was a pianist. He had a grand piano at the back of the set and a pianist played music quite softly. And everything else became softer. David had these very big ears and he could hear dialogue the other side of the stage.”
When asked what he thought of the film, which was released in 1949, Lean answered: “It was not a great success, but I’m quite proud of it. I think it’s rather good.” Upon further reflection the Englishman remarked, “The trouble is you cannot have a real hit with a picture that doesn’t go up at the end. When I say go up, I don’t mean that you’re cheering. But you can be touched, it’s got to have some kind of wave that reaches a certain height and I don’t think it had that. It was rather cold.” The use of flashbacks within flashbacks made the narrative of the movie so confusing that one unimpressed critic wittily wrote, “Mr. Lean has a brief encounter with the inflammation of the flashback.”
Replacing fiction with fact, the subject of the British director’s next cinematic endeavor Madeline centred around a woman who was tried for poisoning her lover during the 1850s. Ann Todd, the leading actress and Lean’s wife at the time, remembered a particular incident that occurred while filming, “There was one scene of me,” she said, “when I ran down the stairs David hurried up the camera [used slow-motion] just for that one shot and my Victorian skirt billowed out. The timing was extraordinary. He used to say that the little scenes in between the big scenes were sometimes more important than the big scenes themselves.” She also remarked, “David liked to have every detail under his thumb. He was the first director I’d worked with in this country to have that sort of presence, to be the master on the set. There used to be moments when he’d get on the set and everything had left him. He’d go and sit very quietly, talking to nobody and we all had to sit quietly until the imagination came back.”
Editor Geoffrey Foot recollected watching the film for the first time with Lean. “Now it’s all together,” Foot suggested to him. “Let’s see it, just the two of us in the theatre. He sat through it in silence and the lights went up and he said, ‘Well, we’ve got a turkey, haven’t we?’ It ran about an hour-fifty then. He went back on the floor and did some extra shooting and then we organized a sneak preview.” The screening proved David Lean’s original assessment to be correct. The audience whistled and hooted so much that Ann Todd left the theatre in tears.
“One of the essentials in the movies is for the audience to feel that they are in the hands of a good storyteller,” remarked the director when assessing why the movie was so poorly received when released in 1950. “They are being led, and what leads them is the intention of the scene. If it has the intention, you will nearly always win through. It somehow carries you on like a wave which breaks on the shore and carries on the beach. All great things have an intention behind them. We didn’t have a real intention on Madeline.” He continued, “It is rather a cold film. I was looking at it in the wrong way. I had no particular feelings for anybody in the picture and as far as movies are concerned that is pretty well fatal. I am not saying that one should sit back and say, ‘This is going to excite the audience.’ I’ve never done that. I set back and say, ‘Does it excite me?’ Somehow it didn’t’ and I think that’s the answer.”
After reading a newspaper article about a plane crash, the filmmaker got the idea for his 1952 movie entitled The Sound Barrier. Collaborating with British producer Alexander Korda, the director spent months visiting aircraft factories and talking to pilots. “One of the chief difficulties,” he said, “was that all the flying people were worried that I was going to do a great big melodrama, that I’d overdo it; then after a short time they saw that I was serious about it, and they were a tremendous help. The more I saw, the keener I became on the subject. This was all before we started to write it. Although we had a dramatic story we really had no story at all, we had a mass of background material.”
Rather than follow the path of previous flying pictures such as Wings (1927), Hell’s Angels (1930), and Dawn Patrol (1938), the decision was made to focus on the postwar accomplishments of the civilian engineers and aviators. With this settled, there remained a major problem which needed to be overcome. “We filmed the opening flying sequence,” revealed Lean, “as a prologue to the credits for a very special reason because round about the time we were doing the script, several people said that nobody would understand what the sound barrier was, so we thought we’d open the film on an incident that actually took place during the war. A pilot put his Spitfire into a dive, and he went faster and faster, and suddenly the machine started to shake, and he pulled on the stick to correct it, and the harder he pulled, the more the nose went down, until he finally throttled back and pulled out of the dive. Now the aeroplane had been shaking madly, and he didn’t know quite what had happened. In fact, he had touched the edge, as it were, of the sound barrier, and we show this as the opening of the film, then follow it with the title Sound Barrier so the first sequence describes what the film is about.”
The second film unit led by Anthony Squire shot the aerial footage while Lean concentrated on filming in the studios as well as capturing a few exteriors required for the story. The British moviemaker opted to use the traveling matte rather than the blatantly obvious back projection for the close-up shots. It was a choice he never regretted revealed Ann Todd who played the wife of the doomed test pilot, “David said the cockpit shooting was the summit of his career as a technician.”
The accolades for The Sound Barrier went well beyond the movie reviews and audiences as the film was awarded Best Foreign Picture by the National Board of Review, Best Picture at the BAFTAS, and an Academy Award for Best Sound.
Six months after seeing the play Hobson’s Choice, which deals with a tyrannical cobbler who has three daughters who are eager to get married, David Lean started to work on the screenplay with Norman Spence. Cast in the title role was a British acting legend. “I adore Charlie,” declared Lean. “Someone asked Laurence Olvier if he had ever worked with a genius and he said, ‘Yes, one – Charles Laughton.’” In reference to the actor’s performance in the original Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), the director remarked, “Remember him as Bligh? I’m sure he was a cardboard cut-out in the script yet Charlie took it, threw it in the air, whirled it around, blew life into it and out came this extraordinary character. And that is a sort of a genius, isn’t it?”
Using the huge cobblestone set featured in The Third Man (1949), Lean constructed the famous “moon walk” sequence where a drunken Hobson chases the elusive reflection of the moon in various puddles until he falls down a barrel chute and into a cellar. To create the moon, a piece of tracing paper on a hoop was lit by a high-intensity spotlight and reflected in a puddle. As for the opening scene, the filmmaker decided to parody the one he used for Great Expectations with the rain, the boot sign creaking in the wind, the deserted shop, and the branches banging against the skylight. Suddenly a door swings opens and a looming shadow emerges which lets out an almighty burp.
During the filming of the 1954 movie, David Lean, like his younger brother Edward, was awarded the CBE – Commander of the British Empire; the honours were not only being bestowed upon him. Hobson’s Choice won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and at the BAFTAS was voted Best British Film.
Summertime (UK: Summer Madness), released in 1955, starred Katharine Hepburn and was David Lean’s favourite movie to make, “I’ve put more of myself in that film than in any other I’ve ever made.” The director did not care for the play The Time of the Cuckoo; however, the concept appealed to him according to his writing collaborator, Norman Spence. “He liked the idea of a sex-starved, spinsterish schoolmistress from Akron, Ohio, going to Venice and being overtaken by the Latin approach towards sex. That’s what hit, David.”
The first draft, written by playwright Arthur Laurents, too rigidly followed his original creation. “Our script became so bloody glamorous it wasn’t true,” remarked Spence on his and Lean’s own attempt to compose a screenplay. Hepburn suggested screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart who won an Oscar for The Philadelphia Story (1940), but his contribution lacked originality and was aborted. With the shooting date quickly approaching, the situation was becoming desperate. Good fortune arrived in the form of novelist H.E. Bates who went on to write the final script with David Lean. “I knew him first,” told the director, “through his short stories – some of the best English short stories ever written. And there are dozens of them. There was one short story when he describes the bubbles of water on a girl’s back as she sits by a swimming pool. Terrifically sexy.”
Impressed by William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953), which was shot on location in Rome, the filmmaker decided to produce the movie in Venice. “A lot of Summertime takes place in a pensione,” explained Lean, “and Kate [Hepburn] had a scene where she was walking across the terrace. She did a rehearsal and tripped over a loose tile. I thought, ‘Oh, damn, what a nuisance. Let’s do it once more.’ She tripped again and I realized there was nothing wrong. I examined the spot and there was no loose tile at all. She used the tripping to show her nervousness of the situation. She was adept at sliding things in like that, things you would never dream were invented.”
Plagued by production delays, the film was thousands of dollars over budget. “I was shooting her [Hepburn] final close shot,” said David Lean, “as she sees the flower, nods, waves and sees him disappear from view. She somehow produced real tears and I was so delighted that I went along the corridor, put my arm around her and told her how pleased I was. Swallowing back the tears she said, ‘You darned fool you’ve given them the end of the picture.’ She was right.” The pressure to finish the filming escalated to the point that one of the movie’s producers had Italian police tell the director he had forty-eight hours to leave the country. The problems with the producers did not end there; when the final cut was screened David Lean was overruled when he insisted on that line of dialogue Rossano Brazzi says to Katharine Hepburn, “You are like a hungry child who is given ravioli to eat. No, you say, I want beefsteak. My dear girl, you are hungry…eat the ravioli.” should remain in the picture.
Summertime went on to receive Oscar nominations for Lean and Katharine Hepburn; the British moviemaker went on to be honoured as the Best Director by New York Film Critics Circle Awards.
Attracted by the novel The Wind Cannot Read, David Lean decided he would film author Richard Mason’s tragic love story. The project was aborted (later revived by director Ralph Thomas in 1958) with the death of Alexander Korda and the arrival of Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel, who had another book in mind for his new creative partner. Written by Pierre Boulle, the satirical tale was called Le Pont de la Rivière Kwai which translates into English as The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Read part three right here!
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.