Trevor Hogg profiles the career of legendary British filmmaker Carol Reed in the first of a two-part feature…
Following in the footsteps of his father Sir Herbert Beerholm Tree, who founded the Royal School of Dramatic Arts, Carol Reed decided to pursue a career in the theatre. “I wasn’t a very good actor,” reflected the renowned British filmmaker. “I began as a spear carrier and then appeared through the countryside in repertory, but though I got decent parts and so on, I was never very good. Yet I’m glad I did it for seven years or so because it helped me subsequently in understanding the actor’s problems.”
As an assistant stage manager, Reed became acquainted with thriller writer Edgar Wallace (co-creator of King Kong) who in 1927 would go on to become the chairman of the newly created British Lion Film Corporation. Wallace took the young performer with him and made him his personal assistant. During the day, Carol Reed would help supervise the film adaptations of the author’s novels, and at night he worked as a stage manager. When Edgar Wallace died in 1932, Reed decided to join Earling Studios as a dialogue director. The new hire rose through the ranks and three years later was given his first major assignment, co-directing It Happened in Paris with Robert Wyler (older brother of Hollywood legend William Wyler). In the comedy, the son of an American millionaire (John Loder) travels to France to study art but instead falls in love.
For his solo directorial effort in 1936, Carol Reed shot the sea adventure Midshipman Easy. Set in the 1790s, a young man (Hughie Green) runs away to join the British Royal Navy; he rescues a Spanish woman, and battles smugglers and pirates. The transition to being in charge behind the camera proved to be difficult for the rookie moviemaker. “I was indefinite and indecisive,” remarked Reed. “I thought I had picked up a lot about cutting and camera angles, but now, when I had to make all the decisions myself and was not just mentally approving or criticizing what somebody else decided, I was pretty much lost. Fortunately, I realized that this was the only way to learn – by making mistakes.”
Carol Reed returned to the comedy genre in 1936 with Laburnum Grove; a forger (Edmund Gwenn) who tries to get rid of his sponging relatives, finds himself in danger of being arrested. Even with the low budget movies, the filmmaker was already making an impression on the likes of British author Graham Greene (The Heart of the Matter). Once Reed “gets the right script,” observed the director’s future collaborator, “[he] will prove far more than efficient.” Also released that year was the drama Talk of the Devil, the first film to be produced at the legendary Pinewood Studios. A conniving Stephen Findlay (Basil Sydney) double-crosses a mimic (Ricardo Cortez) he employs in his attempt to gain control of a successful shipping company.
Movie audiences saw another pair of Carl Reed directed pictures in 1937. Who’s Your Lady Friend? is based on the German musical of the same name that was filmed in 1934. Adapted into a comedy with music, romantic mayhem ensues in a case of mistaken identity. The musical score features a minor hit entitled Moonlight and Music; cast as a maid was Sarah Churchill (the daughter of Winston Churchill).
For his second effort that year, Reed reunited with actor Edmund Gwenn to produce the drama Penny Paradise. While celebrating winning a lucrative English football pool, a tugboat captain (Gwenn) finds the validity of his claim being questioned. A decade later, Carol Reed’s leading man received an Oscar for his performance as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street.
A major policy was introduced by the British government in regards to the nation’s film industry in 1938. To combat homegrown movies being low-budget imitations of Hollywood pictures, a domestic film quota was implemented. Carol Reed was able to take advantage of the new infusion of funds; he also had his own ideas on how his countrymen could improve their cinematic storytelling. “In time I believe we shall get away from the eternal happy ending – it is difficult to get an audience really interested in the problems of the two main characters of a story where they know in the end it will all work out all right, however, difficult it may seem. The French have done it. Why can’t we?”
While the British film industry was dramatically changing, Carol Reed shot the drama Bank Holiday which follows a group of men and women played by John Lodge (Little Women), Margaret Lockwood (Lorna Doone), Hugh Williams (Insult), and Kathleen Harrison (Hobson’s Choice) as they rush to meet the trains heading for the seaside. Reed also wanted to appeal to the nation’s funny bone so in 1938 he also produced the comedy Climbing High. An already engaged wealthy aristocrat (Michael Redgrave) pretends to be poor in an attempt to woo a model (Jessie Matthews). The movie featured an early appearance of Leslie Phillips (Pool of London) as a child actor, as well as Alastair Sim whom many film critics believe gave the definitive performance of Ebenezer Scrooge in Scrooge (1951).
As domestic film production increased in Britain so did the output of Carol Reed, who directed three movies released in 1939. A Girl Must Live depicts two gold-digging chorus girls Gloria Lind (Renee Huston) and Clytie Devine (Lilli Palmer) who compete for the affections of the Earl of Pangborough (Hugh Sinclair), only to have their efforts thwarted by the pure-hearted chorine Leslie James (Margaret Lockwood). The second release for the filmmaker was based on the novel of the same name by A.J. Cronin, The Stars Look Down; it depicts the hardships of a mining community in North East England. For the drama, which the director referred to as “a gloomy little piece”, an exact replica of the Workington mine was built; it was the largest exterior set ever constructed for a British film at that time. The large cast for the film included Reed veterans Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood as well as Emlyn Williams (I, Claudius), and Nancy Price (The Crucifix). The intricately plotted third film released in 1939, Girl in the News, tended to be ignored by Carol Reed in later interviews. A young lawyer (Barry K. Barnes) clears a nurse (Margaret Lockwood) of charges of systematically killing her patients; he starts to have doubts about his acquitted client’s innocence when another murder occurs on her shift. “Picture-making is often sheer misery,” observed Reed. “Planning them is great fun. Making them is rather like riding on a switchback at a fair; you hardly dare imagine what is coming next.”
What did come next for Carol Reed was Night Train to Munich (1940) which was questionably billed as the sequel to The Lady Vanishes (1938) by Alfred Hitchcock. Both stories occur around trains but only two characters from the original picture carry over, the eccentric and cricket mad English travelers Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne). As the German Army marches into Prague a scientist (Felix Aylmer) flees while his daughter (Margaret Lockwood) is captured and sent to a concentration camp; she escapes with the aid of an undercover German agent (Paul Henreid) who plans to spoil the family reunion in England. Also cast was Rex Harrison, who gained international acclaim for his role of Professor Higgins in Pygmalion (1938); he plays a covert naval officer assigned to protect the character portrayed by Aymer.
When adapting material for the big screen, such as Kipps by novelist H.G. Wells, Carol Reed remarked, “I think it’s the director’s job – as in the old theatre – to convey faithfully what the author had in mind. Unless you have worked with the author in the first place, you cannot convey to the actors what he had in mind, nor can you convey to the editor in the end the original idea. In making a picture you have got to go back to the first stage to see how important something may be in establishing this scene or that character.” In the 1941 comedy, Mr. Kipps (Michael Redgrave) is a draper assistant who inherits a large fortune; he soon learns that high social status has its own pitfalls. Also starring in the movie was is an actress who became the director’s first wife, Diana Wynyard (Cavalcade). The second project Reed directed in 1941 was A Letter from Home, a seventeen minute film that featured the acting talents of Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter). The cinematic tale received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short; it was part of a series of propaganda pictures the moviemaker made as a member of the British Army’s Film Unit during WWII.
In 1942, Carol Reed slowed his directorial pace. The Young Mr. Pitt is a biopic about William Pitt (Robert Donat) who becomes the youngest prime minister in British history. The story was timely as Pitt’s war with Napoleon Bonaparte mirrored Winston Churchill’s battle with Adolf Hitler. In explaining why he used Robert Bearing to cut a number of his films, Reed stated, “I believe it is essential that the director and the editor should work closely together right through the picture – and I like working with the same editor. You get used to working together – otherwise you’re only beginning to know each other by the end of the picture.” The filmmaker went on to add, “After you’ve been shooting for awhile and are looking at your footage as you go, you begin to see the picture taking shape, establishing a rhythm of its own. Things begin to fall into place by themselves. That’s when you begin to feel the picture’s natural pace and you develop it. You can then work with the actors and mould and shape it.”
Carrying on with his contribution to the war effort, Carol Reed directed The New Lot in 1943. Five new recruits from various backgrounds have different experiences when they join the British Army. The cast includes Robert Donat, Kathleen Harrison, Bernard Lee (Dr. No), Raymond Huntley (Rembrandt), John Laurie (The 39 Steps), Peter Ustinov (Topkapi), and Austin Trevor (Goodbye, Mr. Chips). The movie was thought to be lost until a copy was discovered at a disused Army base in India.
With a screenplay written by British author Eric Ambler (A Coffin for Dimitrios) and actor Peter Ustinov, Reed released the 1944 film The Way Ahead. “I like to work three months or more on a script and come to the floor with it finished to the letter,” revealed the moviemaker who also believes in improvisation. “A director should plan in advance how a scene should be played, but he should always be ready to put the camera here instead of there, and change everything at the last moment if he comes across a better way of doing it.” Starring David Niven (Separate Tables) and Stanley Holloway (Road House), the movie chronicles a group of British Army conscripts sent to North Africa in an attempt to defeat the infamous German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps. The Way Ahead is considered by many to be best feature length picture about British infantrymen.
Co-produced by the U.S. Office of War Information and the British Ministry of Information was the 1945 documentary The True Glory. Even though there were several contributors to the film, which documented the Allies Forces victory on Western Front from Normandy to the fall of the Third Reich, Reed received the directorial credit along with Garson Kanin (Where’s It At). The documentary features an introduction by American General Dwight D. Eisenhower as well as footage shot by 1,400 Allied Forces cameramen; it is narrated from various points of view including that of a French resistor, a Parisian family, an American tank gunner, a nurse, and clerical staff. Promoted with the tagline “The story of your victory…told by the guys who won it!”, The True Glory won the 1946 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The Oscar success placed Carol Reed at the forefront of British filmmakers; it also allowed him the freedom to choose his next project which would be the adaptation of a novel by F.L. Green, Odd Man Out.
Read part 2 here.
Movies… For Free! The Way Ahead (1944)
Movies… For Free! The True Glory (1945)
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.