Category Archives: Profiles

Celebrating Alastair Sim

Alastair Sim - ScroogeThis week marks the 40th anniversary of the death of the Scot who was arguably the most popular comedy actor that Britain ever produced. Alastair Sim, who died on August 19, 1976 at the age of 75, was a comedy genius. He loved to make people laugh and left behind some of the most memorable performances in British cinema history. In just 25 years, he clocked up an impressive 61 films, many of them classics and all of them worth watching for his performance alone.

If the characters portrayed by Sim were assembled for an identity parade, they would make a motley crew. Millicent Fritton, the amply bosomed headmistress of St Trinian’s, would rub shoulders with her male oppo, Weatherby Pond, the frazzled headmaster of the boys’ school in The Happiest Days of Your Life.

Neither Sim’s Scrooge nor Sir Norman, the stressed-out diplomat he played in Innocents in Paris, would have any patience with Bingham, the time-wasting sidekick in the Inspector Hornleigh series of films, or with the dithery middleAlastair Sim - Miss Fritton
-aged man who stands to inherit a fortune only if he gets arrested in Laughter in Paradise.

Although Sim’s celluloid characters are a diverse mob, there are certain similarities in their make-up which are quintessentially Alastair Sim. His rich, commanding voice and heavy-lidded, dark-shadowed eyes lent him an air of menace upon which he capitalised to memorable effect in Scrooge and as various other characters of dubious morals. Sim appeared to play these parts – the lecherous lodger (with dyed black hair combed over to one side) in London Belongs to Me, the initially frightening author in Hue and Cry, and the mysterious title character in An Inspector Calls – with relish and gusto. Indeed, so strongly was he associated with dour, sinister characters that Alec Guinness’s imitative performance as just such a figure in The Ladykillers has often been mistakenly attributed to Sim.

A more true-to-life feature of many of Sim’s characters was the near wicked glee which bubbled just under the surface. Alastair Sim loved to laugh, and once they were underway, his infectious chuckles were impossible to resist. Many of his characters have a mischievous twinkle in their eye. Miss Fritton, who twiddled her pearls as St Trinian’s burned, is an unforgettable example.

Sim could unleash the most manic mirth when required: one of the greatest moments in British cinema history was Scrooge’s childlike Alastair Sim - London Belongs to Me 2joy when he awakes on Christmas morning to find that he has been given a second chance in life. Sim dances around, performs handstands, musses up his hair, kisses his housekeeper, and giggles uncontrollably in a performance that outdoes even James Stewart’s similarly exhilarating “Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!” routine in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Alastair Sim was born in Edinburgh in 1900. His father was a tailor, and the family lived above his shop on Lothian Road (the Filmhouse on Lothian Road bears a plaque in Sim’s memory). With four children to look after – Alastair was the baby – as well as the shop to clean, it must have been a struggle for his mother, but the family’s fortunes improved around the time Sim was six years old, and they moved to Bruntsfield.

After leaving school (Gillespie’s) at 14 and before he went to study chemistry at Edinburgh University, Sim did a stint working as a messenger boy for his father’s business, but proved to be far too easily distracted from his job and was sacked when he failed to deliver a suit at the promised time. His excuse? He had spotted some of his friends playing cricket in the Meadows and had stopped to watch.

Towards the end of the First World War, Sim was in the Officers’ Training Corps but luckily the Armistice was signed before he saw any action. Shortly after that, he lived rough in the highlands for a year, joining a group of itinerant workers. On returning to Edinburgh, he had various jobs before he eventually turned his attention to speech training and elocution, a subject about which he was passionate. By 1927, he was at Edinburgh’s New College, lecturing parsons on how to avoid sounding like parsons. He was also running his own School of Drama and Speech Training in the city.

It was around this time that he first met his future wife, Naomi Plaskitt. She was 12 years old and her school, St George’s, was staging a production of WB Yeats’s The Land of Heart’s Desire in which she was to feature. Her teacher had met Sim and invited him to play a key part in the production. Over an afternoon tea with Sim and her teacher, who, she later realised, probably saw him as a potential beau, Alastair Sim - Green For DangerNaomi first fell in love with her future husband. He was undoubtedly unaware of this, but he became a friend to her family – her mother was bringing her and her sister up alone – and their marriage, just after her 18th birthday, in 1932, seemed to be the logical next step after years’ of close friendship.

After she left school, Naomi had become Sim’s secretary at his school, where she also studied. She is the first to admit, in her memoirs, that their relationship – although endorsed by her mother – must have looked highly suspect. At one point, shortly after Sim moved to London, he shared a flat with Naomi and her mother. “I wonder now,” she wrote in Dance and Skylark in 1987, “what his friends must have made of our relationship – the tall man looking older than his years and the small, shy girl looking younger than hers. I must have been like a happy dog, always at his heels… I don’t think it occurred to either of us that our relationship might appear unusual.” They went on to have a daughter, Merlith, in 1940, and their marriage lasted until Sim’s death. Naomi died in 1999.

Sim had moved to London in the early 1930s to pursue his dream of working in professional theatre – he had staged many successful amateur productions in Edinburgh and was keen to become a professional director. He was advised to establish himself as an actor first so he gave up his lectureship and closed down his School of Drama and Speech Training. His first job was a small part in a production of Othello starring the great black star Paul Robeson. Before long, he was winning rave reviews for his performances as Shylock, Captain Hook and Prospero.

It was the silver screen, however, which catapulted Sim into the public consciousness. Between 1935 and 1940, he honed his abundant, and largely physical, comic skills in no fewer than 25 supporting roles. His performance as a genie in Alf’s Button Afloat in 1938 left an indelible impression on the future Minder star George Cole who later said that he waited for the end credits to roll in order to find out who this bug-eyed actor was.

Three years later, George Cole made his film debut, appearing with Sim in Cottage to Let. Sim had befriended Cole when they both appeared in a Ministry of Information film about saving fuel. In it, the schoolboy, played by Cole, reprimands Sim’s Nero for “wasting Alastair Sim - Hue and Cry 2good fuel” and hits him over the head with his violin.

Cole, an adopted teenager, became the Sims’ evacuee at their country cottage during the Blitz, and soon became part of the family. He went on to act alongside his mentor in many movies and has described Sim as “a deeply caring person who had a passion for teaching young people to think for themselves”. Sim’s respect for the young was reciprocated: in 1948, he was voted rector of Edinburgh University with a landslide victory over Harold Macmillan. Hundreds of students turned out to greet him when he was installed in his post.

By then, Sim was a British box office star. His first starring role was as the droll Inspector Cockrill in the 1946 mystery Green for Danger. However, his best known work dates from the 1950s when he starred in Scrooge, The Happiest Days of Your Life, Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright, Folly to be Wise, Innocents in Paris, The Green Man and the St Trinian’s films. His performance as Miss Fritton is said to have influenced Robin Williams when he did his own transvestite turn as Mrs Doubtfire.

Merlith McKendrick, who has clearly inherited her father’s impish sense of fun, tells a story about how she used to show a publicity shot of her father as both Millicent Fritton and her ne’er do well brother Clarence, from the St Trinian’s films, to classmates and tell them the couple in the picture were her parents.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Sim continued to work – on TV, in films and, mostly, in the theatre where, in 1969, he gave one of his greatest performances – as the hapless title character of The Magistrate. He continued to work right up until not long before his death from cancer.

Throughout Sim’s career, he was keen to be seen as an actor, rather than a celebrity, and he was consistent in his refusal to play the celebrity game: he would not sign autographs and he avoided giving interviews. Nevertheless, he was voted the most popular British star in 1950 and is undoubtedly still one of the best-loved even today.Alastair Sim - Happiest Days

 

Alastair Sim - THe Green Man

1 Comment

Filed under Profiles

Kevin Brownlow: The Voice for the Silent Era

Kevin BrownlowKevin Brownlow is the Indiana Jones of the cinema world. Over the course of a six-decade obsession with silent movies, he has scoured the globe in the quest for lost gems of silent cinema. When there were still silent era movers and shakers alive, he tracked them down and gave them a voice. He has restored and resurrected some of the greatest films to emerge from the 1910s and 1920s. His services to cinema have earned him many plaudits but few as prestigious as the honorary lifetime achievement Academy Award with which he was presented at the 2010 Oscars.

Brownlow’s love affair with silent cinema began when he was a schoolboy and silent films were not only unfashionable, but regarded as a bit of a joke. Now, as a septuagenarian, his love is as strong as ever – but it is now widely shared: silent film seems increasingly to be celebrated (The Artist anyone?), not least by dedicated film festivals such as our own Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness which Brownlow will attend this week to introduce his definitive documentary on silent star Lon Chaney.

So, how did a boy hitting adolescence in the era of splashy musicals, glorious Technicolor and Ealing’s golden age become so obsessed with films made in the earliest years of cinema that it became his life’s work? And how was he even exposed to them, given that they were already out of vogue before he was born?

Brownlow explains: “I was sent to boarding school– a grim place. The only good thing the headmaster did for us was every Sunday Edna Purviance & Charlie Chaplinevening in the winter he would show us films in the chapel. He couldn’t afford a sound projector so we saw silent films which you could, then, still rent from photographic shops. So I saw the films of my parents’ generation and they made a great impression on me. I loved Harold Lloyd, and Chaplin – because his leading lady Edna Purviance (left, with Chaplin) looked a bit like my mother, and I loved seeing her.”

Not only did these screenings introduce Brownlow to silent films; it also planted a seed in his brain. “I realised that you could easily turn any room into a cinema with a projector, so I went on and on at my parents for one. They eventually got me a projector for Christmas when I was ten, and I realised I’d made a ridiculous mistake – I’d forgotten to say ‘movie’ projector; I got a still one.”

Aged 11, Brownlow finally had the right projector but only two films to play on it so, as he puts it, he “had to go out into the streets of London and look for more”. In his first port of call he found a pile of films that fitted his projector. “I didn’t know any of the people in them but my parents recognised Douglas Fairbanks at once – he was their favourite – and I was thrilled.” The 1916 film was entitled American Aristocracy.

“Later on,” adds Brownlow, “I discovered that the man who played the villain was living quite close by, in London. He was now an agent and he knew exactly who was coming in and out of London. He used to tell me things like: ‘King Vidor, Hyde Park Hotel – tell him I sent you!’ That’s how it all started.”

“It all” refers to Brownlow’s weird and wonderful navigation through the scattered society of silent movie folk who were still around when he was beginning to make his name as a film historian and restorer. Through tip-offs, mutual acquaintances, his own initiative and lots of what he calls “happy accidents”, he managed to meet many of the greats – the likes of Buster Keaton and Gloria Swanson – long before he made his landmark, and epic, 1980 television documentary Hollywood.

Indeed, the first big silent star Brownlow met turned out to be working a few streets away from his family home. By 1954, Bessie Love Fairbanks & Pickfordwas working as a stage actress, touring Britain. Brownlow spotted her name on the playbill for the local theatre and, in disbelief, sent a note to her asking “Are you THE Bessie Love?”. He told her he had a 9.5mm film of her from 1916, and she asked to see it.

Brownlow recalls: “We were all a bit concerned because the house we lived in had been very beaten up by the Blitz – bits kept falling off. My mother had put a very heavy curtain across the door to keep out the cold, and when Bessie came in, the whole pelmet fell on top of her. Luckily, we heard giggles coming from beneath and she thought it a huge joke. She turned out to be absolutely delightful, and became a friend for the rest of her life. In fact, on the Hollywood series, we took her with us to Los Angeles to help us with difficult people – and she got us Mary Astor!”

Having been stood up by Mary Pickford (pictured above, with her husband Douglas Fairbanks) during his first expedition to Hollywood, in 1964, when he notched up 28 interviews in ten days, Brownlow finally managed to interview her during a visit to Britain in the 1960s. “Luckily I met a film man here who was married to her niece. She used to come over frequently to visit her so I was included in one of those meetings. What got me the invitation was my promise to show her a film starring her brother. She wanted very much to see him again – he’d died in 1933. So it was very moving.”

Lon Chaney, the subject of the documentary A Thousand Faces which opens the Hippodrome Festival on Wednesday, died during the transition period from silent movies to talkies and is, says Brownlow, an immensely important figure in film history. “Why? Because he had the most extraordinary ability to wear make-up as though it was natural, and as soon as you saw his character, you believed him. The fact that he could transform himself into The Phantom of the Opera (below) or The Hunchback of Notre Dame just fascinated audiences at the time who had never seen anybody conveying the disabled self so powerfully.”

To begin with, the young Brownlow couldn’t understand his appeal – until he saw a print of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “You felt a sympathy for this hideous looking character that only a great actor could convey. It was repeated years and years later – that Lon Chaney approach – by John Hurt in The Elephant Man. He was able to put on a make-up which would make people run out of the Lon Chaney - Phantomtheatre normally, but he put such humanity into it that you were quite fascinated and touched by the man.”

What’s clear from talking to Brownlow is that, as much as anything else, it’s his infectious and inexhaustible passion for silent film that has opened doors for him – and which drives him onwards. Asked if there’s a single lost film which tops his (vast) Holy Grail list, he immediately replies: “Yes, a film called Hollywood, from 1923, starring everybody in silent Hollywood. Everybody you think of has cameos and it’s very tongue-in-cheek and full of experimental scenes. It would be really fascinating to see.”

* Lon Chaney – A Thousand Faces, followed by Q&A, is screening at the Hippodrome, Bo’ness, on Wednesday March 12. Tickets for all events are available from www.hippfest.co.uk or the Hippodrome Box office on 01324 506850

First published in Scotland on Sunday on March 9th, 2014

Leave a comment

Filed under Profiles

Ray Harryhausen: The Architect of Childhood Nightmares

Ray HarryhausenI was lucky enough to interview Ray Harryhausen (who has just died) back in February 2005, for Scotland on Sunday. Here’s the article:

IF the name Ray Harryhausen doesn’t conjure up images of sword-wielding skeletons, many-headed monsters and super-size apes then you clearly had a misspent youth. This master animator, the most famous exponent of stop-motion animation, is, to his art, what Hitchcock was to the thriller and what Disney was to the feature-length cartoon. The list of films which boast special effects by Harryhausen includes many of the most imaginative and dazzling of their era, and such is their timeless appeal that this long retired 85-year-old is still asked about them on an almost daily basis.

Despite being far too young to have worked on it, one film with which Harryhausen has long been linked is the original, 1933, version of King Kong. His well-known passion for the film has led to his becoming, over the years, something of a spokesperson for it. Now, with Peter Jackson’s new take on the story due in cinemas next week and with the original film coming out on DVD, Harryhausen is relishing the chance to relive the thrilling experience of seeing King Kong the first time round.

He says: “I was 13 when I saw it and it changed my life. It had an enormous impact on me. Afterwards, I found out all about the glories of stop-motion animation – and I haven’t been the same since! It wasn’t just the technical aspects of it: it was the story as well. We had never seen anything so outrageously fantastic before.”

Although, as Harryhausen points out, it wasn’t a “eureka, I’m going to work in cinema” moment, he did begin to take a serious interest in this new form of animation which he had first encountered when he was taken to see the dinosaur movie The Lost World, back when he was five. The stop-motion animation in both it and King Kong was done by Willis O’Brien and by a stroke of luck Harryhausen discovered that one of his classmates was O’Brien’s niece.

“I called him up and he invited me to his office to see his preparations for a film entitled War Eagles. I walked into his office, and saw three rooms with every inch of wall space covered in drawings of War Eagles. I almost flipped. There weren’t many people interested in stop-motion at that time so I guess he thought I was rather unique.” Although Harryhausen had pals – including the future sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury – who loved King Kong, his own experiments with animation were pretty much solo efforts. “I did everything myself. If I wanted something I had to make it, so I had to learn how.”

O’Brien shared his technique – of editing together shots of a jointed model in a succession of subtly different positions in order to suggest independent movement – with Harryhausen. It gradually became apparent that Harryhausen’s hobby was his vocation, but he was aware that special effects alone do not make for a rewarding cinematic experience. He explains: “I had to learn many different skills – I took classes in writing, film editing and art direction.”

After serving in the Army Motion Picture Unit, where he worked with the great director Frank Capra and Dr Seuss creator Theodore Geisel, Harryhausen embarked on a series of short films based on fairytales before joining O’Brien to work on a project which would reunite many of the members of the cast and crew from King Kong. Mighty Joe Young (1949) had a similar storyline to Kong but its plot and characters were clearly inferior to its spectacular, Oscar-winning, special effects.

During the 1950s, Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation – which he went on to christen Dynamation – found a home in the blossoming sci-fi genre. He brought his love of dinosaurs into play by devising the special effects for The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story about a prehistoric creature which is awakened after an atomic explosion. The film’s success guaranteed Harryhausen work in a string of monster-on-the-rampage movies in the 1950s.

However, he was soon ready for fresh challenges. “I got tired of destroying cities,” he jokes. “In 20 Million Miles To Earth we destroyed Rome, in It Came From Beneath the Sea we destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and in Earth Vs Flying Saucers, we destroyed Washington. In fact, I knocked over the Washington Monument long before Tim Burton did in Mars Attacks!”

But it was in the world of mythology that Harryhausen had the most fun – and produced some of his most unforgettable fantasy sequences. The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) blew audiences away with its cast of mythological monsters. He says: “I loved the Arabian Nights films they made in the 1940s. They would always talk about the Cyclops and the roc but you never saw them on the screen – they were always offstage.”

The Harryhausen sequences that most people remember best are those of the sinister skeletons sword-fighting with live actors in The Seventh Voyage of  Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, the 1963 film which Tom Hanks said was, for him, “the greatest picture of all time”.

Harryhausen laughs as he shrugs off the charge that he was responsible for a lot of childhood nightmares: “We tried to make the skeletons so that they weren’t too frightening but skeletons have always been associated with death, and of course this causes problems when you use a skeleton in a film – how are you going to kill it, if it represents death? So we had to have it fall off a staircase and break into pieces in The Seventh Voyage, and then they leaped into the water – and of course skeletons can’t swim very well!”

Leave a comment

Filed under Profiles