The Ingrid Pitt column: how cinema lost its innocence
Ingrid remembers a classic era of filmmaking, before CGI or even colour came along to spoil everything...
I suppose you never outgrow what you grow up with. A lot of the things that you loved as a child get plastered over and only show themselves on occasions. There are even more things that you learn to live with but deep down hate. Like getting up in the morning, eating cake with a fork and writing a ‘thank you’ for something you didn’t want. The cinema is a case in point. Now everything is in colour and, even worse, ruined by CGI.
Not that special effects aren’t part of the mystic of movies – it is just that at the moment some directors forget that it is the actors and not the effects that the fans come to see. When colour first became common on the screen it was a magical mystery tour to cuddle up in the back of the 1/9d’s to watch the likes of Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart etc. gallantly giving their all for God, Country and beautifully coiffured and painted Crumpet. Looking at them now they seem so boring. The flamboyant hero has been seen off by the crude sexual innuendo of the Bond character and the unromantic machinations of Matt Damon in the Bourne series of films. Which is in reality just one film with name changes. And not much of that as far as the titles are concerned. An accusation you can also lay on 007 I guess – although they do conjure up some zappy titles.
Sci-fi is one genre to benefit from the freely lavished application of CGI. But why do they all seem so familiar? OK! We’ve been into space, looked out the porthole and seen Mars whip by. We have floating around weightlessly and seen friends splurged when their space suit has been breached in outer space. HAL has gone potty and proved that in the last knockings man is superior to machines. Although a laptop in the hands of an Earthman is the most powerful weapon in space. We’ve also settled on the fact that Mankind is the problem with the planet. The virus that is killing it off from under the ozone layer. It has been predicated that either monkeys or giant insects will take over when we’ve killed ourselves off and that Aliens who come to do the job are less efficient than nature. That said, in my opinion, CGI should then be confined to space.
I find that when I’ve suffered a spell of night starvation and watched TV while scoffing a bowl of Cheerios, I have the options of watching either a gang of girls being rogered by some over-endowed men, crappy, low budget cop films or black and white movies from the pre ’60s era. As I said, it all goes back to what you grew up with. The first film I saw was Alexander Korda’s interpretation of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book. I was about ten at the time and hadn’t had much chance to visit the cinema before this. In fact I was barely aware of its existence. I was hooked immediately. Even now when I chance upon it in the schedules I have to see it. For me it is a time machine which immediately transports me back to that time, sitting in the dark, clutching my Pappa’s hand and watching the antics of Sabu the Elephant Boy.
OK! So I’m biased. But I still feel that the old black and white films had a lot to offer that more recent films lack. I guess, for one thing, the directors had to work a lot harder at things like the lighting and camera positioning. Actors were still trying to make the transition from over florid stage performances to getting it altogether in close-up. Learning that a small flicker of a cheek muscle could convey as much as the extravagantly flourished hand and the bowed head of penitence. And there was a huge pool of trained actors from which to draw and there were still masses of theatres where they could train. Only a couple of decades earlier the same breed of actor had to learn to love the microphone. A lot of them didn’t make it. Those that did found themselves with stimulating contracts and a desire to live the life that the fame brought.
Writers were paid a pittance, directors either graduated to megalomaniacs, vying with God as creators or were cast aside. Actors became the 20th Century gladiators or disappeared back to tread the boards and spew up lines like, “Cinema is the graveyard of the arts” “You won’t catch me going to Hollywood.” before jumping on the Sleeper and heading west when they are offered third spear from the left in an epic.
But the magic of the monochrome movie remains. Films like The Public Enemy (1931) with James Cagney and Jean Harlow, stagey acting, abysmal soundtrack and need for unnecessary exposition included, can still hold the attention and make you feel as if you have witnessed something entertaining. The same year edgy Edward C Robinson, in Little Caesar, cast the bloody chalice from which all future gangster films would sip. The same can be said for the Horror genre. Universal got there first and their films explored regions that have rarely been visited since. And what about Johnny Weissmuller? The medal winning hunk that had Maureen O’Sullivan all atwitter? Tarzan has gone through many incarnations since he first yodelled his way through Tarzan the Apeman in 1932. But Johnny in black and white still takes some beating.
Before John Wayne there was Buck Jones, who always got his man in films like McKenna of the Mounted (1932). There was even a glimpse of nudity in Ecstasy starring the beautiful Hedy Lamarr in 1933. At this time nudity hadn’t had a table cloth thrown over it and was seen as grist for the male. And what about Fay Wray in King Kong the same year? Did Kong ever get down to the nitty-gritty? But these are all Hollywood films. The rest of the world wasn’t doing too badly. Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, France and practically everywhere else where they were locked up to the local grid, produced films that still reward the viewer today. Britain was particularly active during this early period. Charles Laughton’s take on the well-proportioned cod-piece enthusiast and English King in The Private Life of Henry Vlll, for London Films, was, and is, fantastic. And things only got better after that. In September 1933 The British Film Institute was born and proved to be a rallying point for the somewhat disparate producers who were circling around Wardour Street. Although its avowed intention was ‘to encourage the development of the art of the film’ it soon became more than just a provider of encouragement.
1933 was the year that Hammer oozed into life. A ten minute film made on location in Marrakesh is the first known film to bear the Hammer hallmark, The Vampire of Marrakesh. It contained all the ingredients that were to become the staple Hammer menu. Vampires, lust and nudity. Korda latched onto the fact that the Brits, generally, loved a film that showed them in their pivotal role, as rulers of a huge chunk of the world and good guys to boot, and fed onto the market films like The Scarlet Pimpernel (1935) with the fragile Leslie Howard as Sir Percy Blake and the busty Merle Oberon as the supporting American. It was around this time that Korda decided that the portents for the future of film were so good that he rallied a few mates around him and cobbled together a rudimentary film studio at Denham in Buckinghamshire, a score or so miles outside London. Gainsborough Films discovered the pulling power of a good laugh when they slid Will Hay onto the screen in Oh, Mr. Porter in 1937 and opened up the screen to a deluge of comedy throughout the 30s which continued right up to the seventies with the Carry On series and a whole wodge of indie films
My favourite film from the 30s, other than Jungle Book, is Pygmalion, later redone in probably the best colour film ever made, My Fair Lady. Dreamy Leslie Howard was Prof Higgins in the original. Playing Eliza Doolittle was Wendy Hillier and it was pure, distilled, Bernard Shaw.
By the time the 30s departed Britain had produced its fair share of leading men that had ‘taken Hollywood by storm’ and not done so badly on these shores either. The peripatetic Leslie Howard, girl getter Cary Grant, smooth, eye-brow moustachioed David Niven, bumbling Charles Laughton, effete Basil Rathbone, suave and caring Ronald Coleman, chancer Laurence Olivier and flint-eyed Ray Milland led the charge but there were many waiting to back them up.
On the distaff side we had the feuding sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland – born of English blood, icy lady Valerie Hudson, foxy Vivienne Leigh, cool mamma Margaret Lockwood, feisty Anna Neagle and broody Flora Robson.
Then, as the last chime, of the twelfth hour of 31st December 1939 rang out, everything changed . The ’40s fare was far different from what had gone before. Still fascinating to watch but desperate to convey messages. Cinema had lost its innocence.
Ingrid Pitt will be back next Tuesday; read her last column here.