News Chronicle (1937) - Life among the Stars
- article: Life among the Stars
- author(s): Alfred Hitchcock
- journal: News Chronicle (15/Mar/1938)
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville, Benita Hume, Blackmail (1929), Carl Brisson, Donald Calthrop, Easy Virtue (1928), Edmund Gwenn, Famous Players-Lasky, Gaetano di Ventimiglia, Gordon Harker, Ian Hunter, Islington Studios, London, John Buchan, John Galsworthy, John Laurie, Josephine Tey, Juno and the Paycock (1930), Madeleine Carroll, Malcolm Keen, Marlene Dietrich, Michael Balcon, Miles Mander, New York City, New York, Nita Naldi, Nova Pilbeam, Peter Lorre, Robert Donat, S.J. Warmington, Scotland Yard, Secret Agent (1936), The 39 Steps (1935), The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The Mountain Eagle (1926), The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Ring (1927), The Skin Game (1931), Virginia Valli
Life among the Stars
Have you ever been on location with a film outfit? Or watched one at work? If not, let me tell you just how many people are transported.
There is, of course, the director. There is the production manager, who looks after the finance and organization, to leave the director's mind free for the actual acting problems. There is the first assistant director and the second assistant director.
There is the cameraman — who nowadays never touches the camera except to peep through the lens to see how the scene will photograph. There is the camera operator — for we don't crank today, we turn by electricity. So there's an electrician as well.
There is a focusing boy. There is a number boy — who holds out a slate with the number of the scene and the number of the "take" chalked on it. A "take," by the way, is the individual shooting of a scene. One scene may be "taken" a dozen times.
There are two stagehands and one painter. There are two property men. There is a wardrobe mistress. There is an accountant. There is a location man, whose job it is to fix up accommodation and arrange for facilities for the company — permits to put up cameras, permits to photograph the local hunt, the local pub, the local whatever it may be.
There is a sound man, who supervises the talkie apparatus. He has a first and a second assistant. There is a clapper-boy, who signals with his clapper when a scene begins and ends.
There is a continuity girl, who notes down exactly what each character in the play is wearing at each moment; exactly what "props" are on each set, and in what position. There is a makeup man. A star will have a personal sewing maid. The leading man would have a dresser.
If there are any "tracking shots" — when the camera moves to and from the scene — there are a couple of "dolly" men — the trolley is called a "dolly." If two cameras went on location, there would be two entire camera crews.
They would be given first-class transportation, first-class hotel accommodation. They would be in constant touch with head office, who would smooth out any little difficulty that might arise.
It's like an army today: disciplined, departmentalized, efficient.
It was not always so.
The first picture I was ever given to direct — it is only 13 or 14 years ago — will serve as a model.
I was then engaged at the old Famous Players Studio at Islington. I wrote titles. I wrote scripts. I was art director — that means I designed the sets. I was production manager, which means I controlled the costs and times of the pictures. I was assistant director.
I was all these not turn and turn about, but all at once.
Micky Balcon sent for me one day and told me I was to be a director. Quite seriously, I had never thought of being a director. I was too darned busy on the job. The trouble with half the modern directors is that they don't know how their departments work.
I was told that the picture is being half financed from London and half by a German company. I was told that not only was this to be my first picture but I was to direct it in German. That's all right, I thought: I know German.
But I was also told that I was to shoot some of it in Como. That was not so good. I don't speak Italian. But Micky said I didn't need to because the cameraman was Baron Ventimiglia, and he is Italian.
So I went to Munich and took over the unit. The unit consisted of:
- Hitchcock — director.
- Miles Mander — leading man.
- Ventimiglia — cameraman.
- "Tops" — a Topical News photographer, to do one scene.
- A German girl — who is to walk into the sea to be "drowned" by Miles Mander.
- 10,000 feet of film.
We got into a taxi and headed for the station at Munich. We were off on location to Genoa, for some ship scenes; to Alassio, for some beach scenes, where Mander was to do his drowning; and to Como. Apart from personal money, which we hadn't a lot of, I had £100 to handle the whole issue.
We had our tickets; second class. We had instructions to pay duty on nothing, but try to smuggle everything through. We had the company's blessing — and we were away.
We got into a taxi and went to the station. When we got to the train Mander discovered he had left his makeup box in the taxi. We made frantic plans to meet at some point on the way and sent him back to get it.
It wasn't Hitler Germany and the trains didn't run to time. Mander got to the hotel, found his taxi by sheer blind luck, snatched up his makeup box, belted back to the station — to see the train just moving out — 20 minutes behind schedule.
Mander got to the barrier. A guard stopped him. German spattered all over the place. Leaning out of the window, I just caught the word "Verboten." I heard a couple of English words — no matter what. And Miles socked the guard on the jaw, dashed down the platform, and got into the train.
We in the German train reached the Italian frontier. We prayed for the film in the luggage van. We took apart the cameras — Ventimiglia's and "Tops" — and put the pieces among our luggage, in the racks, under the seat. I sat on a crank.
We got the cameras through — but the film got pinched. Worse, it was confiscated. We agreed to pay the fine. We agreed to pay the duty. But they would not release it: they said they'd send it on when the formalities were completed.
We rushed about. We telephoned. We telegraphed. The film was "on the way." It was "lost." It "hadn't been dispatched yet." I sent into Milan to buy £20 worth of film. Tops" and Ventimiglia appeared with it just in time to start shooting. Simultaneously, the confiscated stock was returned — £20 and the expense of fetching the new stuff gone out of my £100.
The next day we started shooting. We fixed "Tops" in one place. We got Ventimiglia in another. We were doing fine. But while I was on the quay in the crowd I got jostled and bumped around. And when I put my hand into my pocket to pay for something, I found my wallet with my £80 had been stolen.
I rushed round to the police. I had to take Ventimiglia to tell them. I rushed back and got him back to his post. I borrowed a few lire from Mander. I borrowed another few from Ventimiglia. We shot the scenes.
When Mander got off the liner he had to drop into the tug we'd chartered. The tug began to seep away from the ship's side. Mander was left dangling at the end of a rope ladder with a camera in one hand and his life — or at least his comfort — in the other.
We manoeuvred the tug nearer. Mander, hanging on for dear life, swore he'd drop the so-and-so camera if we couldn't get the so-and-so boat nearer and why he ever signed on with such a so-and-so outfit he so-and-so well didn't know.
We got near. We got Mander. We got back to the shore. And we'd got our shots.
I mopped my brow and got back to the hotel. I sent off to Munich. They refused to send any more money. I cabled London, asking for a personal advance on my own salary to carry the picture through. I borrowed from Mander and Ventimiglia. We pooled our resources. We'd just enough to get to Alassio. I told London to wire the advance there. And we went away.
When we arrived we looked out a nice deserted stretch of beach. We saw there wasn't a soul in sight from morning till night. We thought: "Fine." We went on location the next day.
But my little German girl told me she'd got so bad a chill she couldn't go into the water. We couldn't wait for her to get well again: the hotel bill was running up. Mander's salary, my salary, Ventimiglia's salary were all running up.
So I got the waitress at the hotel. I convinced her she would like to be in the pictures. I told her all she had to do was wade out to sea and let Mander "drown" her. When I say I told her, of course I mean Ventimiglia told her for me.
I meant to learn the language while I was in Italy. What a chance I had!
The waitress was tickled to death. We went on location bright and early. We carried our own equipment. "Tops" had gone back home. Ventimiglia carried the camera. I carried the tripod. Mander carried his makeup box.
We set up the camera. We went through the scene a couple of times. We were all ready to start when our nice deserted beach was suddenly magically full of people. Where they came from, how they knew what was going on, who they were, what they wanted, I didn't know. I don't know now.
We started on the scene. We got a fine take. We were doing fine. I thought maybe my first picture would not be such a flop. I thought maybe I was not such a bad director after all. I began to pat myself on the back: the worst was over. I had 50 quid waiting for me at the hotel. Alma would meet me at Como and she would have a bit more money. I'd had all the bad luck I was going to have. That's what I thought...
I looked at Mander, dripping, shivering from rehearsal after rehearsal, carrying the "dead" body of his victim out of the sea. The girl looked grand. I thought the scene was a wow when an Italian woman walked straight across the camera-line. I shouted. She took no notice. I waved my arms. She didn't see me. I rushed up to her, just bursting. I opened my mouth...
And I'd nothing to say. I realized whatever I said she wouldn't understand. I shut my mouth. I felt the biggest fool ever.
Sadly, we retook the scene.
Did I say I had a bad time? Pity poor Alma! She went to Cherbourg to pick up Valli. Valli had heard how the Mayor of Southampton welcomed Tom Mix. Valli was big stuff, and knew it. Valli expected the Mayor of Cherbourg. She expected the brass band. She expected the red carpet. But she didn't get them.
Instead, she got one woman assistant director standing four-foot-eleven in stockings and a trifle more in high heels. And nothing else. Valli was peeved. She got less than she expected.
When we went on location I was sweating with terror. What if this high-hat star should rumble I was directing my first picture? She'd throw a temperament for certain — if she didn't walk out.
Alma told me I was the snake's hips and the cat's pyjamas on the set, but maybe she was prejudiced. Valli seemed to be sweet enough, so maybe, I thought, I was getting by.
But Munich answered my frantic wire for cash with just enough to carry on with production. I was short. I skimped on the picture. I skimped on drinks. I reckoned I could just get through.
Then Mander came along. He said he had lent me 15 quid in Genoa. He said he must have it back. He said he must send some money to his tailor. He got his 15.
We finished the work on location. We were leaving the following day. And that night the bill came up to my room. I reckoned up every penny I had. I was £30 down the drain. And still I had to keep up my dignity, the dignity of the company, the dignity of the country.
There's only one way to keep up your dignity when you've no money: get someone else to sacrifice theirs. Get someone else to do the dirty work. I did. I got Alma.
It's the assistant director's job to cover the director! I know. I've been it.
I sent Alma to see Valli. I primed her to put over the story (which was partly true) that Carmelita's arrival had upset the accounts and that if Valli would lend her £40 until we hit Munich she would be very grateful. Valli fell for it. Alma came back to me with a broad grin and $200 in American money.
I paid the bill. I put the odd tenner in my pocket. I booked first-class seats for Valli and Geraghty. Alma, Ventimiglia, Mander, and I went second. I thought the £10 would get us through.
But Virginia Valli was a star. And stars travel with clothes. Valli had three or four Innovation trunks. So had Geraghty. Excess baggage cost me £6.
With £4 I reckoned we could just about feed the stars in the restaurant car. The others — well, I could tighten my belt, and maybe sandwiches were cheap. Maybe they were sustaining, too.
But fortune turned. Valli and Geraghty "couldn't eat the food on trains." They had sandwiches from the hotel. So we ate.
We steamed into Zurich, where we were to change trains. We steamed in — and the Munich train steamed out. Italian trains were even later than German ones. There wasn't another till morning.
We unloaded the equipment. We unloaded the trunks. We unloaded the bags. To save a tip — pence were beginning to count with me — I lent a hand. Then I wished I hadn't. I put a studded suitcase into a window. The window didn't like it. It broke. "Broke" is right again.
Up came the Swiss station master. I could talk to him in German or French. I said — in both — how sorry I was. He smiled. It was O.K. by him. I breathed again. "Quite O.K.," said he — "when it's paid for."
I began to sink at the stomach. I began to sweat. The perspiration on my forehead was cold. The perspiration round my neck was hot. I asked in as firm and light a voice as I could — Valli was on the platform — "How much?" "Thirty-five francs."
I began to breathe again. The franc was worth about 2 1/2d. I handed out the amount. Then he told me, not 35 French francs or Belgian francs. Swiss francs. They were worth 1s. 2d.
I paid out. I asked him — quietly — the cheapest hotel in Zurich. He directed me to a little dive near the station. We went. I told Valli that "we must be near the station." She quite agreed.
Valli didn't like a big breakfast. That was lucky — for both of us. I paid the hotel. I had fifteen bob left — enough to pay for Valli's meal on the way to Munich.
But Valli still didn't like eating train food. We did. So we ate.
We arrived in Munich — you always lose on the exchange when you change currencies on the train — with exactly one pfennig: the hundredth part of a mark, worth between a quarter and half a farthing.
But the luck had turned. The company sent a car to meet us.
And they liked the picture.
Nita Naldi, Vamp
When I was a cub director there was only one theory of making a successful European picture. Get an American star. Those were the days when stars were stars.
Not that they made the money they do today. The star I had for the second film I directed was a very considerable star in her day. Her name was Nita Naldi: you probably remember her with Valentino in Blood and Sand. But she came across the Atlantic to make one picture in Germany for £1,500.
Compare that — say, rather contrast that — with the £84,000 which Marlene Dietrich took from one of her recent films. Compare that with the salary paid to a character actor today: £75 a day. Two years ago he was glad to work for £30 a week on the stage or £60 a week on the screen.
But though the modern stars make more money, the old stars sold their pictures just as well.
I was still in Munich, working for a joint control: half an English company, half a German one. I was given a script. I was told to go on location and get some pretty shots. I was told my star would be coming out for the studio stuff later.
When I read the script I found it was set in the Kentucky hills. My heroine was a pleasant, simple, homely schoolmarm. My star was glamorous, dark, Latin, Junoesque, statuesque, slinky, with slanting eyes, four-inch heels, nails like a mandarin's, and a black dog to match her black, swathed dress.
But the worry was for later. First of all I had to get my mountain scenes. I had no time to go looking for them. I had to ask. I asked everybody in sight: "Where can I get a nice thatched village with snowy mountains in the background and nice tree stuff in the foreground, and no modern stuff that would be out of the picture?"
I was recommended to this place, to that place, to the other place. But this place's only claim to fame was a new glazed-tile town hall; and that place had been recommended because it had just had lamp posts installed; and the other place because the beer was good.
But as I walked along I glanced into a picture shop. I saw a postcard of the perfect location. I went in and asked where it was. "Obergurgel," said they. Yes. You do remember it. It's where Professor Piccard came down from the first stratosphere flight.
I took the German assistant director I had just been given and went out to see the place. To get there we took a train to Innsbruck. We then drove for 7 1/2 hours in an open victoria. We then walked for 2 1/2 hours on our feet — no transport could reach it.
With every step we swore conditions would be so primitive, the place so out of the way, that to film anything there would be out of the question. But it had cast a spell upon me, that postcard. That was the ideal place to shoot the Kentucky hills (in German). Snow on the high ground, woods on the village level, thatch, a forgotten, almost a vanished, civilization. Grand.
I reached the place. For once it was up to the pictures of it. It was perfect. I went back to Munich as happy as a sandboy. But on the way I wanted to speak English. I was tired to death of German gutturals. I was sick of flogging my brain to think in another language. I was as mad to hear the sound of an English voice, as mad to speak and be understood in my own tongue as a claustrophobe is anxious to get into the open air. I know that feeling too: I had it in an Italian seaplane.
However I got back to Munich. There I picked up my company: Malcolm Keen was one of them. He was the most important to me: he brought out my engagement ring. Nita had not yet arrived, so we went out to do the out-of-doors shots.
We got to Obergurgel. We settled in a cottage. We went out in the evening and plotted out the work for the next day. A few long shots of the snow and the close-ups and medium shots amid the woods. Content as a dog promised a nice bone we went to bed.
When we woke up next day the village was a foot under snow.
That washed us out. The snow meant that we should have to wait six months at least to make the picture at Obergurgel. We took our snow scenes and made our way down the valley, hoping just to beat the falls as they, too, made their way steadily to the lower ground.
We got to a place called Umhaus. It seemed only a fraction less perfect than Obergurgel. We made all our arrangements. We went to bed.
And the next morning the village was under snow.
What made it even better was that we were snowed up. It was still snowing. We couldn't shoot a foot of film. We couldn't stick our noses outside the door.
We spent four days sitting round a German stove. I had bought a few delicacies to take: 100 lemons, for I love lemonade and all soft drinks; a bottle of Cointreau; a couple of bottles of whiskey, and some biscuits. One of the actors was head-over-heels in love with a girl in England. He wrote to her every day. That was grand for the rest of us. It was grand for him. It wasn't so good for the girl: the post only went once a week!
When the snow stopped snowing we seemed sunker than ever. It had travelled farther and farther down the valley. The long shots we had taken committed us to this valley and the whole place was under feet of snow.
There was only one thing to do: produce a thaw.
I got hold of four men who formed the local fire brigade. I convinced them that they must get out the fire engine and wash the snow away. They argued, finally they agreed. They pulled out the great manual pump with its leaky hose and they turned it on the village.
We washed the snow from the houses, from the roofs, from the trees, from the ground. But one of the houses had a leaky roof, and the old peasant woman who lived there complained she was being really washed away.
I saw the Mayor. I told him my troubles. He said that a rich film company could probably get what it wanted — at a price. I asked him how much I should give her. He said "A schilling" — the Austrian coin then worth 7d. I gave her two. If I had given her ten I think I could have flooded the whole countryside, she was so pleased.
And on that small area of land, washed clean of snow with a fire engine, our exteriors were made.
I went back to Munich to meet my star. As she stepped off the train Munich quite audibly gasped. They had never seen anything like her before. She travelled with her father, who looked like Earl Haig. Her Louis SIV heels clicked down the platform. The dog on its leash was long and gleaming with brushing. Her maid followed her. It was like the royalty Germany hadn't seen for five years.
But I was thinking of a simple Kentucky Miss in a gingham gown and a cotton apron. I had to produce a strong woman of the mid-western mountains who handled a gun instead of a lipstick.
First we quarrelled about her nails. They came down from half an inch beyond the finger to a quarter. We had another discussion. They came down to an eighth. Another discussion and they were all right.
The heels came down layer by layer. The makeup was altered shade by shade. The hair was changed curl by curl.
Nita put up a magnificent fight for the appearance that had made her, but it was nothing to the fight that she put up for the clothes she wanted to wear. Fortunately, I was not concerned with that: it was Alma's job.
But Alma, who took her round and made her buy cotton aprons instead of silk and compelled her to choose cloth instead of satin frocks, nearly fainted when she saw her lingerie.
Munich is a cold city, and it was winter. But Nita under her frock wore just one garment: such scanties as even today would be considered — well, scanty.
However, Nita turned out to be a grand person. For all her entourage, there was nothing high-hat about her. She talked to everybody in her heavy New York drawl. The Germans, accustomed to the starchiness of the Hohenzollerns, fell hard for this American royalty, with her father and her dog, and her maid, who was more democratic than the stagehands.
I shall never forget one afternoon. We had been working hard all the day, and Nita was nearly all in. She had to play one more scene, where she was cleaning Malcolm Keen's rifle when a face appeared at the window and she pointed the gun at him.
The scene was going well when, just as she turned the gun to the window, I saw it waver. It veered from side to side. It moved up and down. It went round in circles.
Then, without a word, Nita tilted to one side and fell headlong.
The floor was very hard. The set was built on a foundation of stones set in cement. Before the camera had even stopped turning, she had recovered. And all she said was: "Why don't they build these lousy sets right over here. This floor's too gol-darned hard for comfort!"
She got to her feet and wanted to go on playing, but we called it a day.
Owing to that delay, and the delay caused by the snow, we got a little late with the production. Nita had one bit scene still to play. It was half-past four in the afternoon and her train — for Paris — left at half-past six.
Nita was playing a scene where she had been run out of town (unjustly of course) by the Kentucky farmers. She had to turn on them and tell them just what she thought of them.
In silent days, we never wrote dialogue, except for close-ups where anyone could lip-read. In a big emotional scene, we let people say just whatever came into their heads. It helped them to get over the atmosphere.
When Nita finally turned on these "farmers," I called, "Give them all you've got."
She did. She gave them, in English, Italian, American, Bowery, Park Avenue, and, maybe, double Dutch. She called them anything and everything she could lay her tongue to. She told them where they got off, where they came from, where they were going to. She used words we had never before heard.
When, shuddering and shaking with emotion, she stopped and I called out "Cut" the whole studio — none of whom understood a word she had said — burst into spontaneous applause.
She caught up her dress, her dog, her maid, her father. She piled into a taxi. She rushed to the station. She caught her train still in her gingham gown, with the makeup still on her face.
She went to Paris. A few weeks later, when Alma and I were married, we went to Paris for our honeymoon and spent the first day of it with Nita. But that is another story — and one I'm not going to tell.
One Scene That Made a Girl a Star
Film directors spend their lives manufacturing farce and tragedy. Often and often the manufacture of these commodities creates farce more farcical and tragedy more tragic than anything we put on the screen.
When I was making The Lodger, for instance, the thing I wanted above all else was to do a night scene in London, preferably on the Embankment. I wanted to silhouette the mass of Charing Cross Bridge against the sky. I wanted to get away from the (at that time) inevitable shot of Piccadilly Circus with hand-painted lights.
The story demanded the dragging of a body out of the river. Here, I thought, was my chance. But Scotland Yard said "No."
We wrote, we called, we implored, we besought. Scotland Yard said "No." We pulled strings. We used influence. We went from step to step until we were within shouting distance of the Home Secretary. Scotland Yard says "No." But we were told that, if we did shoot the scene, we should not be stopped.
That's how we always used to get our permission: told, usually in a hint, that the authorities would turn a blind eye on us.
So we went down to the Embankment. We took two sets of light-vans — that does not mean vans for light work. It means vans to carry lights. We had "sun arcs" — huge, powerful lights to give a real background. Otherwise, the brilliantly lit close-up shots would seem to have been photographed against black velvet.
We parked the vans in the middle of the roadway on Westminster Bridge. We massed the arcs on the parapet of the bridge. We went on to the Embankment and started shooting.
We took our short shots. They were fine. But I was concentrating on the long shot. Every time a tram passed we had to disconnect the cables that lay across the lines. Work below had to be held up until the lights came on again.
But finally, we shot the big scene. The sun arcs turned night to day. The artists did their stuff. The bridge stood out clear and sharp. The camera turned.
The number of this scene was 45. It should have been 13. For when we went to the projection room, to see the "rushes" — the first prints of the day's takings — there was no scene 45.
We looked through all the reels. We looked through all the prints. We looked through positive and negative. There was no scene 45.
The cameraman had forgotten to put his lens in the camera.
That has happened more than once: call it tragedy or farce. Tom Mix once had to jump from a second-story window on to the back of his horse. It was to be one of his biggest stunts. But though he jumped and the camera turned, the scene was never filmed.
That cameraman had stuffed his handkerchief into the mask to prevent dust getting into his beloved camera.
The film has been left out of the reel over and over again. It is a fact that these accidents always happen not in the studio, where everything can be put right with a retake, but when a couple of thousand people have been specially engaged, when we are shooting something we can never shoot again, when the mistake costs thousands.
When that happens in America there is a legend that the cameraman is automatically doomed to death. There is no other possible punishment! But he never waits for sentence to be delivered. He just vanishes there and then.
There was a telephone scene in the picture: the hero was asking the heroine to marry him. She accepted.
I wanted to do it a new way: to show neither the man nor the woman. I wanted to put the whole conversation over by means of dumb show produced through a third person: in this case the telephone operator who was listening in.
It wasn't easy. She had to reproduce the effect on herself of the man's anxiety, embarrassment, eloquence, fears. She had to convey the girl's excitement, doubt, wonder, decision.
And she had to register her own interest in the affair, her own apprehension that the girl was on the point of refusing, her own overwhelming relief when at last she said "Yes."
I tried girl after girl. Finally, I tried Benita. Her scene drew from a hardboiled tradeshow audience a spontaneous round of applause. The next picture she made she played the leading lady.
Blackmail was exciting. The last sequence only was to be shot with sound.
I had an idea to turn the whole picture into sound. I did it by shooting a lot of scenes where sound could be tacked on afterwards and making a lot of other scenes, not in the script, with sound. When they were all assembled the whole picture was a talkie.
But I shall never forget the first time I heard the first "rush" of the first day under the new conditions. We all went to Tussaud's at midnight. We had directors there — financial as well as moving picture — and director's wives.
The lights went out. The picture came on the screen — it was an interrogation at Scotland Yard. There was the close-up of the woman being questioned. Her lips moved. We held our breaths. Her lips moved again. We held our thumbs. A third time her lips moved. And a sound came from the screen.
Nothing more. Just a nasal grunt. The sort of noise you might hear in a nightmare. The sort of noise that could be produced only by a talkie that didn't talk.
That was, perhaps, my greatest disappointment. But my greatest talkie thrill as well as my greatest disappointment came in Blackmail. This wasn't as you might think the perfect sound reproduction of a great speech. It was when we were shooting a scene where Donald Calthrop had to eat some bacon-and-eggs.
And when we saw the rush, we heard the scrape of his knife on the plate.
Early talkie days were amazing. We had only one stage equipped for sound.
In Juno and the Paycock we wanted to get over a medley of noises: the machine guns that were firing down the street; the tinny note of a cheap gramophone playing in the room; the chatter of other people in the room; the tread-tread tramp-tramp of a funeral procession going by.
The funeral was that of a man whose death John Laurie had encompassed, and the scene was a close-up of him by the fire, and the effect these various blending noises had on him.
So we filled the studio with the noises. In one corner was a crowd of people talking in low voices; in another, half a dozen people marking time; in a third, a stagehand was beating a sofa with two canes to make the machine-gun fire.
But we couldn't get a record of the tune we needed. So the fourth corner was filled by the property man singing the tune through a megaphone. But that just sounded like a man singing, not like a cheap gramophone. So we clipped a clothes-peg on his nose.
And the scene reproduced perfectly.
Juno and the Paycock was a bad picture for my property man. There was one scene when a tin bath had to fall at the psychological moment from a wall. "Props" was to hold the nail from which it hung and release it at a given cue.
That was all right, but the set was what we call a "combination" — that is, it backed on to another set with only a few inches between them. Into this Props made his way and stood on a stepladder clutching the nail.
All would have been well, but the scene called for the cooking of some sausages. We'd rehearsed it, and the sound of the sizzling came through well. When we were shooting, we built a fire of paraffin rage. The sausages were really cooking.
but the fumes from the fire and from the burning sausages had to escape up the gap between the scenes. And the property man was being smoked out.
We heard muffled groans: "Ca't ho'd od buch logger . . . be quick . . . hurry ub." And the bath fell long before we were ready for it!
The drama behind the scenes is, as I said before, verging from comedy to farce. When I produced The Ring, with Carl Brisson and Ian Hunter, the high-spot of the picture was the last round of a boxing match. Brisson had to win.
Brisson was a trained boxer. He was, actually, a boxer before he was an actor. Hunter was only an amateur. It was, incidentally, his first — and very successful — film.
On the day we were shooting this last round — the previous rounds had been photographed before with trick photography to speed up the effect by "undercranking" (turning the camera more slowly) — I ranged four cameras round the set and told them to go all out.
Ian went off to the local tavern with Gordon Harker. He lunched off bread and cheese and beer. How he must have regretted it!
I exploited Brisson's knowledge of boxing. I told him to box as he would if it were a genuine match. So Brisson, with the eye of a practiced athlete, attacked Ian's body.
Every time he connected, Ian remembered the beer. It was a raging hot day. He was sweating like a bull. They fought on and on, Hunter swinging at Brisson's handsome elusive face; Brisson plugging blow after blow to the mark; Hunter puffing and blowing and grunting with every smack he took.
Finally, I gave the signal for the last of it. Brisson was to knock out his opponent. He launched a blow at Hunter's body.
Hunter caught his breath with a gulp, that sort of gulp you give when a football catches you amidships. He swayed, tottered, sat down.
He was congratulated on a brilliant piece of acting. I got some kudos for a good piece of direction.
Actually, neither of us deserved any credit. I was not directing. Hunter was not acting.
He really was "out."
Handcuffed, Key Lost!
When you have seen pitched battles on the screen, did you have any idea how they were made? Come behind the scenes with me, and I'll tell you.
There was one free fight in The Man Who Knew Too Much. People flung chairs at one another; people seized chairs and beat their opponents over the head. The chairs broke but, obviously, the heads did not — though they seemed to.
We did it by using balsa wood — a rare timber from the steamy South American jungle. It is so soft you can bite chunks out of it. You can hit someone with balsa — and it will hurt less than a rolled newspaper. But you can turn it on a lathe as if it were mahogany.
But balsa wood is tricky stuff to use on a set. Anyone who is standing about waiting may think: "Ah! there's an empty chair. I'll sit down." They sink into the chair and they do sit down — on the floor. The chair just crumples up under them.
Quite a few members of the staff were offered a chair by "polite" colleagues during that fight sequence. Off the screen as on it, someone sitting unexpectedly on the floor is a sure-fire laugh.
There was another fight in The Man Who Knew Too Much. That was a virtual reproduction of the Sidney Street siege of 1911. We used real bullets in that scene, but the men who held the guns were trained marksmen.
But there was a lot of faking for all that. When we wanted to show a wall actually being pitted by a fusillade, we carefully drilled the wall first and filled the holes with plugs of plaster. The plugs were all fitted with a piece of cotton. When we showed a close-up of the wall, cut into a shot of men firing, we just pulled the cotton and the plugs came out, leaving a properly bullet-pitted wall.
It's a strange thing but none of the artists engaged worried a bit about the bullets. What they did worry about was — a catapult! A member of the floor staff was, at 40, as expert a catapultist as he had been 30 years before.
When we wanted something hit where it would have been really dangerous to use bullets — nearer, for example, than eight inches, which was the mark hit nearest to S.J. Warmington's head — we used our catapult expert.
This fully grown man of early middle-age took the forked stick from his trousers' pocket, tugged back the elastic, and let fly with a steel ball half an inch in diameter. He hit the mark — but the "shot" ricocheted, and that couldn't be gauged.
Quite a lot of people were "caught bending" by him!
It was in that picture, too, that Peter Lorre got married. He was leaving for America immediately after we had finished shooting and for one reason or another we were a little behind schedule.
Peter had to get married before he left because he was taking the future Mrs. Lorre with him, and the regulations on Ellis Island are so strict that two engaged people cannot travel together to America on the same boat without risk of unjustified scandal and delays with the immigration authorities and, occasionally, charges of "moral turpitude."
So I gave Peter two hours off in the middle of a scene. He was getting married at Caxton Hall. He jumped into a car just as he was — makeup on, and a frightful scar painted on his forehead with collodion, an astringent that puckered the skin.
He had no time to take it off. If he had taken it off he would have had no time to put it on again! So you might have seen the scar bobbing on and off his brow during the picture, for we do not make a picture as you see it: the scenes are shot in any order that is most convenient or most economical.
Picture Peter, rushing from the studio to Caxton Hall and worried to death he might be held outside for coming in from a "brawl" where he had got scarred! He had to brush his hair forward to conceal it, go through the ceremony, and rush back and go on working.
The dinner party was at Mr. Galsworthy's house. When we sat down, Galsworthy himself "set" the subject for discussion. "Let us discuss," he said, "words. Words in relation to their meaning and in relation to their sound."
One guest suggested the word "fragile" as descriptive. Another advanced the opinion that the French "fragile" was even more delicate in its sound.
A third stressed the claims of "crepuscular" as being "filled with the nuance of the twilight."
I sat amazed at the feeling the guests had for the sound-sense of words.
A course or so later Mr. Galsworthy gave out another topic. "Let us discuss," he said, "the various states of consciousness." Then he amplified the topic in answer to my question. "The states of consciousness are like stratified layers of earth. The crust is complete consciousness and the core is the subconscious. Between lie an infinite series of gradations of consciousness."
That was my first contact with The Skin Game. Now for the contrast. Edmund Gwenn had to wear a toupee — a sort of hair wig — in the production. We got it from Clarkson's. It cost three guineas.
One day someone from the accounts, keeping an eagle eye on the pence, came rushing down. "Why go to Clarkson's for a three guinea toupee?" he asked angrily.
"Do you think the firm is made of money? You can get one at Austin Reed's for a guinea."
"Really?" I asked. "Have Austin Reed started a makeup department?"
"Makeup?" said he. "Makeup? I thought you were buying a tropical helmet!"
Once — it was when I was making Secret Agent — I had to go to Greece to get some local colour. I wanted to photograph a Greek station and some Greek engines and rolling stock to be a guide for the real production at home.
I went out to Salonica and tried to get permission to take my pictures. I couldn't get it. I pulled strings — but they broke. I threw my weight about — but 19 stone was not enough. So I had to take my pictures without permission.
I got up to a little wayside station — it was to act as model for a real frontier station — and began to take my snaps. I snapped a train. I snapped the platform. I snapped the rolling stock and the engine.
But an army officer was having tea on the platform, and he saw me. He asked me if I had permission, and, if so, from where. I said "Salonica" — and hoped for the best.
But he didn't believe me. He said he didn't believe I was a film man at all. He didn't believe I was an Englishman. I was, so he thought a spy, and a Bulgarian spy at that. They have not yet forgotten the Balkan War of 1912 in Greece!
I didn't care so much what he thought. But he went away to telephone and verify my "credentials" — which I didn't have. So I got in our car and scooted. I got back to Salonica as fast as I could.
I got down to the train early — only to find there were soldiers on guard with fixed bayonets. I hung about the station wondering what on earth — or off it — to do. I had visions of myself flung into prison as a spy. I thought of a firing squad and explanations afterwards.
Finally, I got into the train just five minutes before it left. I stayed in my sleeping car. I wouldn't move out. Whenever I looked out of the corridor window I saw a soldier with a rifle and bayonet on guard. I saw more soldiers moving about whenever we stopped. I heard them tramping up and down the train.
I didn't feel happy until we crossed the frontier.
Then — and only then — did I learn that there had been a revolution in Greece!
We had a lot of fun making The 39 Steps. One of the sequences required Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll to be handcuffed together. One day I lost the key! There they were, inextricably bound — and they couldn't get away from one another until, providentially, I found it again.
It was in that picture, too, that I pulled a gag on Donat. He complained that the waterfall scene had ruined his clothes. The ruining of actors' clothes and the demand that the company should replace them is a longstanding bone which actors and directors pick amiably enough during a production.
When Robert demanded a new suit, I gave him one out of my own pocket. I sent round for a 14s. child's suit from a neighbourhood cheap store...
Yes. We have lots of fun, but there's a lot of work in making a picture. In the old days we always took artists on location. We rarely do that today. The scenes where Madeleine and Robert were going through the Highlands were all made with "doubles."
"No," you will say. "I saw them talking in close-ups during the Highland sequences."
But there's an answer to that: a pair of scissors. You take the first shot of the moorland with the two figures running across it — these are the doubles. Then you cut to a close-up which you have taken in the studio.
How I Make My Films
All the stories I've told so far have been stories about the actual production of pictures. That's about a quarter of the work of making them.
Today I want to tell you about what goes on when there are no artists waiting to make love or kill each other on the screen.
We want to find a story. We meet and talk. We read the reviews — we have no time to read the whole books. We pore over notices of plays. We discuss every possible type of story — and that brings me to the first prime requisite for a film story.
It must blend two things which seem almost mutually exclusive: it must hang on one single central idea which must never get out of the mind of the audience for one single solitary minute, either consciously or subconsciously; and it must offer scope for the introduction of a number of elements, which you have read about every single picture that has ever been produced: glamour, suspense, romance, charm, drama, emotion, and so forth.
The formula for making a picture is to find a single problem which is sufficiently enthralling to hold the attention of the people who are watching the play unfold, and yet not sufficiently difficult to demand uncomfortable concentration.
The reason murder mysteries are not often great successes on the screen is because they demand too much acute concentration: the audience is keyed up to watching for clues, listening for clues, trying to glean from every line of dialogue some light into the mystery.
The true motion picture formula is to state in the first reel your single central theme which must be a problem. It may be of the simplest: "Boy meets girl. Boy falls for girl. Boy quarrels with girl. Boy and girl come together again."
There the problem is: Will they be reconciled? And the corollaries are: How long before they are reconciled? How will they be reconciled?
Take all the recent pictures I have made: The 39 Steps — Problem: Will the man get out of the mess? And how will he do it, if he does? The Man Who Knew Too Much — Problem: What will the man, whose daughter has been kidnapped because he knows of a murder plot, do?
Will he speak and sacrifice his daughter? Or will he keep his mouth shut and save his daughter at the cost of the threatened man's life?
Now, to give you an example of the difficulties a film company has to contend with, I'll tell you the story of the picture on which I am working at the moment.
Last September, I began looking round for a story. I always swear I'll never work on a story again. I'll buy one ready-made. But it never comes off like that. It hasn't this time.
I got into touch with various authors. I began to scan various books. I never read a book through if I am considering making a picture of it, by the way.
If I do read a book through, I get so saturated with the novel that I cannot discard easily what often must be discarded to make a real film and not a mere photographic reproduction of a book.
Anyway, I got into touch with various authors. One came over from the Continent. Another was a Londoner. A third was from the provinces. None of them could give me exactly what I wanted.
Then it was all fixed for me to go to Canada and get into touch with Lord Tweedsmuir — John Buchan — to get a sequel to The 39 Steps. I was looking forward to that. Not only did I look forward to seeing Lord Tweedsmuir again, but I've never been to America or Canada.
But the Governor-General of Canada refused to do any work while he was still Governor-General. He was too busy. So that was knocked on the head.
We rooted about among more manuscripts. We covered more books, more reviews. We talked endlessly about ideas.
For it is ideas that we want in films far more than stories. Give us the idea and we can turn you out a story any time.
We read the "Book of the Month" selections. We discarded some of them as too highbrow; others as too slight; others as too tragic. For we are controlled by popular appeal. It is no use for a director to make a success artistically if the company loses money on the picture.
Finally I read a review of a book called A Shilling for Candles, by Josephine Tey. It was a first novel. It was a murder mystery with all the recognized false clues, suspects, complications that such a book always possesses.
But you won't see that when it appears on the screen.
We have used three chapters of the book as a basis for our star material. These deal with the central theme of the picture — not of the book. There is a young man, a nice young man, who escapes from the police who hold him on a charge of which he is innocent.
He is helped by a 17-year-old girl who is the daughter of the Chief Constable. In the book the girl drifts out of the story. In the film the girl — who is Nova Pilbeam — is the story.
We began working out our own version of the tale. I am not going to tell you those, for you will, I hope, see them on the screen much more vividly than I could relate them in print.
We engaged a writer to produce the dialogue. We went into a huddle and slowly from discussions, arguments, random suggestions, casual, desultory talk, and furious intellectual quarrels as to what such and such a character in such and such a situation would or would not do, the scenario began to take shape.
The difficulty of writing a motion picture story is to make things not only logical but visual. You have got to be able to see why someone does this, see why someone goes there.
It is no use telling people; they have got to SEE. We are making pictures, moving pictures, and though sound helps and is the most valuable advance the films have ever made they still remain primarily a visual art.
There are very few — astonishingly few — people who can write a screen story. There are no chapter headings, no intervals between the acts. The fading in and fading out are so quick that they do not give the audience time to discuss and work out and think over what they have seen and why they have seen it.
Incidentally, have you seen Frank Capra's picture, Theodora Goes Wild? You will remember, if you have, that it deals with a village girl who has written a bestseller which is "scandalous" to the set in which she moves. It is terribly hush-hush. She refuses to appear as the author of the book.
Josephine Tey is another Theodora, though her book is not scandalous. But she is a mystery woman. I have not seen her, although I have asked her to collaborate with me on the script. Her publishers have not seen her.
But she produced the central idea on which I hope to make my best picture — as yet.
We're still working on A Shilling for Candles although we haven't turned a foot of film. Although we are basing our scenario, as I said, on three chapters of the novel, it is only the theme that is contained in them. We are using a lot of atmosphere and a certain amount of incident that appear elsewhere.
The treatment of a film built on a novel can be seen clearly in The 39 Steps. That was originally a story with no woman in it; it was set in London during the June of 1914 — immediately before the War. When it reached the screen — with the author's complete approval — it was a modern film, with a leading lady, and a sequence in a London music hall and a character — "Mr. Memory" — that the author had never created.
The new picture is concerned with the "Gentlemen of the Road" — the tramps who wander, unconsidered, derelict, comic or tragic by turns, along the highways and byways of Britain.
Much of the material is already in the book — a very fine and careful piece of work by a very talented author. But that is not enough for the films. I must know enough about tramps to avoid making a single mistake. I must learn their idiom. I must get their clothes right. I must get their gestures, their appearance, their whole atmosphere.
In the early days, a picture would often tell a story in the 1860s — and one of the exteriors would show a telephone wire! The early American films would fall down badly when they produced stories set in England. They got their titles wrong. They made a man go to Ascot in a soft collar and a morning coat. They put an Imperial crown over an earl's visiting card.
Those titles don't — those things mustn't happen today.
So my tramp stuff needs a lot of research.
When I made Blackmail, I learned from Scotland Yard detectives the exact procedures when a man was arrested, charged, identified, fingerprinted, and so forth.
In the new picture, I have to get the exact procedure when a tramp spends a night in a casual ward.
I have been thinking seriously — this is not a joke: it is quite true — of doing it myself so that I shall know what happens at firsthand.
I should have to grow my beard for a few days. I should have to dress the part and almost makeup for it as though I were an actor. I should have to learn the right phrases to apply for admission.
I doubt if I shall be able to do it myself, though. They'd probably think I was too well fed! And I doubt if I could get thin enough in the time.