The 1939 cinema classic The Wizard of Oz, the movie that launched teenage singer/actress Judy Garland into stardom, has long had a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most ‘cursed’ films.
Many, many things did go wrong on the set…the MGM musical/ fantasy came in over budget at a cost of $2.8 million. This in part reflects The Wizard of Oz’s disjointed trajectory – going through five directors including King Vidor, George Cukor and Richard Thorpe and 14 screenwriters in the course of the production. The movie’s ultimate director Victor Fleming (who also directed the other great Hollywood film of 1939 Gone With The Wind) was widely suspected of Nazi sympathies.
The appalling treatment of 17-year-old Judy Garland (Dorothy) would today be seen as out-and-out child abuse, irrespective of whether it was within or without the celebrity world. The film-makers half-starved Judy, limiting her to only one square meal per day, fed her on barbiturates and got her fixed on an 80-a-day cigarettes habit. Garland eventually spiralled into a tragic pattern of drug dependency and suicide attempts. [E Power, ‘The Wizard of Oz – Dark side of the rainbow’, Irish Examiner, 15-Sept-2014, www.irishexaminer.com].
Equally alarmingly was the casual disregard of the health and well-being of other cast members as well. Buddy Ebsen (later famous as Jed Clampett in TV’s Beverly Hillbillies), to achieve the silver make-up of his character “The Tinman” was coated in aluminium powder which gave him an allergy and got into his lungs, after two weeks he became seriously unwell and was hospitalised and out of the film✳. His replacement Jack Haley was less exposed to deadly toxins but still contracted a troublesome eye-infection.
Fitting out supporting actress Margaret Hamilton for the role as the “The Wicked Witch of the West” meant painting her skin with green copper, exposing her to a clear carcinogenic risk. Even more perilous, in one hazardous scene Hamilton was nearly burned to death when a pyrotechnics feature went horribly wrong…requiring the actress to be hospitalised for a couple of weeks.
The film’s jinx extended to minor players like the munchkins (small colourfully-garmented characters portrayed predominantly by people with the condition dwarfism). The vertically challenged actors were grossly underpaid (‘Toto’, Dorothy’s dog in the movie was paid more than them!) and consequently they got drunk every night and reportedly ran riot on the set. Even Toto didn’t escape a mishap – one of the supporting actors accidentally stepped on him in a scene breaking the mutt’s paw and necessitating a canine replacement.
In the celebrated poppy field scene Dorothy and other characters get saturated in snow flakes, the only problem was the substitute snow comprised sheets of lethal asbestos![Power] Hollywood regularly used 100 percent industrial-grade chrysotile (white asbestos) in films, in White Christmas (1954) Bing Crosby got it poured all over him! Ray Bolger’s “Scarecrow” straw-filled costume was also lined in asbestos in order to be flame-proof [S Kazan, ‘The Wizard of Oz or The Wizard of Lethal Asbestos Exposure?’, (Kazan, McLaine, Satterley &’Greenwood], www.kazanlaw.com].
The curse for a time seemed to continue post-release. Although The Wizard of Oz is universally celebrated today as a classic of the cinema, it did not meet with immediate acclaim from either the public or critics. These reservations did not start to turn around until the CBS television network reintroduced the movie to the wider public in 1956. In 1989 the US Library of Congress nominated The Wizard of Oz as “the most-viewed motion picture on television syndication” [‘The Wizard of Oz (1939 film)’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org]. Countless scores of viewers of the joyous spectacle of ‘Oz’ over the years would have been blissfully unaware of the unhappy, off-screen events that relentlessly dogged the production.
PostScript: Judy a victim of MGM’s mogul monster
MGM’s systematic abuse and exploitation of Judy Garland emanated from the very top of the studio – MGM head Louis B Mayer. To get the absolute most out of the studio’s new star Garland, Mayer maintained tyrannical control over all aspects of the Wizard of Oz star’s life⌖.
Mayer hooked Garland on a cocktail of drugs, having her fed alternating courses of amphetamines, adrenaline shots and downers like Seconal. And Mayer, to ensure that Judy, away from the studio, kept to the strict diet of coffee, chicken soup and cigs, had a battery of spies reporting back to him on the beleaguered actress’s behaviour [Neil Norman, ‘Dark side of Oz: The exploitation of Judy Garland’, Express, 05-Apr-2010, www.express.co.uk]]
✳ Ebsen as a result of exposure to the deleterious materials was required to use a respirator for the remainder of his life (he lived to 95) ⌖ a mistreatment aided and abetted by Judy’s own mother Ethel who mercilessly drove Garland and her sisters early show business career, thinking nothing of feeding the three sisters pep pills to cope with the brutal workload she had burdened them with! [Norman]
When I was a kid growing up in the 1950s and 60s I was exposed, like everyone else, to saturation levels of US commercial television. Faced with the novelty of a new and revolutionary form of home entertainment, I clocked up the viewing hours (which turned into thousands of hours). Eventually through trial and error I picked out my favourite American programs, a few gems among the preponderance of TV dross and mediocrity.
Back then I was particularly fond of old black-and-white movies on TV (until 1975 all Australian television was in black-and-white!). Drilling down even deeper, 1940s and 50’s movie serials were highest on the totem of my juvenile television tastes. I lapped up countless viewings (and re-viewings) of the like of Ma and Pa Kettle, Blondie, Batman, Tarzan, Bowery Boys/Dead End Kids, to barely scratch the surface of my childhood obsession.
As an Antipodean-based “honorary American boy”, a lot of my vicarious existence was channelled through Hollywood’s projection of the typical American teenage boy. MGM had Andy Hardy (played by that pint-sized bundle of energy, Mickey Rooney), whilst over at Paramount, the studio eventually tried to counter Andy’s popularity with Henry Aldrich (portrayed initially and briefly by the over-saccharine Jackie Cooper, but mostly by the perpetually perplexed-looking Jimmy Lydon).
Both screen personas had their measure of humorous escapades in each movie in the series…teenagers Andy and Henry got up much the same thing, they were both likeable, both “got into jams, had romantic vexations, and mischievously interfered in the lives of their older brothers and sisters”, with consequences all of which were at worse ephemeral.
Hardy and Aldrich each had his own distinctive and characteristic expressions, these verbal calling cards were often reiterated throughout each movie…Andy Hardy, when in ebullient mood, would chirpily respond to Polly Benedict or to another of his many, simultaneous love interests with “You said it, toots!” Henry Aldrich is universally remembered for the opening exchange with his mother who bellows: “Hen-reeeeeeeeeeeee! Hen-ree Al-drich!”, to which Henry from upstairs would haltingly and tremulously reply, “Com-ing, Mother!”
Once I latched on to Paramount’s counterpoint to the Hardys, the Aldriches, I quickly developed a preference for the new kid on the Hollywood block Henry Aldrich over Andy Hardy. The longer the Andy Hardy/Family sequence went, the more it seemed to wallow in “Gee mum'” sentimentality, with a touch of smug bourgeois self-satisfaction. Andy came from a distinctively middle class American family (his father was a court judge, as the good-intentioned Andy himself aspired to and eventually realised)…Henry seemed more to reside in the world of the working class family, not exactly down-at-heel, but hardly flush with affluence. The Henry movies were a bit more gritty, more down-to-earth and lacking the romanticised and soppy wholesomeness of the Hardy Family sagas.
The first Andy Hardy film was released in 1937, A Family Affair with 15 more following within the decade, plus a less successful ‘reunion’ film in 1958 focusing on Andy’s return to Carvel to take up his father’s old judicial post. The character of Henry Aldrich first surfaced in a Broadway play What a Life in 1938 (playwright: Clifford Goldsmith)…from there in span off into fourteen years of radio (1939-53), four years of television (1949-53), a series of ten movies, and an uncountable number of comic books, musical scores, pin-ups, games, and toys.
The Aldrich movies never reached anywhere near the lofty heights of the Hardy films, neither in the returns from the box office or in the esteem of cinema critics✳. Henry Aldrich movies were either ignored by critics or dismissed as inferior B-movies, merely larks and juvenile fun…contrasting sharply with the symbolic status afforded the Hardy series by MGM, the cinematic embodiment of the “Stars and Stripes”, of “America”.
Jeffrey Dennis notes how the respective imaginary ‘worlds’ Andy and Henry inhabit sit poles apart. Carvel, the Hardy home town in small town Idaho, is comfortably ensconced in Middle American suburbia, a peaceful and harmonious realm in which the war (WWII) does not enter. Carvel and the Hardys represent an idyllic family lifestyle, with the films’ message a somewhat preachy reinforcement of solid and wholesome American values. Against the stark realities of the Depression and the drift into global war, fictional Carvel offered the American public a chance to indulge in “feel-good” escapist diversions.
Henry’s home town Centerville, by contrast (located in an unidentified state) is a much more grim, dark and foreboding entity. Reminders of the war constantly swirl around the world of Henry and the Aldrich family and that of he and his best pal Dizzy (in the form of war bonds, war relief funds, rationing, air-raid drills).
Both boys regularly get themselves embroiled in injudicious teenage troubles but Henry Aldrich’s conundrums have the more serious consequences…whilst Andy at his incautious worse may be “fined for driving without a licence, but Henry is threatened with prison, juvenile hall, and a mental asylum”. And Hardy’s often foolish escapades, unlike Aldrich’s, never amount to life-threatening situations.
Critics have also drawn attention to differences in how each screen teenager viewed the perennial adolescent boy issue of “girl trouble”. Whilst the easily love-struck Andy Hardy was unequivocally a dedicated girl-chaser most of the time, Henry Aldrich expressed a more ambivalent attitude towards the fairer sex: “Wimmen – they bore me!”, Henry exclaims in Henry Aldrich Gets Glamour. Teenage Henry is reticence or seemingly indifferent to girls, preferring to spend time messing about with best mate Dizzy. Rather than being a manifestation of latent homosexuality, Henry with his simplified approach to life, most of the time just finds girls too complicated, not worth all the fuss and bother.
American youth in the Andy Hardy and Henry Aldrich films were depicted humorously, often with affectionate nostalgia and occasionally condescendingly. At the same time, both series revolving round the comical misadventures of American teenage boys were a window on the beginnings of a distinct adolescent sub-culture, which would take further shape in the years following WWII with the “Rebel Without a Cause” youth generation.
✳ in 1939 Mickey Rooney was the number one box office star in American films, a position he retained for the following three years, Source: ‘Top Box Office Stars: 1932-1939 (Part 1)’, (Classic Film Guru), https://classicfilmguru.wordpress.com/2013/08/08/the-box-office-stars-1932-to-1939-part-1/
 RJ Bresler, Us Vs Them: American Political and Cultural Conflict from WWII to Watergate (2000)
 JP Dennis, We Boys Together: Teenagers in Love Before Girl-craziness (2007)
 in 1943 the film series was awarded a special Oscar for “achievement in portraying the American way of life”, Timothy Shary, Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen” (2005)
 Dennis, op.cit.
 RB Armstrong & MW Armstrong, Encyclopedia of Film Themes, Settings and Series (2009)
 PC Rollins, The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past (2004)
Where the Gainsborough Pictures/Islington Studios once stood (in Hoxton, North London), today sits blocks of luxury flats built in 2004. As a token gesture the name ‘Gainsborough’ remains on the units’ facade but the only other indicator that it is the site of a former film studio is a 6.5m high courtyard sculpture of Alfred Hitchcock whose first exposure to the movie industry was at Islington … the work of art enigmatically depicting ‘Hitch’ as a gigantic head❈.
In the course of the twentieth century, the site, when it wasn’t a centre of feature film production, had something of a checkered existence. The original building started off as an electrical power station for the East London rail line, circa 1900. When Gainsborough Pictures’ film production ended there around 1949, the premises had a broad range of commercial and community incarnations for the rest of the century, including being a whiskey store, a carpet warehouse and an avant-garde theatre. By the time it was chosen as a site for the apartments that occupy it today, the surviving buildings had taken on a very derelict appearance.
The film company’s story at Hoxton/Islington began just after the Great War when the American movie giant Famous Players-Lasky acquired it in 1919 for its British production arm. Lasky refurbed the run-down power plant, turning it into state-of-the-art film studios. Islington, with the most technical advanced studios in the UK, was also Britain’s most iconic film studios. Features included a scene dock, a large tank for filming underwater scenes and an anti-fog heating system (indispensable for notoriously foggy London). Such super-de luxe facilities earned Islington Studios nicknames like “Hollywood by the Canal” and “Los Islington” .
Cutts and Hitchcock: Islington Silents
Islington Studios commenced making films in 1920 … the creative figure most associated with the studio’s early silent productions was Graham Cutts, who directed a string of 1920s Gainsborough films – of these the most acclaimed were Women to Women (1923) and The Rat (1925). Cutts was mentor to the young Alfred Hitchcock … ‘Hitch’ got his start at Islington as a writer of signs for movies before rising to become the older director’s assistant in several Cutts films. Fellow director AV Bramble went so far to say of Cutts’ directorial contribution, that Gainsborough Pictures “had been built on the back of his work”. The success of The Rat owed much to its star, Ivor Novello, who was a fan magnet (intentionally cast) in the Rudolf Valentino mould. As 1920s Britain’s most popular matinée idol Novello helped lift the profile (and profit sheet) of Gainsborough Studios.
The Balcon years
The American Lasky company didn’t persist with the London venture, selling the studios to ‘kingpin’ British producer Michael Balcon’s Gainsborough Pictures◙ in 1924. Balcon continued the Hollywood former owner’s practice of importing US stars (such as Mae Marsh and Dorothy Gish) to bolster Gainsborough’s productions, but he also pursued a strategy aimed at competing with the burgeoning American influence in the British industry after the war. Balcon made deals with US and German film companies to allow Islington to distribute and finance its own films⌑. Balcon nurtured Hitchcock’s development as a film-maker, despatching him to Germany to work as an assistant on a UFA film in Berlin. Hitchcock’s German influence was evident in Gainsborough’s The Lodger (1927), the best example of British expressionism in silent films.
In 1927 Balcon’s company merged Gainsborough with the larger Gaumont-British film co which operated from its Lime Grove Studios in Shepherd’s Bush (West London). Many Gainsborough Pictures productions were made at Lime Grove (in addition to those made at Islington). Lime Grove Studios produced the ‘quality’ films, whereas the Gainsborough Studio produced mainly ‘B’ movies (especially low-budget crime) and melodramas. The core of Hitchcock’s classic 1930s espionage/mysteries (such as The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage and The 39 Steps) were made by Gaumont at Lime Grove.
Edward Black and the costume melodramas
After Gaumont went into bankruptcy Balcon left Gaumont in 1936 for MGM-British (and later Ealing Studios). Gaumont-British ceased production for several years but Gainsborough was saved by a rescue package put together by CM Woolf and J Arthur Rank (partners of General Film Distributors). From the late thirties producer Edward Black came to Gaumont/Gainsborough and the subsequent type of productions the studios made reflected Black’s “unerring sense of British popular taste”. One of his earliest successes was with Bank Holiday (1938), directed by Carol Reed and Margaret Lockwood, soon to become Britain’s leading screen actress回. Black used ex-Music Hall performers like Will Hays and Arthur Askey for Islington’s light comedies. Gainsborough Pictures also afforded opportunities to the versatile Launder and Gilliat writer-director team to showcase their collaborative skills.
In the war years following, Black combined with screenwriter RJ Minney to produce a series of costume melodramas at Gainsborough, which have been described as being “visually extravagant and morally ambivalent”. Minney and Black also produced comedies and modern-dress melodramas for Gainsborough … the first and most famous of the Studio’s period costume melodramas was The Man in Grey (1943), a box-office winner with an overtly escapist formula to distract people from the tribulations of the world war.
Postwar: Rank and the Boxes
In 1946 the powerful Rank Organisation acquired full control of Gainsborough Pictures, leading to an exodus of its main creative figures, including Black and Minney, and its pre-Rank takeover head of production Maurice Ostrer. J Arthur Rank choose one-time self defined “hack journalist” Sydney Box to head up the Studios’ productions. Box’s collaborators, his wife, writer and director, Muriel and his sister, producer Betty, also came on board. Sydney Box in his time at Gainsborough churned out films at a very steady rate of knots – 36※ all up over three years of managing Gainsborough productions. Under Sydney Box the Studio tackled a mix of genres with a focus on melodramas, thrillers and light comedies.
Gainsborough Pictures in the austere economic climate after the war exhibited an interest in ‘social’ films with a topical appeal. Employing the skills he honed as a documentarist, Sydney also commissioned films which explored a range of issues – no doubt with Muriel’s guiding influence. These included child adoption, juvenile delinquency, displaced persons, leisure pursuits. The light comedies, usually with Betty E Box as producer, remained among the most popular of Gainborough’s offerings, eg, Miranda (1948) (a romantic diversion about a mermaid out of her environment), Holiday Camp (1947) (which spawned a light-hearted series of sequels about the Huggett family – the amusing adventures and misadventures of a typical working class London family in the late 1940s (the workman-like cast included 1960s English pop star Petula Clark).
Gainsborough – closing act
J Arthur Rank permanently shut down production at both Hoxton (Gainsborough) and Shepherd’s Bush (Lime Grove) in 1949, apparently because he was unhappy with the performance of both London studios. All films made by Rank Organisation after 1949 were concentrated at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. The last feature released under the Gainsborough banner was Trio (1950), an anthology film co-directed by the Islington regular Ken Annakin.
PostScript 1: the Gainsborough logo
All Gainsborough films open with the shot of an elegant, feather-hatted woman in Georgian period costume, enclosed within an ornate oval frame. The woman (portrayed by actress Glennis Lorimer) slowly turns and smiles at the camera, an opening feature as visually distinctive as Rank’s iconic strongman banging the gong. The shot of Lorimer was based on the famous 1785 portrait of Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough.
PostScript 2: the studio fire traps of the early ‘talkies’
By the advent of sound pictures Gainsborough’s Islington Studios were certainly among the most technologically advanced in Britain … able to adapt scenes into everything from a mad professor’s lab to a railway station to an 18th century manor house to a mermaid’s lair. But the studios at that time were inherently dangerous places – celluloid was highly inflammable, as was carbon arc lights. Sound-proofing studios usually required covering the entire building with thick blankets, which was virtually tantamount to inviting a fire! The Gainsborough Studios burnt to the ground in 1930, and the same fate befell the studios at Twickenham and Elstree. Such was the sense of threat that some studios maintained their own in-house fire brigades.
❈ there is also a plaque on one of the unit complexes commemorating the film studios
◙ the names ‘Islington’ and ‘Gainsborough’ have tended to be used interchangeably in describing the Poole Street studios ⌑ through the vertical integration of the film biz in the UK and elsewhere, Hollywood was maintaining an economic and cultural dominance of the industry
回 other leading 1940s British stars of Gainsborough pictures included Patricia Roc, Phyllis Calvert, James Mason and Stewart Granger
※ this in fact was the target J Arthur Rank had set (12 feature films a year) as a condition of Sydney Box’s appointment
 Steve Rose, ‘Where the lady vanished’, The Guardian, (16-Jan-2001), www.theguardian.com
 Gary Chapman, London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio’s Silent Years, (2014); LN Ede, ‘Designing the Silent British Film’, in IQ Hunter, L Porter & J Smith (Eds), Routledge Companion to British Cinema History, (2017)
 Rachel Low, The History of British Film: Vol 1V, 1918-1929, (1997)
 Geoffrey Macnab, Searching for Stars: Stardom and Screen Acting in British Cinema, (2000)
 ‘Gaumont British Picture Corporation Limited’, (The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki), http://the.hitchcock.zone. Often described in the trade as “quota-quickies” (Michael Powell’s term)
 Ede, op.cit.
 B McFarlane (Ed), The Encyclopedia of British Cinema – Fourth Edition, (2016)
 The Boxes started their careers in cinema with Verity Films, making war-time propaganda films and documentaries. Behind-the-camera roles in the industry in those days was very much a “man’s world”, and no easy path to tread for women … especially Muriel (when directing films), Rachel Cooke, ‘Power women of the 1950s: Muriel and Betty Box’, The Guardian, 3-October 2013, www.theguardian.com
 A Spicer, Sydney Box, (2006)
 ‘Gainsborough pictures’, Wikipedia, http://wikipedia.org.
 Rose, loc.cit.; Geoffrey Macnab, ‘The death-trap London studio that time forgot: Gainsborough Studios’, The Independent, 24-Jun-1999, www.independent.co.uk
Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat were two English film-makers who maintained a steadily consistent presence in the British cinema between the 1930s and the 1970s. Launder and Gilliat’s creative film roles, whether as writers, directors or producers (or as all three), contributed to over 100 British films in that era, including nearly 40 together as co-writers and producers.
The two co-wrote The Lady Vanishes, a 1938 mystery which was a breakthrough feature for Alfred Hitchcock❈. Interestingly Launder and Gilliat (hereafter L & G) had their (separate) starts in the film business composing inter-titles (title cards) for silent movies in the late 1920s, the same industry beginnings undertaken by Hitchcock several years earlier. L & G combined their talents behind-the-camera together for the first time from the mid 1930s. The L & G partnership had a flexibility and a particular pattern to it … invariably they would jointly produce films and/or also co-write screenplays (although on other occasions either man would co-write films with various other collaborating screenwriters). But almost with very few exceptions one or the other would direct a specific film singly – this was done apparently to avoid confusing the actors.
A versatile¤ and fecund partnership
As well as being prolific contributors to the creation of British films for such a long period, L & G’s film output spanned a range of genres … from thrillers and ‘whodunits’ like Green for Danger (1956) and Secret State (1950) to WWII social-realism films such as Waterloo Road (1944) and Millions Like Us (1943) to romance/adventures like The Blue Lamp (1949) to historical dramas such as Captain Boycott (1947) to farces like The Green Man (1956) and light comedies such as The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), a precursor to a popular series of movies set in a girls’ boarding school immobilised by riotous juvenile anarchy – starting with The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954) which spawned a string of increasingly predictable sequels.
The Times of London described the Gilliat/Launder team as “one of the most sparkling writing, directing and producing partnerships in postwar British cinema”. Notwithstanding such praise, L & G’s body of work has tended to be undervalued by the bulk of film critics … at times eliciting back-handed appraisals from critics such as “toilers in the British comic tradition”; (their films at best exhibiting) “unfailing good humour and the occasional brainy prankishness”. Certainly, technical innovation and self-conscious artiness was not Gilliat and Launder’s style, but they never managed to garner anything remotely like the prestige or critical approval that was lavished on other contemporary British film-makers, eg, Powell and Pressburger, Carol Reed or the Boulting brothers. Bruce Babington has attributed this in part to L & G’s ‘reticence’ as film-makers, the way that they declined to project themselves forward and intervene in controversies and debates of the day, unlike say, their contemporaries the Boultings.
Enlistment in the production of propaganda vehicles
So closely did the personal film-making styles and interests of the two collaborators align, many people found it hard to distinguish between a Launder-directed picture and one directed by Gilliat … most L & G films tended to resemble the fruits of their combined efforts. Or as Adair and Roddick put it, “it would take a lynx-eyed buff to be able to distinguish one from the other”.
The war-time pictures, Millions Like Us and Two Thousand Women can be identified as reflecting in particular Frank Launder’s preoccupation with the portrayal of strong, defiantly independent women. These films were commissioned by the UK Ministry of Information to counter the prevailing low recruitment and morale of women in war-time factory work. Millions Like Us, as Judy Suh has noted, conveyed the “double valence of women as productive workers and domestic symbols of national unity”. L & G’s social-realist films, though propagandist in purpose, posed questions of gender and class whilst depicting the routine of ordinary people at work. The necessities of war-time brought out the conflicting roles and identities of women in such an out-of-the ordinary circumstance, as well as the existence of crossings of class boundaries.
After the war, witty and farcical, albeit slight, comedies were their forte (with the occasional thriller thrown in). Like other high-profile international film-makers L & G had their favourite performers that they liked to work with. L & G got the best performances out of British actors like Alastair Sim, Margaret Rutherford, Joyce Grenfell, Rex Harrison and George Cole. Of these luminaries it was Alastair Sim whose star shined most brightly under the direction of L & G. Sim appeared in at least ten L & G movies and his deliciously roguish star turns as a middle class word-spinning con-man were pure gold. George Cole, who also had a regular gig in the St Trinian’s cycle as the ultra dodgy spiv Flash Harry◘, described working with Gilliat and Launder (and Sim) … to Cole (later himself to find TV fame as consummate, malapropistic con-man ‘Arfur’ Daley in Minder) their films meant:
“Good scripts but terrible money. If Alastair was in the film it was even worse because he got most of it. But they were wonderful people to work with”.
In the 1940s Launder and Gilliat formed their own production company, aptly named Individual Pictures, at this time they were contractually engaged by Gainsborough Pictures … in 1958 the partners took charge of the production side of the struggling independent studio British Lion. By the 1960s both the quality and quantity of Gilliat/Launder productions had receded. In 1980 Launder went once more to the St Trinian’s well❃ with yet another sequel, Wildcats of St Trinian’s … unwisely so as the novelty of L & G’s feature films based on Ronald Searle’s charming cartoons of feral schoolgirls had long since lost their appeal.
PostScript 1: The Charters and Caldicott characters trope – antiquated, old school Englishness
L & G wrote into The Lady Vanishes two minor characters that were to become iconic, background characters in British cinema. Played by actors Basil Radford and Naughton Wayne, the two incidental supporting figures are singleminded cricket enthusiasts (“cricket tragics” as one recent Australian PM was dubbed) trying to hurry back to England to see the last days of the Manchester test match. The popularity of the characters saw them reappear in other L & G movies (including Night Train to Munich, Millions Like Us and in the 1979 remake of The Lady Vanishes), and in several other non-L & G films, eg, the Boxs’ A Girl in a Million and (appropriately enough) It’s Not Cricket. Charters and Caldicott were also reprised for several radio series, and for a 1985 television series. Charters and Caldicott’s fame also extended to their inclusion in a series of Carreras Cigarette cards in the 1950s.
The gormless personalities of Charters and Caldicott, a couple of blithering “Colonel Blimpish” snobs, was a comical throwback to a past England with ‘proper’ gentlemanly good manners and standards of dress. Matthew Sweet saw the two blunderers (in their 1938 incarnations against a backdrop of appeasement) as symbols of “a peculiarly British obstinacy in the face of Nazi aggression” in Europe. Their apathetic dispositions and complete lack of perspicacity about the momentous events happening around them also puts one in mind of Tom Stoppard’s two artless and aimless courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern roaming through Elsinore, ‘Everyman’ figures in the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
❈ The Lady Vanishes helped open Hollywood doors for Hitchcock … after ‘Hitch’ completed Jamaica Inn in 1939 (written by Gilliat et al) he set sail for America (for good), inviting Gilliat to join him however the Cheshireman declined the offer, preferring to stay in the smaller and infinitely less lucrative pond that was the British film industry (Babington, 2002) ¤ “Versatility” Gilliat once said, “was always our curse”, but as Gilbert Adair remarked in a 1994 obituary for the film-maker, “it was also their own form of individualism”
◘ Cole as well appeared in nine of L & G’s films
❃ this was twice too often to the well as the preceding Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966) was also a lame effort at rehashing the by now decidedly stale formula
 although such was the working symbiosis between the two that the non-directing partner would in all likelihood make suggestions for improvements to the designated director where necessary, B Babington, Launder and Gilliat (2002)
 quoted in The Age (Melbourne), 08-Jun-1994
 G Adair & N Roddick, A Night at the Pictures: Ten Decades of British Film, (1985)
 Babington describes Launder and Gilliat as “modest auteurs”, Babington, op.cit.
 Adair & Roddick, loc.cit.
 ‘Launder and Gilliat’, BFI Screenonline, www.screenonline.org.uk
 J Suh, ‘Women, Work, Leisure in British Wartime Documentary Realism’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 40(1), 2012
 ‘Obituary: Frank Launder’, The Independent, 24-Feb-1997, www.independent.co.uk
 ‘Charters and Caldicott’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org; ‘Charters and Caldicott’, www.chartersandcaldicott.co.uk
 M Sweet, ‘Mustard and cress’, The Guardian, 29-Dec-2007, www.theguardian.com
The 1920s was a decade for innovations in communications, as we saw in the earlier related blog “Modern Mass Culture in the 1920s I” which dealt with public radio, the emergence and popularisation of the medium in the US and world-wide. The 1920s also ushered in another form of mass media which would become the most momentous innovation in communications and public entertainment of the century – ‘talking’ motion pictures.
For the last 80 years sound has been integral to world cinema, giving the hitherto silent film an added dimension, building depth into the structure of the storyline. As for its filmic predecessor the silent movie, where are we most likely to see it these days?❈ Commercial screenings of silent era films are rare birds indeed … if we seek them out, we might find them if we’re lucky in an old, suburban Art Deco picture theatre, the initiative of a handful of specialised film societies dedicated to preserving the memory of the lost art form. Or we might catch grainy, monotone snatches of an old silent pix as archaic footage on TV docos. When we do manage to view a silent movie we are often struck by how unrealistic, how stylised they appear today, how over-the-top and melodramatic the acting seems. In the decade-and-a-half up to the late 20s the truth however is that silent films and the star actors of the day had an appeal to their doting audiences that was real and totally captivating.
The advent of talking motion pictures did not come about because of a growing dissatisfaction with silent pictures on the part of film-goers. On the contrary patrons of cinemas were completely happy with the ‘product’, the experience, as it was already. Actually, ‘silent’ movies were not really silent, they had accompanying mood or background music provided by an orchestra or a piano to set the tone of particular scenes. As well, title cards (sometimes called “inter-titles”) were interspersed between shots to advance the story, or to clarify what was happening for the audience. Screen-transfixed audiences would engross themselves in the story action, the emphasis on body language and facial expression by actors to convey strong emotion (emoting ‘feelings’) and meaning. Prior to The Jazz Singer (1927), audiences hadn’t wanted to hear actors talk (or at least they hadn’t expressed such a wish).
The coming of sound
Specific technological challenges needed to be overcome to realise the successful application of sound to film. Amplification had been addressed with developments in the phonograph and the viability of radio transmission facilitating public radio. The hub of the problem was synchronising the action, the visual image, with the sound recordings of spoken dialogue, music and sound effects.
Duelling sound systems
Enter Vitaphone … Vitaphone was an analogue sound-on-disc system developed by Western Electric (a subsidiary of IT & T) in competition with an alternate system devised by RCA/General Electric, which used a sound-on-film method. A number of companies experimented with sound-on-film methods (Fox Movietone, the German company Tri-Ergon, DeForest Phonofilm, RCA Photophone), this ultimately led to the development of a superior and more versatile analogue system to that of the more haphazard dual-processing Vitaphone.
Warner Brothers however were committed to the Vitaphone system and utilised it first on the 1926 film Don Juan which had synchronised music and sound effects, but wasn’t a ‘talkie’ (as it contained no spoken dialogue). The followed year they took it a step further with The Jazz Singer , the first (partly) talking movie, which audiences took an instant liking to, especially the presentation of Al Jonson’s songs¤.
Sound movies in, silent films out: an “overnight sensation” which took several years to happen The Jazz Singer was a calculated gamble by Warner Bros which was in a financially precarious position at the time, but it turned out to be a ‘game-changer’ for the then minnow studio Warners and for cinema’s future as a whole … its positive reception signalled that audiences wanted sound. But this transformation from one type of feature film to another was no sudden event, the process away from profitable silents was a gradual process. First to emulate Warners was 20th Century Fox with its Movietone system, soon the other major studios followed the trail-blazers into sound. The big Hollywood companies tended to play it both ways at first, none of them stopped making silent films straight away. After all, how profitable talkies would become was still to be seen. In the two years following The Jazz Singer ‘s release, the major companies made a mixture of productions – some all-silent, some all-sound and some part-sound movies.
The major film companies’ decision to convert to sound, according to Donald Crafton, had mainly to do with power politics in the industry. Paramount and MGM held an oligarchic hold over the industry in the mid 20s, controlling not only the production of its films but the distribution and exhibition of them as well (vertical integration which was what Warners aspired to as well). Warners’ and Fox’s unilateral venture into the talkies was seen as a threat to the big boys’ hegemony and necessitated the majors’ eventual venture into talkies. The other minor studios including RCA and UA which didn’t immediately opt for sound pictures still survived as silent film-makers.
FN: The “Big Five” and the “Little Three”
By the 1930s the Hollywood hierarchy, after a series of expansions, mergers and takeovers, had settled into an (unofficial) two-tier industry power structure:
⁍ The Big Five: MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros, RKO
⁍ The Little Three: Columbia, Universal, UA (United Artists)
Sound at a price
Various factors acted as a speed bump in the transition to sound movies. There were new financial costs for the industry to take account of. Cinema theatres had to be wired for sound, the cost of which was almost prohibitive – in 1927 only 400 theatres in the US of the multiple thousands were thus connected … by the end of the decade over 40% of the country’s movie theatres had sound systems installed in them. A background factor occurring concurrently with the studios’ efforts to sort out the wrinkles involved in sound pictures was that public radio in the US was still in the process of trying to establish a foothold of its own.
The international language of silent films
The silent cinema had a linguistic universality to it, exporting an American film to a non English-speaking country merely required translating of the credits and title cards. But with sound films this restricted markets for American and English films, and dubbing into the local language was an added expense.
The ‘sound’ of silent stars
From the perspective of the actors, especially those who had established their niche in the silent era, there were formidable challenges to transitioning to the new, sound medium. Acting in sound movies and the whole dynamic was different, they discovered, sometimes to their cost. Actors now had to memorise their lines beforehand, and on set they had to not stray far from the microphones, basically stand still and recite their lines clearly. The voice became THE issue for many established silent stars … a number of Hollywood actors could not make the transition❉. Some with heavy foreign accents like Emil Jannings, Vilma Banky and Pola Negri had voices that sounded harsh, unmelodious and muffled on-screen. Other top silent stars were similarly hamstrung by their voices – John Gilbert sounded weak and squeaky on screen✾, and Clara Bow and Norma Talmadge had flat Brooklyn accents – which didn’t suit their romantic lead personas.
Other silent film heavyweights had an instant aversion to the idea of sound films and avoided them, eg, leading silent actress Mary Pickford simply retired from acting rather than change over to sound; Charlie Chaplin, whose craft relied heavily on mime, never really embraced talkies and proceeded to make films only irregularly into the sound era (his Modern Times in 1936 was a film without spoken dialogue). Myrna Loy, an actress who successfully made the transition to sound, has recollected how much silent movies were loved. Fans felt as though that they possessed an ‘intimacy’ with their favourite Hollywood stars. Like many contemporaries Loy believed that the art of pantomime was perfected in the silent film.
The new medium hamstrung by technological limitations
The new sound technology transformed how movies were made, the ambience on the set completely shifted in a manner directors found inhibiting. Directors, accustomed to shouting directions to actors whilst scenes were being filmed, were hushed up by sound technicians who now in effect called the shots, demanding silence on the set so that incidental noises didn’t interfere with the recording of dialogue❦. Not only did directors feel that sound imposed a break on their free rein over the set, but the movie studio heads felt a similar loss of the financial control of their pictures … sound film production required a huge capital outlay of studios which meant that producers and moguls couldn’t keep the same tight budgetary holds on film expenditure as they previously had.
Directors weren’t the only movie personnel affected by sound. Projectionists at the back of the theatre had their work doubled, now having also to operate phonographs as well as projectors during screenings … the projectionist needed to be ever alert as the equipment had a tendency to jump around and result in a loss of synchronicity between image and sound. Again technological breakthroughs eventually came to the rescue after a new type of film was invented allowing for the sound to be recorded directly onto the film itself.
The take-up of sound films spelled bad news for a myriad of theatre musicians … the silent era had been a fruitful source of employment for them, but once movie houses had installed sound systems their services were no longer needed. On the other side of the coin, talking pictures required fully fleshed-out screenplays and the coming of sound was a boon for scriptwriters!
The early sound equipment was an impediment to the filming of action scenes. To avoid the camera noise being picked up by the sound recorder, the cameraman had to be ‘quarantined’ off in a stationary box to the side. Bereft of the freedom of movement enjoyed in silent movie-making, talkies became just that, static scenes in which characters stood round talking to each other (derisively referred to by some as “tea cup dramas”). The lost spectacle of the silents’ scenes of fast-action adventure caused disquiet among the audiences of early talkies. Within a few years this problem was overcome with the creation of new, quiet cameras.
For a section of the viewing audience who had enjoyed silent movies, the coming of sound to the cinemas created a new, consequential problem. Talking films per se excluded movie-goers who were deaf or had hearing issues. Some theatres tried to compensate for this by providing special headphones, but these were not fully effective and were of no help to those people who were completely deaf.
In time all of the problems and obstacles that came with the emergence of talkies were more or less ironed out … by 1930 the film-going public had voted resoundingly in favour of sound movies at the box-office – audiences at US picture theatres by 1929 had hit 90 million per week, up from an average of 50 million per week in 1920.
PostScript 1: Silent film stars – the ‘superstar’ sui generis thesis
The prestige and kudos of Hollywood movie stars circa 1920 was at an unparalleled high in American society. The personas of silent movie stars often came to take on a “godlike” status. As Jeanine Bassinger describes it, the film star of the early 1920s had a “level of adulation that simply had not existed before movies were invented”. The leading silent stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, Chaplin and Pickford, were uniquely celebrated and adored by the public to a level not achieved by later film stars even in the “Golden Age of Hollywood”. The silent stars of the screen were modern society’s first superstars, they did not have to compete for the public’s affections as the later sound film actors did. They were no pop or rock stars in the 1920s to share the limelight with … similarly, stars of spectator sports in America were very much still a phenomenon in the making.
And yes there were celebrities and high achievers in the performing arts prior to the advent of motion pictures – standout performers from theatre, vaudeville, opera and burlesque – but these stars were never remotely on anything like the (global) scale of silent film stars, who engendered mass adulation in their fans felt that they had an intimacy with their favourite screen stars.
PostScript 2: The international drift to a cinema of talkies
This blog has concentrated on the story of the evolution of sound pictures in America – elsewhere things took longer to evolve. Cinemas in Europe were not fully wired for talking pictures till the 1930s, and the USSR and Japan were still making silent films into the mid thirties. Once sound (belatedly) consolidated itself in these overseas film industries, it sparked a surge in the international production of talking pictures in native languages.
❈ in the sound era only a very select few film-makers have maintained fidelity with the spirit of the silent movie, Jacques Tati is one such throwback whose cinema harks back nostalgically to the silent days of Chaplin and Keaton with its reliance on visual gags interspersed with a modicum of incidental and incoherent dialogue
¤ Warner Brothers’ 1927 sound picture triumph has been attributed to a greatly improved quality of sound in the Vitaphone system, (‘Bob Allen asks… Why the Jazz Singer? … and puts forward a personal theory’, www.web.archive.org)
❉ there were of course a number of established silent movie actors who did successfully make the switch to talkies, including Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Laurel and Hardy
✾ in Gilbert’s case technology did him no favours – his high-pitched voice on film was perhaps made worse by sound adjusters giving his voice too much treble. A suspicion at the time was that the studio deliberately sabotaged the actor because his salary (highest in Hollywood) was costing them too much, (‘Talkie Terror’)
❦ the 1952 film Singing in the Rain accurately captures the shambolic disruption to the profession of film-making brought about by the advent of the talkies … the recent French film The Artist also concerns itself with this subject
 E Thompson, ‘A Very Short History of the Transition from Silent to Sound Movies’, (Wonderstruck), (2011), www.wonderstruckthebook.com; ‘Silent Film’, Wikipedia, http://Wikipedia.org. Two years after the first sound film there was still much negativity about talking pictures, even the premier industry magazine, Variety, opined in 1929 that “movie stars should be screened, not heard”, M Donnelly, ‘The Birth of the “talkies” sounded the death knell for many silent stars’, Daily Telegraph (Syd.), 02-Jul-2016, www.dailytelegraph.com.au
 D Hanson, ‘The History of Sound in the Cinema’, (1997), www.cinematechnologymagazine.com
 C Gallagher ‘Introduction’ in C Gallagher et al, ‘The Silence After Sound: Hollywood’s Last Silent Movies’, 08-Feb-2009, www.notcoming.com. It became standard practice at this time for production companies to make the same movie in both talking and silent versions
 a number of theatres in America did close after the changeover to talkies but Crafton attributes this more to other economic factors, such as increased radio listening and automobile driving, D Crafton, The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931
 ‘The History of Film’ (The 1920s – Part 4) (Tim Dirks), (AMC Filmsite), www.filmsite.org
 the studios employed diction and voice coaches to aid those contract performers struggling with their voices and elocution, although some contemporaries opined that they could have done more to help the actors adjust, J Doyle, ‘Talkie Terror, 1928-1930’, (The Popular History), 19-Oct-2010, www.pophistorydig.com; Thompson, op.cit.
 cited in G Flatley interview, 1977, ibid.
 ‘Talkie Terror’, loc.cit.
 Thompson, op.cit.
 ibid.; ‘The Advent of Sound: 1927-1930’, www.cinecollage.net
 Thompson, ibid.
 ‘The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture’, (Digital History), www.digitalhistory.uh.edu
 Excerpt from ‘Silent Stars’ (by J Basinger), New York Times (1999), www.nytimes.com
 although the 1920s did witness the beginnings of newspaper-‘created’ sports stars, eg, Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth, ‘Digital History’, loc.cit.
 ‘The Advent of Sound: 1927-1930’, loc.cit.
In 1920 the American public was enraptured with the still relatively new medium of film and with the growing phenomenon of movie stars – silent films were all the rage with people from all strata of society. But technological breakthroughs were already opening up new choices for consumers of mainstream entertainment in the US and the wider world.
Early radio days
That same year, 1920, following on the pioneering breakthroughs in Marconi and Tesla and a host of other contributors to the development of radio, the first federal licence was granted in the US to radio station KDKA (owned by the Westinghouse Company) in Pittsburgh, Pa. KDKA started with sport, broadcasting prize fights and Major League Baseball.
Early radio activities in the US were intended as a public service, not-for-profit, RCA (Radio Corporation of America) was formed as a government-sanctioned radio monopoly. RCA with David Sarnoff the instrumental figure in the company But with big business (including newspapers) making an investment in the novel form of communication with the singular purpose of making a financial ‘killing’ from it, this was destined eventually to ride roughshod over the altruistic public service function.
The Corporatisation of radio
Big business interests in the US was taking account of the brand new medium. Corporate America wanted in on the action and was looking for ways to make radio pay¤ … advertising was the key. Radio broadcasting had moved from the pre-1920s phase of inventor/entrepreneurs like de Forest (see below) and Aubrey Fessenden⌻ and amateur operators to profit-conscious organisations in the vanguard. The first radio ad appeared in 1923 on station WEAF in New York. In a familiar pattern of oligarchic business expansion, many of the existing stations coalesced into networks, big players like RCA (later morphing into giant NBC – National Broadcasting) and its rival network, CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System), who were able to secure the top advertising revenue returns on their commercial stations. By 1930 nine out of ten US radio stations were selling advertising time.
Table 1 (below) illustrates how the number of US radio stations rose exponentially from a very low base in 1921:
№ of Stations
Source: CH Sterling & JM Kittross, Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting (1978)
Table 2 (below) illustrates a similar growth in the revenue dollar from US radio:
Advertising Revenue of radio stations
Source: CH Sterling & JM Kittross, Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting (1978)
Chaotic airwaves rule OK!
In the early days reception wasn’t great with the majority of listeners relying on very basic, home-made crystal sets (the eventual advent of amplifying receivers addressed some of the shortcomings). But the listeners were blighted by recurring problems with the on air broadcasts … the stations’ frequencies were continually being interrupted by other radio transmitters who would suddenly cut in on them in the middle of a program. Stations regularly ran experimental programs which were a mishmash of hits and misses. The airwaves were a haphazard free-for-all until measures were taken to regulate the industry in 1927 with the Radio Act. The Act empowered the Federal Radio Commission to reallocate radio frequencies into a geographical zonal system with licenses, time of operation, station power and wavelength to be equally allocated. This system however worked less than perfectly.
A revolution in home entertainment
Within a few short years the stations got their acts together and with improved technology and more receivers available, the American population embraced the mass media of radio. People would hold invite friends over for “radio parties” in their homes. Teenage and adolescent listeners would tune in and dance to jazz programs (the music de jour of the 20s). Radio quickly became a central part of American lives. From fairly limited offerings at first, eg, music, reading the latest news items✥, sporting broadcasts, stations started to offer quality and variety … radio shows had become the go-to form of entertainment – detective serials, westerns, comedies, romances, children’s shows, were all very popularly received. The soap opera✾ (drama serials containing multiple characters with intertwined, often emotionally fraught lives), the one significant invention of radio, became the staple cultural diet of many listeners.
By 1929 radio was reaching 10,000,000 American households. One of the most popular programs was Amos ‘n Andy, a form of audio entertainment which unfortunately also served to disseminate racial and cultural stereotypes (in this case reinforcing a derogatory view of African-Americans). When the phonogram invented earlier by Thomas Edison, was commercialised, the proliferation of record players in homes alongside radio sets gave Americans a “new world” of home entertainment.
Other countries in the western world rapidly followed America’s lead in the spread of the AM radio phenomena, one that would grip and enthrall listeners world-wide until the commercial introduction of public television in the 50s would eventually assume that mantle of shaping or reshaping mass communications.
PostScript: Radio ‘pyrotechnics’ – The ‘invasion’ of America
There has been no better illustration of the sheer, mind-bending power of radio than enfant terrible and soon-to-be Hollywood directorial luminary Orson Welles’s 1938 broadcast on national radio. Welles’s performance of The War of the Worlds (by Sc-Fi pioneer writer HG Wells) spooked the nation (or at least the one-fifth of the over one million listeners to the program who were thrown into a panic by the calamitous ‘news’!) … the radio audience were fooled into believing that they were hearing a live report of an actual invasion of Earth by spaceship-transported Martians.
❈ the involvement of leading newspapers in the new medium was interesting considering that radio early on was promoted as “the newspapers that come through your walls”
¤ the development pattern was different in Europe – in Britain the government agency, BBC (established in 1922) was the guiding light for public radio’s progress
⌻ undertook pioneering work in laying the foundations of AM (amplitude modulation) radio
✥ the delivery of ‘instant’ news through the air waves was a transformation for “Joe and Joan Public” who no longer had to wait to the next day to read about the latest events in their daily newspapers
✾ so named because it was the norm for soap companies to sponsor this type of day and popular evening radio programs (Scott, ‘History of the Radio Industry’)
 it would be remiss here not to single out the pioneering contribution of Lee de Forest whose invention of the Audion vacuum tube most possible live radio broadcasting, an amplifier and transmitter which was the “key component of all radio, telephone, radar, film, television and computer systems before the invention of the transistor in 1947” (‘Lee de Forest American Inventor’, Encylopedia Brittannica (RE Fielding), www.brittannica.com
 CE Scott, ‘The History of the Radio Industry in the United States to 1940’, www.eh.com
‘History: 1920s’, Advertising Age, 15-Sep-2003, www.adage.com
 ‘The growth of radio in the 1920s’, (Mortal Journey), (08-Apr-2011), www.mortaljourney.com; ‘Emergence of Radio in the 1920s and its Cultural Significance’, www.xroads.virginia.org
 ‘Federal Radio Commission’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
 Mortal Journey, loc.cit.; ‘The Formation of Modern American Mass Culture’, Digital History, www.digitalhistory.ut.edu; ‘Soap opera’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
 Mortal Journey, op.cit.. Edison’s phonograph paved the way for the eventual development of sound technology for films
 later, in the 1930s, advances spearheaded by Edward H Armstrong led to the invention of FM (frequency modulation) radio – which prompted a backlash by Sarnoff and RCA and the breakout of an “AM Vs FM war”, ‘FM broadcasting in the United States’, Wikipedia, http://en.m.wikipedia.org
 B Lenthall, Radio’s America: the Great Depression and the Rise of Modern Mass Culture. The Story of the Century, (2007), www.press.uchicago.edu
John Clarke: Trail-blazing Parodist, Lodestar, Daggstar
John Morrison Clarke died, most unexpectedly, in the Victorian wilderness a day-and-a-half ago. An ordinary looking man with an ordinary (unremarkable and yet distinctive) voice, but an ‘Everyman’ with a towering gift for communicating parody and travesty!
John Clarke, born and raised in Palmerston North, New Zealand, but domicile in Melbourne, Australia, for the last 40 years, was a uniquely talented satirist, TV comedian, comic writer and actor. The word ‘genius’ gets carelessly tossed around way too much these days, but in appraising the oeuvre of Mr John Clarke it finds a true home.
Whilst in New Zealand Clarke developed and refined the character of Fred Dagg, a stereotypical, blunt-speaking farmer from the North Island, with long straggly hair and perpetually clad in a black singlet and gumboots. Fred Dagg got Clark’s idiosyncratic brand of humour into the spotlight of New Zealand television. By 1977 Clark had outgrown both NZ and (so it seemed) Fred Dagg and moved to the bigger canvas of Australia❈. Clarke wasn’t quite done with Fred Dagg – in Australia Fred resurfaced as a real estate ‘expert’ with his guide for would-be home buyers providing the “good oil” on avoiding the pitfalls inherent in the spiel of property agents – as the following “bullshit-busting” sampler of his trenchant wit testifies:
A “cottage” is a caravan with the wheels taken off.
“Genuine reason for selling” means the house is for sale.
“Rarely can we offer” means the house is for sale.
“Superbly presented delightful charmer” doesn’t mean anything really, but it’s probably still for sale.
“Privacy, taste, charm, space, freedom, quiet, away from it all location in much sought-after cul-de-sac situation” means that it’s not only built down a hole, it’s built at the very far end of the hole.
“A panoramic, breathtaking, or magnificent view” is an indication that the house has windows, and if the view is “unique”, there’s probably only one window.
Fred Dagg AKA John Clarke was no admirer of the realty and property game and the proclivity of estate agents to be “fast and loose with the truth”, and he gave us the following memorable job description of what they really do:
“The function of the agent basically is to add to the price of the article without actually producing anything”.
(and how to recognise a real estate agent) “If you’ve got gold teeth and laugh-lines around your pockets, you’re through to the semis without dropping a set”.
There was so much to the creative output of Clarke comma J, and so much variety too … screenplays, film acting, radio, stage work, television, songs, books. Clarke’s art didn’t fit into any one particular mould, he was, to use Martin Luther’s expression, an “irregular planet”, always inventing, moving on and reinventing, exploring something new that had piqued his interest.
My personal favourite John Clarke nugget of gold is the Complete Book of Australian Verse⌖. These are a series of recordings in which Clarke audaciously and imaginatively reinvented the “Canon of Great British Poets”, relocating it to regional and outback Australia. Clarke ‘discovered’ the existence of an Aussie poet “laureate-hood” comprising “dinky-di” Australian poetry ‘greats’ with names like ‘Shagger’ Tennyson, ‘Stumpy’ Byron V.C, ‘Gavin’ Milton and “Fifteen Bobsworth” Longfellow⊛.
Clarke’s sublime riff on these fictional masters of Australian poetry is incisively, deeply humorous, and both wise and pretentious-sounding at the same time! Absurdly funny stuff, especially when uttered in John’s wonderful flat, disinterested, monotone voice (“he was sentenced to three years jail for insulting a lobster in a Sydney restaurant”) … Clarke’s clinical dissection of Leader of the Opposition John Howard, to paraphrase playwright Simon Gray, “made me laugh so much that I was prepared to overlook its cruelty” – the poem entreating the future PM to change his vocation:
‘To a Howard’ by Rabbi Burns Wee, sleekit, cowerin, tim’rous beastie,
I know tha’s probably doing thy bestie,
Thou’ll try wi’ th’ gunnery up at the range,
Thou’ll no have much truible, thou’ve dun it afore,
Thou’s an expert for a’ that; look, ‘Wanted: Small Bore’.
With ‘A Child’s Christmas in Warrnambool’ Clarke produces a poetic tour de force by turning Dylan Thomas’ classic winter-scene ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ on it’s head, transforming it into a children’s nostalgic celebration of Australian summers past:
“The smell of insect repellant and eucalyptus and the distant constant bang of the flywire door”/”the fridge of imperishable memory”/”the wide brown bee-humming trout-fit sheep-rich two-horse country”/”some middle-order nephew skipping down the vowel-flattening pitch and putting the ball into the tent-flaps on the first bounce of puberty”.
The Complete Verse‘s eclectic compilation includes a coruscating if excruciating piece by “Sylvia Blath” which is both riotously funny and disturbingly harrowing at the same time. Clarke weaves into the poem Sylvia’s harangue of her dead father who “danced upon my cradle, as I Annexed the Sedatenland” and ends with an unexpected and wicked twist (a crossed-line channelling of Germaine Greer!!!): “Daddy Daddy I’m through, Hello? Germaine … I can hardly hear you, This is a very bad line.”
Since the 1990s Clarke had been an on-screen constant feature with his famous series of mock political interviews (“two-handers” with Bryan Dawe as the straight-man ‘innocently’ asking questions which were fodder for Clarke’s witty retorts) … the one-liners just rolling off Clarke’s golden and acerbic tongue, skewing high-profile politicians left, right and centre:
(pricking at the bluster of an overbearing state premier) “I’m not interested in doing the most intelligent thing … I’m JEFF KENNETT!
Prime Minister Hawke’s robust and over-enthusiastic response to the question of how fit he was after a recent op:
(so fit that) “I’m a danger to shipping!”
Clarke was a wordsmith that other satirists and comic writers in Australasia must have looked at with a mixture of admiration and envy … he simply had such a razor-sharp, punchy, economical and hilarious way with words.
And there was much more to John Clarke’s stellar CV – such as his ‘invention’ of the ‘sport’ of farnarkeling for The Gillies Report, and not to forget the manifold brilliant riffs on finance, business, the economy, the public service and the environment (“the front fell off (and) we towed the ship outside the environment”). Clarke was a trail-blazer in television comedy … his “on the money” take on the crazy, shambolic world of Olympics bureaucracy The Games was a template for other later projects which explored the thorny terrain of corporations and officialdom (such as Utopia) and it informed the BBC’s contribution to the 2012 London Olympics campaign.
John Clarke’s sudden, most untimely death leaves a Sydney Opera House-sized hole in Australian and New Zealand satire – and I shall never forget that voice – as with Billy Bragg’s, so distinctive, and as with Joe (Dragnet) Friday’s, so deadpan matter-of-fact … or his trademark mischievous grin and the sparkle in the eyes.
Vale John Clarke … thank you for entertaining and delighting us for so long and enriching the lives of so many people all the way from Palmerston North to Perth. John’s song lyrics were wrong in one respect … there are countless people in the two Trans-Tasman countries that he lived and worked in who do know “how lucky” they were to have him, albeit for too short a time✥.
❈ his unusual accent didn’t really fit the clipped English speech pattern of “Nu Zillunders” anyway
⌖ the success of which was followed up by the Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse
⊛ other Oz poet-luminaries include b.b.hummings, TS (Tabby Serious) Eliot, Ewen Coleridge, Ted Lear and many more
✥ one of the incomparable Fred Dagg’s best-known songs was entitled ‘We don’t know how lucky we are’