by Dean Brandum
Recently I took to re-reading H. Mark Glancy’s excellent When Hollywood Loved Britain: The Hollywood ‘British Film’ – 1939-1945. The author writes of a period when the American studios (and its audiences) were enamoured of the notion of Britishness in cinema. From Errol Flynn swashbuckling for Elizabeth I in The Sea Hawk (Curtiz: 1940) to Greer Garson staunchly bearing up through the blitz in Mrs. Miniver (Wyler: 1942) Hollywood produced scores of images of Britain (although almost always England) past and present throughout the 1930s-40s and an appreciative American audience reciprocated in kind, as most of these films generated healthy profits. It must be said that such American audience enthusiasm did not extend to actual films produced by the British film industry, as these were – if they crossed the Atlantic at all – restricted to arthouse or small chain distribution.
With its community of British ex-pats (mainly performers and technical crew), Hollywood in the 1930s was almost an outpost of empire – a veritable Raj among the orange groves. And if they were not British by birth then it seemed that those of the filmmaking set were at the very least Anglophiles. This still-nascent town may have been booming but although cashed up it remained devoid of a solid cultural (let alone historical) base. So where else to look than the mother country even if, for many, their origins were found on the other side of the English Channel? Britain offered taste, refinement and tradition. And indeed, in a practical sense, it also provided a rich vein of motion picture material. From Dickens and Shakespeare to number military conquests and the deeds of great explorers and colonisers, the pages of British history and literature made their way to the Hollywood screen. Genuine ex-pats were often cast as the protagonists, but it was just as common to see American performers (Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Robert Taylor etc) frocking up and attempting to round their vowels, although in many cases, just smoothing down the mid-western drawls or Noo-Yawk edges was enough.
As Europe braced for the gathering storm late in the 1930s, the Hollywood of the still-neutral United States had little compunction in allowing their fervently pro-British (ergo: anti-Nazi) bias be displayed on screen. The ante was upped once war was declared and when, in the final month of 1941, the USA officially joined proceedings, the Office of War Information gave approval to the filmmaking cause (it is hard to believe today, but there was a proposed Senate investigation into Hollywood’s pro-British bias, due to take place in early 1942, cancelled only after the bombing of Pearl Harbour). At times relations between the Americans and British were strained as the stress and cost of the war took its toll. Such difficulties only strengthened the resolve of the studios to produce British themed films, contemporary and past in setting, but altogether positive, no matter the temporality.
In 1945 war ceased. The Allies won and the clean up and carve up of occupied Europe began. In those immediate post-war years Hollywood suffered a disastrous downturn in attendances and revenues. With Nazism defeated there were new villains for Americans to contend with. The Cold War era saw not only an external (Soviet) threat, but with a paranoid fervour Americans took to weeding out Communist plants (real or imagined) within the interior. In one of the most public displays of this period, Hollywood came under the spotlight. For an industry already reeling with financial, legal and structural issues, the accusation of harbouring treasonous rats in their ranks was just what they didn’t need to return to the public’s favour.
As a result American cinema entered a period of naval-gazing (patriotic and self-loathing), this inward obsession broken only by sporadic bursts of epics depicting empires long vanished or fantasies of intergalactic visitors from planets far away. Britain was mostly forgotten – apart from a few medieval and Victorian era tales – the Empire now picking up the pieces of a most expensive campaign, surviving with rationing and rebuilding its blitzed ruins. Contending with their own socialist threats. Financial and industrial concerns saw the sun finally set. In reality it had been grimly hanging onto the horizon for some time.
Cinematically, this post-war period also saw the emergence of the what came to be known as ‘film noir’. Most commonly associated with Hollywood, there have also been valid claims for a (near concurrent) British strain. An offshoot of this trend is one that I have read little about and one which I think, especially in relation to Hollywood’s aforementioned Anglophilia, is worth mentioning.
A few nights ago I found myself watching David Miller’s Midnight Lace, a preposterous thriller about Doris Day being stalked in London. She never sees the man terrorising her, only being subjected to telephone calls or voices in the fog telling her she will be killed before the month is over. Glossily produced for Universal by Ross Hunter in 1960, Midnight Lace tries for a Hitchcock feel, but director Miller lacks the master’s deftness of touch and the material (based on a stage play “Matilda Shouted Fire” by Janet Green) hurls its red herrings about so thoughtlessly that the stalker’s identity will only be a surprise to the more feeble minds in the audience. In any case, Doris is pretty good (I always thought she was sadly under-utilised in drama) and she is given plenty of scream-time. She carries the show and maintains enough mild interest for the viewer to hang in to the closing credits.
What is of true interest in Midnight Lace is its pure fear of all things British. From its opening scenes, the fog-cloaked London is depicted as a creepy, threatening city. The fear is validated by Doris tormented as she cuts through a park – a sing-song voice seeps from the fog promising her impending death. Perhaps not the advertisement the London tourist bureau would have wanted, but when Doris tells her husband (Rex Harrison) he laughs it off as a typical prank of a foggy London night. When told that the voice spoke of her name, address and nationality, Rex chuckles at the research such japesters will conduct. Soon Doris starts receiving phone calls. The death threats come after a barrage of ‘filth’, she tells a Scotland Yard Inspector her husband has engaged to deal with the matter. What this ‘filth’ is we never know, except that it is ‘obscene’ (the thought of Doris Day being subjected to obscene filth on the phone tickles me no end, I must say). The police officer explains that not only can much be done about obscene phone callers, they are also on the increase, a fact confirmed by Doris’s neighbour and friend who laughs away her own experience of ‘heavy breathers’.
Not content to smear the British as a nation of sadistic pranksters who get their kicks from talking obscene filth on the phone, the film presents us with a number of options for who may be the stalker. There is the slimy son of their housekeeper (Roddy MacDowell) who is despised for wanting to rise above his social station, next up is an American building contractor working outside Doris’s flat who takes a liking to her and finally a sinister fellow with facial scarring who is constantly lurking and watching our distressed damsel from a distance. Pretty quickly the American (John Gavin – he made Psycho the same year) is painted with the sympathetic brush, becoming her protector when her English husband is disbelieving and ineffectual. Roddy is just a creep, but what is most worrying is the attitude displayed to the fellow with the facial disfigurement. At one point Gavin spies him in a pub and discusses his presence with a blowsy barmaid (Hermoine Baddeley). She is revolted by his appearance and when Gavin suggests he may have received such scars in the war she is nonplussed, stating that it is such veterans accounting for the crimes on the streets today, from which no woman is safe. Only fifteen short years after the war and already the heroes are denigrated as potential rapists!
It is not just the people of Britain who have it in for Doris Day – a building scaffold collapses and barely misses her as she walks by and she is nearly run over by a bus in Piccadilly Circus. At its climax, when the actual stalker is revealed it is the most British of characters that is the villain, a fact taken with good grace by the police who treat the villain with the ‘bad luck old chap’ sportsmanship appropriate for a batsman out LBW to a well-bowled googly.
Midnight Lace was one of a number of films that depicted Britain as a no-go area for Americans. Obsession (1949: Dmytryk) featured proper, cuckolded English doctor Robert Newton keeping his wife’s American lover hostage with the intention of killing him then burning his body in acid. Night and the City (1950: Dassin) had Yank Richard Widmark on the run through the scummier streets of London and becoming increasingly aware that his hours are numbered. 23 Paces to Baker Street (1950: Hathaway) featured a blind American (Van Johnson) stalked by an unseen predator and numerous B-films featured American actors on the slide (Forrest Tucker, Lloyd Bridges, Tom Conway, Steve Cochran, Lizabeth Scott etc) facing danger in Blighty.
Doris Day took the first flight home and into the loving arms of Rock Hudson and lots of pastel décor. Within a few years America would be thrilled by the gadgetry of Connery’s James Bond and they would be mopping their tops with the Fab Four. In no time there was a wave of all things British – Caine, Finney, Christie and co. on film and a British Invasion on the charts with various Hermits, Fives, Animals, Hollies, Stones and friends. Carnaby Street, mods and photographers. London was now swinging and America once again was in love with Britain (for a few years, at least). The Anti-British noir strain, like London’s fog, cleared.
I would doubt if any such cycle was intentional, but a careful examination of Midnight Lace does reveal a disdain for the Britain and its people that would never have been considered 20 years earlier. That attitudes returned to the positive is evident in Rex Harrison becoming, with My Fair Lady (1964: George Cukor), America’s favourite English gentleman.
Well, at least until he decided to try and talk to the animals and caught the giant snail to career oblivion. But that’s a story for another day.