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Original at The Independent
George H. Brown
By Tom Vallance
09 January 2001
George Hambley Brown, writer and film producer: born 24 July 1913; married 1939 Maureen O'Hara (marriage dissolved 1941), 1948 Bettina Kohr (died 1998; one son, one daughter); died New York 3 January 2001.
The father of Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and now Editor of Talk magazine, the producer George H. Brown was responsible for one of the most popular pieces of casting in the Sixties, that of Margaret Rutherford as Agatha Christie's genial sleuth Miss Marple in the film Murder She Said, which spawned three sequels.
Though Rutherford initially declined the role since she loathed crime as a subject, and though Christie herself thought the portrayal far removed from the character she had created on the page, it was to become one of the two roles with which Rutherford will always be associated (the other her indelible Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit) and made her a star at the age of 70. Brown had earlier made several other hits for British screens, including The Chiltern Hundreds and Hotel Sahara, but the first two Miss Marple films were to be his biggest money-makers.
George Hambley Brown was born in 1913, and raised by relatives in Barcelona after his father, a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, was shot down and taken prisoner by the Germans during the First World War. Brown's mother, Nancy Hambley Hughes, was an actress-singer with the D'Oyly Carte Company, and the youth took an early interest in show business.
He had served as a stuntman, bit player, singer and dancer before his knowledge of Spanish helped get him a foot in the production side of the film industry as third assistant director on The House of the Spaniard (1936), directed by Reginald Denham and partly filmed in the Pyrenees. He graduated to assistant director on William K. Howard's Fire Over England (1936), which starred Laurence Olivier as a spy at the Spanish court who discovers details of the planned invasion by the Spanish Armada. Vivien Leigh and James Mason had early screen roles in the film.
When Charles Laughton and Erich Pommer formed their own production company, Mayflower Films, in 1938, Brown was a production assistant on the three films they made, Vessel of Wrath (1938), St Martin's Lane (1938) and Jamaica Inn (1939). For the last, a Daphne du Maurier tale of smugglers directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Laughton and Pommer imported the little-known Maureen O'Hara from Ireland for the female lead. O'Hara, chaperoned by her mother, came from a strict Catholic family and when she and Brown fell in love they were secretly married.
Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester later recounted that, when O'Hara's mother discovered a wedding ring in O'Hara's handbag as they were en route to America, she and Laughton confronted the actress and she admitted her marriage. The short-lived union did not survive the separation, however, and she and Brown were divorced in 1941.
The three Mayflower films did only moderate business, and when the company disbanded Brown moved to Ealing Studios, where he worked on a highly acclaimed drama of coal miners and the conditions in which they worked, The Proud Valley (1939), starring Paul Robeson. Strongly opposed by coal-mine owners, the film had to be shot quickly and with a degree of secrecy.
After a spell as organiser of an Ensa party playing to troops in the Orkneys, Brown went to Canada to be associate producer to Powell and Pressburger on the propaganda thriller 49th Parallel (1941). He then started training to become a flyer like his father, but just before he qualified he was asked by the Air Ministry to join the newly formed RAF Film Unit in the North African desert, where for two years he headed a group sending back film of air and land battles. He then led the only film unit to record the siege of Malta, after which he was associate producer on a film written by Terence Rattigan and directed by John Boulting for the Ministry of Information and RAF Film Unit, Journey Together (made in 1944 but released in 1945), featuring Edward G. Robinson as the teacher of a squadron of RAF pilots training in the United States.
Ending the Second World War with the rank of Squadron Leader, Brown formed two important partnerships. He married Bettina Kohr, an assistant to Laurence Olivier, and he formed a professional partnership with the actor-writer Peter Ustinov. The two men co-produced School for Secrets (1946), a fine saga of "boffins" perfecting radar, written and directed by Ustinov with an excellent cast including Ralph Richardson, David Tomlinson, Richard Attenborough and Raymond Huntley. The pair then produced the comedy Vice Versa (1947), from F. Anstey's Edwardian novel about a father and son who magically change places with one another.
After acting as an associate producer on John Boulting's political drama about lost ideals Fame is the Spur (1947), Brown made his first film as a solo producer, an enjoyable remake of the 1932 hit Rome Express, starring Jean Kent and this time entitled Sleeping Car to Trieste (1948). The actress Rona Anderson, spotted by Brown and the director John Paddy Carstairs in a Glasgow stage production, was given her first screen role in the film, and later said, "I enjoyed doing it; it was a film full of nice little cameo performances."
Carstairs also directed the next Brown production, a lively and popular adaptation of the William Douglas-Home play The Chiltern Hundreds (1949) with A.E. Matthews in his original stage role as a country squire whose butler (Cecil Parker) stands as a Tory candidate in the local elections.
Brown and Patrick Kirwan co-wrote his next production, a fast-paced and good-humoured comedy, Hotel Sahara (1951), with the American star Yvonne DeCarlo top-billed as the mistress of a hotel proprietor (Peter Ustinov) whose premises are located in No Man's Land during the war and are visited in turn by British, Italian, French and German forces (plus a few Arabs), changing its appearance and attitudes for each new group. After a hectic period in which two groups collide, things are getting back to normal when the Americans arrive . . . The director Ken Annakin recalled,
The idea for Hotel Sahara came from George Brown, the producer, and it was one of the best pictures he ever made. The screenplay was written by George himself and Patrick Kirwan. The witty stuff came from Kirwan but George had a great feel for it because he had been with the Desert Rats . . . The film ran for years in Germany because it was the first film to show that many Germans were human beings serving just like other soldiers.
DeCarlo also remembered the film with affection:
What excited me about this project was the letter I had received from George Brown. He said he had seen all my films and saw by the sparkle in my eye that I could play comedy. I was really grateful for the comment, as I had been hoping for years that someone in America would see similar potential.
Critics generally agreed with Brown's assessment, the Sunday Graphic commenting, "The laughs come freely chiefly as a result of Miss DeCarlo's hitherto hidden talents as a comedienne."
Brown's output for the rest of the decade was generally less distinguished - Made in Heaven (1952) was a mild comedy with David Tomlinson and Petula Clark as newly weds desperately trying not to quarrel in order to win the Dunmow Flitch; Desperate Moment (1953) had a fanciful thriller plot (adapted by Brown and Kirwan from a novel by Martha Albrand) which even Dirk Bogarde and Mai Zetterling could not rescue; and The Seekers (1954) was a misguided attempt at an Antipodean "western" directed by Ken Annakin, who later stated, "I had a good relationship with George Brown until he became very mean in New Zealand." Jacqueline (1956), directed by Roy Baker, starred John Gregson as a labourer saved from alcoholism by his daughter, and was well received but Dangerous Exile (1957) was a pale reminder of the Gainsborough Studio's bodice-ripping yarns of the Forties.
Brown ended the decade with a great hit, a vehicle tailor-made for rock star the Tommy Steele (Brown was one of its five writers), Tommy the Toreador (1959), and he followed this with a charming tale shot in Spain and directed by Charles Crichton, The Boy Who Stole a Million (1950).
Brown first worked with the director George Pollock on the Irish fable Rooney (1958), and in 1961 he suggested they film the Agatha Christie novel 4:50 From Paddington with Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, but the actress nearly declined their offer. "I hate violence of any kind," she said, "and murder in particular. Besides, my public expects something better of me; they might not approve of a Rutherford Sherlock Holmes." Only after reading the script did she accept, partly because a good role had been written for her husband Stringer Davis. Agatha Christie initially objected to the casting, stating that she had based Miss Marple on a slightly built favourite aunt, but she later became great friends with Rutherford.
Retitled Murder She Said (1961), the modestly budgeted film became a surprise success all over the world, and the Brown-Pollock team followed it with Murder at the Gallop (1963, based on the book After the Funeral), which had the advantage of Robert Morley as a sparring partner for Rutherford.
Two further Marple films were made with Rutherford, but Brown did not produce them, moving on to the provocative Guns at Batasi (1964), in which Richard Attenborough gave a splendid performance as a sergeant-major at a British army post in Africa, unable to come to terms with the country's move from colonialism to independence.
Brown also produced The Trap (1966), made in Canada with Rita Tushingham and Oliver Reed, and Innocent Bystanders (1973), a densely plotted espionage thriller, before starting a lengthy retirement in Spain. In 1992 he and his wife moved to New York, where they lived in the same apartment building as their daughter Tina and her family. Bettina died in 1998, and, besides Tina, the Browns are survived by a son Christopher, who is a film producer in Australia.
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