Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.
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NFT bfi Pilgrims' Progress: Powell and Pressburger Revisited
Rynox + His Lordship
Director: Michael Powell
Film Engineering Company
Producer: Jerome Jackson
Screenplay: Jerome Jackson, Michael Powell,
Phillip MacDonald, J. Jefferson Farjeon *
Based on the novel by: Phillip MacDonald
Directors of Photography:
Geoffrey Faithfull, Arthur Grant
Editor: A. (ie. John) Seabourne
Art Director: C.C. Waygrove
Construction: W. Saunders
Sound: Rex Howarth
Stewart Rome (F.X. Benedik)
John Longden (Anthony X. 'Tony' Benedik)
Dorothy Boyd (Peter)
Charles Paton (Samuel Richforth)
Leslie Mitchell (Woolrich)
Sybil Grove (Secretary)
Fletcher Lightfoot (Prout)
Edmund Willard (Captain James)
United Kingdom 1931
Michael Powell got his start in the film business when he joined Rex Ingram's unit in Nice in 1925 at the age of 20; he worked in a number of capacities there, even appearing in The Garden of Allah and The Magician. In 1927 he went to work as an actor for Harry Lachman, another Ingram disciple, to make a series of shorts which, combining humour and travelogue, which were appropriately called 'Travelaughs'. Frank Scully described these as 'Lachman made pastorals painted in Mack Sennett oils.' (Film Weekly, 7 November 1931)
By 1928 Lachman had brought the now out-of-work Powell to London; they arrived to find the British film industry in a state of great confusion as it tried to get to grips with the coming of sound.
At the same time, the Industry was also beginning to deal with the strictures of the 1927 Cinematograph Act, which were to dominate Powell and British cinema throughout the 1930s, having become law on January 1st 1928. The Act imposed a minimum quota of British films to be bought and shown every year in the UK. The renters' quota was of seven and a half per cent, while that for exhibitors was of five per cent (to allow them some choice), both to increase in stages, both finally reaching twenty per cent by 1936.
For a film to be eligible for quota status, it had to have had seventy per cent of its labour costs spent on people residing in Britain or the Empire, which is also where all the studio scenes had to have been shot. The company producing the film had to be British, as did the writer of the scenario (no definition of which was given). Shorts and documentaries were not usually eligible, while to qualify as such, a feature film had to be over 3,000 feet in length (a running time of just over 33 minutes).
During the 1930s Powell worked on 31 feature films, yet most of these are little known. This can be attributed mainly to two factors: first, they belong broadly to that category of films contemptuously referred to as 'quota quickies'. The origin of this term lies in the fact that nowhere in the act was there mentioned a quality test, or threshold; in fact, realistically speaking, the requirements for length and cost were so minimal as to practically preclude any quality at all, let alone the guarantee of a minimum standard. The 'quota quickies' sprang up as films that were made to exploit the protected market, or, in the case of the American producers, to fulfil their legal obligation in order to continue exporting their films to Britain. Rachael Low has estimated that half of all British films made at that time were made under these conditions, so that in the early thirties' ... British film production was either quality or quota.'
Director: Michael Powell
Production Company: Westminster Films
Producer: Jerry Jackson
Production Manager: Walter Tennyson
Assistant Director: Milton Field
Screenplay: Ralph Smart
Original novel: Oliver Madox Hueffer
Directors of Photography:
Geoffrey Faithfull, Arthur Grant
Editor: A. (ie. John) Seabourne
Art Director: Frank Wells
Construction: W. Saunders
Music/Lyrics: Eric Maschwitz *
Music Director: Maurice Winnick
Dances: Max Rivers
Sound: Michael Rose
Jerry Verno (Bert Gibbs)
Janet Megrew (Ilya Myona)
Ben Welden (Washington Lincoln)
Polly Ward (Leninia)
Muriel George (Mrs Gibbs)
Peter Gawthorne (Ferguson, the butler)
Michael Hogan (Comrade Curzon)
V.C. Clinton Baddeley (Comrade Howard)
Patrick Ludlow (Hon. Grimsthwaite)
Ian Wilson (man listening to the speech) *
United Kingdom 1932
Total running time approx. 125 mins
The conception of these as merely films made to order and not considered highly even by those who made them, remained a pervasive one until very recently; Powell himself expressed an equal mixture of pride and disdain for them.
The second reason for the neglect of the over two-dozen films made by Powell before 1937 is the fact that most of them had been long thought lost. Of the twenty-four films Michael Powell directed between 1931 and 1936, twelve are at present available, but as late as 1986, it was believed that only four of them had survived.
Of the first nine films Michael Powell made as solo director, only three are known to survive, Rynox, His Lordship and Hotel Splendide, the latter two starring the comedian Jerry Verno, who appeared in four of Powell's early films (as well as making a cameo as the Covent Garden stage doorman in The Red Shoes).
These films were all made at breakneck speed, and in quick succession. In 'that incredible year' as Powell put it in his autobiography, he was constantly working, so that by the end of 1932 a grand total of seven films had been released. Sometimes within one week of each other, so that My Friend the King was released on 4 April, The Rasp on 11 April; and once within two days of each other (Rynox was released on 7 May, The Star Reporter on 9 May). Powell has said that 'they couldn't all of them be good and they weren't', but nevertheless, the first two films made by Powell and his team were, to everyone's surprise, extremely successful with the critics.
Their first film, Two Crowded Hours (its running time was actually only 43 minutes!) was an unexpected success, and Powell remembers that C.A. Lejeune in The Observer put him in the same class as Hitchcock and Asquith. The Times (12 August 1931) was also very complimentary, noting that its showing at the Tivoli in support of Janet Gaynor in Daddy Long Legs' ... has somewhat obscured ... the work of a young British director, Mr Michael Powell, whose future will certainly be followed with interest.'
Powell's second produced film was an adaptation of Philip MacDonald's mystery novel Rynox which was subsequently re-made by Maurice Elvey in 1937 as Who Killed John Savage? (a lost film) and seems also to have served as the (unofficial) basis for the very similarly plotted Basil Dearden film The Secret Partner (1961). The film is a very faithful rendition of the novel, although certain structural modifications had to be made due to the budgetary and time constraints. In his autobiography, Powell states that the film cost £8,000 rather more than for a standard 'quota quickie'. In the 1970 Kevin Gough-Yates interview, he gave the cost as £4,500, which seems more likely. Either way, it runs a scant 48 minutes (average length though for a 'quickie'), making it the shortest of his surviving films.
The plot deals with the murder of F.X. Benedik, the director of the Rynox company, by a mysterious and violent man with a grudge known only as B. Marsh. It eventually turns out to be an insurance scam to help the ailing finances of the company. It is the treatment of the story, as well as the real identity of Marsh, that are the crux of both the book and the film. Despite the emphasis on dialogue (usually the main feature of any 'quota quickie') and the small number of sets (it all takes place on only six main sets, with few location shots added), there are some distinctive visual touches in the film. When we first go up to the Rynox office, there is a montage of skyscraper shots, edited with a variety of different wipe effects over static and shots panning upwards. To show Benedik's arrival at his offices, and his dialogue with the lift attendant, the shot is taken from inside the lift, with the figures in silhouette in the foreground. When the metal grate is folded back, Benedik speaks (following the novel's dialogue) and then steps out, with the camera tracking behind him. In this way, we don't see the lift arrive and we only hear it leave. Some fairly discreet tracking shots can be noted: one is for the scene when policeman go to the Benedik house on hearing two gunshots; another is an interesting shot near the beginning of the film, where the camera is positioned outside the window that dominants the Rynox office and then tracks forward until it enters the room, crossing about half of it. This is achieved with a quick dissolve (as in Murnau's The Last Laugh) rather than with a breakaway set.
The film ends with the novel's prologue, Benedik's confession and while this is straightforwardly presented (we dissolve from the reading of the letter to a voice-over by Rome), it is very effective and gives the film a powerful finish. The flashback begins at the exact moment when we previously saw Marsh for the last time, left by Prout, in Benedik's home on his own. We then see Benedik remove the Marsh make-up while looking in a mirror, with a shot taken from where the mirror would be, with Benedik in effect 'unmasking' himself to the audience. Having 'revealed' himself to the audience/mirror, Benedik proceeds to put on his dinner jacket and then fires his pistol. The last shots fired before his suicide, are appropriately into the large mirror that dominates the living room. This is filmed with the camera looking at the mirror. Benedik shoots twice into the mirror, so that he its seen shooting at his image, his double eliminating both of his personae. He then shoots himself although of course we do not see this. We simply see the gun attached to the tree that has been bent back so as to lean into the room. When he fires, we see the gun in close-up, and it is then yanked away from his hand by the tree springing back into position.
Considering the budgetary and time limitations under which the film was produced (there is one scene for instance in which the boom mike is clearly visible throughout), the film remains thoroughly entertaining even today. At the time of the film's original release the film was well-received. Picturegoer's reviewer was qualifiedly positive: 'This unpretentious mystery picture has some claim to originality in conception ... Rather complicated, but nevertheless quite clearly told. Moreover it is not too easy to foresee the ending. Camerawork is good and the action quite brisk' (Picturegoer, 5 March 1932)
John Grierson in a review entitled 'As Good as Hollywood', gave it what can only be described as a 'rave' review:
'... there never was an English film so well made ... here is a film which in beautiful settings, in superb photography, in dressing, in angle, in movement, in direction generally, achieves all the neatness and finish one has come to regard as the exclusive possession of the Americans.' (Everyman, 10 December 1931).
Perhaps the best review, however, was the one written by C.A. Lejeune, whom Powell remembers as an early champion of his work, and who presented Powell to her readers thus: 'There is a young man called Michael Powell, a director of "quickies" to whom I should like to draw the attention of the British Industry. I should like to point out, too, the conditions under which he works, and modestly to suggest a moral. Powell's Rynox shows what a good movie brain can do within the strictest limits of economy. This is the sort of workman we need for the new British cinema; this is the sort of pressure under which a real talent is shot red-hot into the world.' (The Observer, 13 December 1931)
The initial reception afforded His Lordship (which was originally shown supporting the Ben Lyon film By Whose Hand?) was rather different however. It became clear quite soon that low budget British films were becoming stigmatised by the 'quickie' films, and often they were booed by the audience. This happened with His Lordship, which resulted in the Cinematograph Exhibitors Organisation arranging a meeting with United Artists to see if they could be released from their contracts. Kine Weekly commented that it '... starts off as a comedy musical, drifts into burlesque, and then finishes up in a rich satirical vein, is neither flesh fowl or good red herring', the kind of criticisms Powell and Pressburger would become greatly accustomed to in the 1940s and 50s.
Like Rynox and most of his quota films, the plot of His Lordship revolves around money - in this instance, Jerry Verno plays an aristocrat who works as a plumber who is talked into feigning a romance with a movie star who wants to marry into the British aristocracy for publicity purposes only. To this are added two anarchists, one of whom has a daughter who is in love with Verno, and various musical numbers, all made on a typical quota budget and schedule.
Seen today in fact, the film appears to be one of the first signs of the distinctive eccentricity, vigour and sly humour that became much more marked in his later collaborations with Emeric Pressburger. Unlike most of the films of this period in his career, this is neither a melodrama nor a thriller, but an ambitious musical that combines a complicated plot and musical numbers with a fluid visual style clearly emulating its American counterparts. Particularly memorable are scenes in the large (for a quota film) municipal park set, filmed in long fluid takes; the musical sequence in which various publicity photographs are staged and which involved Verno changing costume several times in quick succession and the literal deus ex machina at the climax, in the form of an autogyro. It is also Powell's first musical and one of the first real indications of the importance of music in his later work.
Long thought lost, the film was eventually rescued through the efforts of a private collector, restored by the BFI and presented at the 1997 London Film Festival, the first time that it had been publicly shown in 65 years. On the opening night Powell's widow Thelma Schoonmaker recalled that Powell wasn't sure if his reputation could stand the re-discovery of another one of his 'quota-quickies'. He needn't have worried.
Sergio Angelini, National Film & Television Archive