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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January 29th 2003
A Film called Smith
By: Mark Fuller
A while ago, someone e-mailed the PaPAS list about a 1939 film called 'Smith'. It had appeared on the IMDb as being directed by Michael Powell, and featuring Ralph Richardson, Flora Robson, Allan Jeayes and Wally Patch. Did we know anything about it? No. An abandoned project? A working title for 'The Lion Has Wings', perhaps, before the cast had been confirmed? Thought no more about it.
I've been spending some time lately in the BFI Library, seeking out reviews of MP's quota films, and trying to sort out another puzzle, when I picked up a copy of Rachel Low's Films of Comment and Persuasion of the 1930's - can't remember why, curiosity probably - and looked up Powell in the index; two mentions - in the text and in the appendix. In the text it mentioned a short film, 'Smith', a one-reeler (about ten minutes), made at Denham, all the details as per the IMDb. The British Film Catalogue (Fiction) - the same. So why didn't we know about it? The BFI's SIFT database - there is 'Smith'; cast as per the IMDb, but directed by Michael BROWNE, and a reference to a trade paper, Today's Cinema, June 29th 1939. Dig the bound copies from the basement; there it is, in black-and white, from a journalist attending the 'launch luncheon' at the Commons; 'Smith', director, Michael Browne. The only contemporary review in ALL their trade paper collection to mention a director, and he is Michael Browne.
The article did give more details about the film; made to publicise and raise money for an ex-servicemens charity called the Embankment Fellowship Centre, it was a ten-minute docu-drama about an ex-serviceman, having been made redundant, being helped by the charity to find employment again; all fascinating, but directed by the non-legendary Michael Browne.
A day or so later, a few things started to occur to me. Would they really give a complete unknown - from the charity, presumably, as Browne didn't turn up on any record anywhere else - the run of Denham, with acting talent like that? One hell of a train-set... and all four of the named cast had or would work with MP within a few years... and that article did go on at length about the Commons hospitality; cocktails, a formal luncheon, with wine presumably; that, added to 18 years of deciphering scribbled betting slips made me think; a scribbled Powell could become Browne if your handwriting was lousy and you were half-cut; nice theory, wrong as it happened. And where HAD Rachel Low got her information from? She's known for the depth of her research, and her quoted film length was slightly different to that quoted in Today's Cinema.
Back to the BFI library. No review indexed except the Browne one. No director mentioned in Kinematograph Weekly or Monthly Film Bulletin, the usual (and reliable) suspects. Nothing of interest in any of the biographies of Ralph or Flora. Bristol Central Library; a review in The Times, the only national daily they archive; no director mentioned. Powell didn't mention it of course - or did he? Double checked 'A Life in Movies' - and there, on page 271, is a tantalising paragraph, a conversation with David Cunynghame, about making an advert, for 'tea or something' - with Ralph Richardson and Flora Robson. Was this, after a forty-year interlude, remember, a mis-remembered recollection of 'Smith'?
The film itself is not in the NFA. E-mail the Imperial War Museum archive. No. Regional archives? Useful and helpful suggestions all come back, but not a sniff of the film. Plan next steps - BFI special collections - diaries? Contracts? What about the charity? Internet search for the Embankment Fellowship Centre. Not one mention. Charity Commission? Only keep archive material for six years, then choice bits hived off to the Public Record Office. PRO? Nothing obvious on their website index. Managed to find a web page devoted to ex-servicemens charities, - they might have been swallowed up by another charity in the intervening sixty-odd years - and there, beneath the more famous Legion, BLESMA, St Dunstan's, a charity called Ex-Service Fellowship Centres. Similar aims, very similar name - and a phone number. Its half-ten at night by now, but I ring anyway. Answerphone; I leave a message about the Embankment Fellowship Centre, had they heard of it or did they know what became of it.
Five past eight the next morning (!) the phone rings. A very nice gentleman called O'Dea answering my call (Colonel O'Dea I find out later). What's my interest? We WERE the Embankment Fellowship Centre but we changed our name - in 1969. I explain about the film: he knew of it - "Had someone famous in it, didn't it?" Ralph Richardson? I offered - "No......." Flora Robson? "Yes, that's it, films aren't really my thing, you know..... yes, we still have some material on it somewhere, and the film itself, I'm sure....
I don't think I swore, but I might have giggled. A lost Michael Powell film? Or Michael Browne of course... and this wonderful man thinks he has it. And films aren't his thing.
I arranged to visit the charity's HQ, appointment with Major Walker (Colonel O'Dea being on leave - his phrase). Thoughts start creeping in. The film is probably on nitrate stock - a fire hazard at the best of times, positively explosive if wrongly kept and decomposing. It's been kept in a filing cabinet or something in the basement of a charity for who knows how long, what temperatures or humidity. It could be powder or a sticky mess. Then again, we didn't know who wrote it - could Emeric have been involved as well?
Handshakes and smiles at the charity. I am literally shaking, and if nothing else, entertaining the Major and Larry who don't quite understand my excitement. They have been busy on my behalf ; I'm handed some photocopies - old charity pamphlets, a history of the charity, nothing too informative about the film - and then, the programme for the launch luncheon and screening at the Commons. June 28th 1939. Quickly find the credits. Film story and production by Major R.M. Lloyd - not Emeric then - Directed by MICHAEL POWELL!! - and photographed by Bernard Browne, the photographer of The Spy In Black who died in 1941. Not a handwriting error, just a simple swapping of surnames. The wine list is extremely impressive mind......
And a film can. Browning, faded labels. Open to check condition: in a plastic bag, looks fine to my untutored eye, no brown gunge, no tell-tale smell of vinegar. The film stays in the can.
I'm granted access to their records; founded in 1931, the depth of the depression, to aid jobless and homeless ex-servicemen: a hostel, clothing, re-socialising, training and employment. By 1939 they have acquired influential patronage, and are seeking to open a second building, a home in the countryside for those too elderly or infirm to work. An appeal is started, and someone, we don't know who, approaches D&P Productions (Denham and Pinewood) and a short film is proposed. The actors, MP (probably having completed post-production on Spy in Black, but before it's release) and Bernard Browne give their services: D&P let them have Denham and ancillary services at cost; Western Electric waive their royalties. Even then, the film costs the charity more than £400.
The launch is a success, attended by many film magnates, politicians, and gentlemen of the press: then the problems begin. An arrangement is made whereby an agent working on behalf of the charity would administer the (free) distribution of the film to the cinema circuits, together with collection boxes: but, during the warm summer holiday season of 1939 bookings were hard to arrange; and then one 'magnate', un-named, became unhappy about the tins being rattled when the agent was getting a cut of the collection as his fee...... the agent was asked by the charity to change his terms: he refused, and on August 25th, "His services were terminated".
Times must have been frantic at the charity. War was imminent - they may have been better informed than most, bearing in mind their military connections - and their main hostel was being commandeered by the War Office for accommodation. Incredibly, preparations were under way for the 58 middle-aged and elderly ex-servicemen residents to stay under canvas in the charity's founder's back garden, at least until the War Office relinquished the hostel a few months later. Meanwhile, as minutes for a December 1939 meeting report tersely, "Distributors who had agreed to show the Centre film now withdrew the offer, as film unsuitable in the changed conditions of war." You can see their point; a film on the plight of ex-servicemen being shown here in October/November 1939 would not have been very conducive to the war effort. It seems unlikely the charity got much back for its outlay, but there is one happy postscript; minutes dated 16th May 1946 report "The results of the broadcast appeal by Mr. Ralph Richardson in 'This Week's Good Cause' was £1930 2s 7d". Good old Ralph. Of course, by 1946, he was an ex-serviceman himself, he must have remembered 'Smith'.... so all was not a total disaster.
And of course, they still had the film, surviving transitions as the charity changed its name in 1969, moved headquarters at least twice, almost, but not quite, forgotten.
After quick negotiations, and introducing the BFI to the Major and vice-versa, I was entrusted with conveying the film by taxi to Stephen St. (Well, the charity had known me for nearly two hours by then) where the print was quickly examined, this time by experts. Yes, it is in good condition, if too brittle to risk playing through a Steenbeck; and it is what it says on the tin. 'Smith'. 35mm sound-on-film. And, as far as we could tell, complete.
The print is now at the NFA at Berkhamstead for examination and duplication onto safety stock; this, obviously, is a slow, painstaking process; we might see the results this year, we might not. Then, perhaps, it might appear at the NFT, as part of a programme or some future event, or as a bonus addition after a film. Who knows, perhaps a bonus track on a DVD one day. Good news for the charity; perhaps some of that outlay may be recouped even now, and the profile of the charity raised, just as had been intended in the early summer of 1939.
Still one mystery though: where had Rachel Low got her information from? Back to the BFI library, more obscure trade papers, still nothing. Newspaper library next stop... just double-check the Kinematograph Weekly... slowly, page by page, first the day after the launch, then eight days; July 6th 1939. A mention in the review column, no director credited, had seen it before: but a few pages later a short news item, 2 col. ins, naming MP as director. I had missed it, Rachel Low hadn't. But then, if I had been more careful to start with, I wouldn't have found the film itself: I would have answered the question, and that would have been enough...
Some important Thanks; to Colonel O'Dea, Major Walker, and Larry at the Ex-Services Fellowship Centres, for their welcome, humour and amused patience with a highly excited anorak; Steve and Terri in Norwood for their patience and hospitality; Jo Botting and Bryony Dixon at the BFI for their advice and encouragement; all the archivists at the IWM and Regional Archives who tried to help and for their advice; and all the staff at the BFI library who must be sick of the sight of me by now; Thank You all.
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