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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When portrayed by
Even the Nazis seemed Nice!
by Peter Noble
Film Illustrated Monthly: June 1947
Some years ago a party of film people, headed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, left England for Canada, to make a large-scale propaganda film. As the boat left the dock two actors were leaning over the rails looking back at the shore. One of them, dark and handsome with an unusual, interesting face, turned to his companion and remarked, "Well, we are off on a big job. I wonder if it - and we - will be successful?" The actor was Eric Portman; the project was 49th Parallel. The film and the brilliant performance of Eric Portman as the Nazi submarine commander, Hirth, were later to become by-words of cinematic 1941.
Looking back now, Portman admits that making the film had been for him the result of an important decision. Previously he had made films, but none of them had brought him the measure of success which had been his on the stage. He confesses, in fact, that before 49th Parallel he had decided to give up films and concentrate on the theatre.
Born in Halifax, Yorkshire, on July 13th, 1903, he made his first appearance on the stage in 1924 with Henry Baynton's Shakespearean Company, and it has been in Shakespearean productions that Portman has made some of his greatest successes. One remembers particularly his Horatio, Bassanino, Dauphin, Claudio and Romeo at the Old Vic, [Eric Portman as Romeo?] while many will recall his work in such plays as "The Master Builder" and in "The Intruder", and more recently in "Uncle Harry" and "Zero Hour".
Filmgoers have remarked upon the poetry which is ever apparent in Portman's acting. (They have been quick to notice the Byronesque qualities which made his Lord Byron in the play "Bitter Harvest" one of the most praised stage performances of 1936). His first appearance on the screen was as the curly-topped gypsy hero, Carlos, in a Tod Slaughter melodrama, Maria Marten, but none of the subsequent films in which he appeared gave him an opportunity to set the cinematic world on fire.
Thus, when Michael Powell offered him the role of Hirth in his new film, Eric made the decision which was to affect his whole career. "I had to decide on it," he said, "and leave for Canada in a matter of hours. I had other important stage offers which I was on the point of accepting, for I realised that if I did appear in this film it would take me to Canada away from the London theatre for a dangerously long time. The theatre has a remarkably short memory."
When 49th Parallel was shown in England the most remarkable thing about the film was that Portman, who played the villain, "the hated Nazi swine", with intelligence, restraint and power, completely stole the film from the rest of the distinguished past. By what strange psychological phenomena Portman's sadistic portrayal earned the plaudits of thousands of cinemagoers in this country and America one can only hazard a guess.
Perhaps it was a reaction against the stereotyped Nazis which had up to then appeared with Teutonic inevitability on the wartime screen, or perhaps it was the particularly English feeling of sympathy for the underdog, for, if you remember, the Nazi was chased through Canada, finally being captured after the rest of his crew had been killed.
Whatever may be the reasons for his overwhelming popularity it is undeniable that he was one of Britain's greatest screen discoveries of the war. He has since held his position in the public favour in a number of films, principal among them being One of our Aircraft is Missing, Uncensored, Great Day, Squadron-Leader X [scripted by Emeric], Millions Like Us, A Canterbury Tale.
Polish and Power
It is safe to say that Portman occupies a unique position in the British film with his combination of polish and power, which has been up to now the prerogative of such stars as Muni, Robinson and Tracy. It is this power, combined with his completely devastating charm, which makes his work inimitable. Portman is first and foremost an actor. He loves acting, he has acted all his life and, as he says, "I will go on acting for as long as the public wants me."
Each part is a fresh adventure for him and he undertakes each role only after careful deliberation and a great deal of thought and research. He lives in Chelsea, but spends most of his off-screen time at his farm in Cornwall, for he loves the open air. He is a cheerful person, always jovial, amusing and exceedingly generous. One hesitates before ascribing to Eric the normal kind of generosity, for he is generous to a degree not often found among people of prominence.
I remember with pleasure the occasion at a dance held by some film studio workers, when he was approached by the M.C. for his autograph to raffle for the Studio Workers' Benevolent Fund. Portman assented at once. "But wouldn't it be better for your Benevolent Fund if you had my autograph on a cheque?" he asked with a smile, and thereupon wrote out a cheque for a sum which made the M.C. gasp.
If warm-heartedness, sincerity and a genuine and an absorbing interest in his work count for anything, then Eric is lucky, for he has all three. I count him among my most valuable friends. His lack of "star-complex", his genuine friendliness and co-operation with his fellow actors and studio workers (who adore him, call him "Eric", and say that he is one of the most unaffected of all our stars) are prominent features of his attitude to his work. He is talented and likeable, surely an agreeable combination?
His performance in Men of Two Worlds, Wanted for Murder [scripted by Emeric] and Daybreak consolidate his well earned position among the principal stars of the screen.
One of the busiest actors in British pictures, he has recently appeared in Dear Murderer, opposite Greta Gynt, Corridor of Mirrors (which he made in Paris) and Closed Carriage, with Sally Gray. Soon he will star in The Killer and the Slain, followed by a film based on the latter part of the life of Lord Byron, a subject he has long wanted to do on screen.
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