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Submitted by Nicky Smith
Who is Eric Portman?
Picturegoer, 11 July, 1942
Reproduced in the NFT programme notes for Uncensored (1942)
His name is Portman. He is five feet eleven, weighs twelve stone (168 pounds), has light brown hair and hazel eyes, comes from Halifax, Yorkshire, and puts sincerity first. He put it forward so firmly in 49th Parallel (1941) that filmgoers completely believed him as the Nazi U-boat captain and placed him, though an unknown villain of the piece, way ahead of the Olivier-Massey-Howard trilogy of heroic star appeal. The press, vaguely knowing the name of Portman, rallied unanimously with their adjectives and gave him stout praise. The reipient of all this sudden and rather unexpected eulogy found himself to be a man in demand almost overnight. The press and the public, having thus launched a new star, then said to themselves: 'Who is this Eric Portman?'
The man behind the question mark is today piling up film parts as a result of the uprush of congratulations after 49th Parallel. He is very much obliged for this new glory, though he was quite happy as he was. From the steely coldness of his Hun role, he became the cheery [?] North Country member of the bomber crew in One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). Gainsborough put him under contract, casting him first as a Belgian Carberet actor secretly working for an 'underground' patriot paper in Uncensored (1942). Currently he is an embittered Yorkshire sailor who saves the lives of his fellow crew in a submarine in We Dive at Dawn (1943). Versatility, therefore, can also be linked with the name of Portman. This talent, plus sound acting ability, a strong and very discerning sense of criticism and a flair for constructive ideas, have been the acquisitions of Portman for many years. The reason why we are saying 'Who is Portman?' is because he has preferred to keep himself to the stage.
When I met him at Shepherd's Bush studios, engaged in his sailor role for We Dive at Dawn, I totted up those talents and questioned him on them. In his huskily attractive voice, he immediately deglamorised acting ability. The phrase he used was refreshingly blunt 'an actor should merely regard himself as a parcel of stuff; you either sell it or you don't.' I realised later that this unique and debunking viewpoint must be a throwback to his early days when he was a salesman in the menswear department at Marshall and Snedgrove's in Leeds. This is where the Portman career began in 1922. Son of Matthew Portman, Yorkshire wool trade businessman, Eric was born in Halifax on 13 July 1903, and was destined for a life girt by Bradford, Leeds and Halifax, set against a background of warehouses and wool. He lightened his apprenticeship by playing leading roles with the Halifax Light Opera Society in operettas such as Tom Jones.
There came a day in 1924 when Robert Courtneidge's Shakespearian company pulled into Halifax. Eric knew the manager and saw a chance to rid himself of the yoke of gent's wear. He obtained an introduction to Courtneidge, joined the company as a 'passenger' and was given a chance to prove he could act when they played Richard II at the Victoria Hall, Sunderland. Courtneidge gave him a contract. At the Savoy Theatre in London, in September 1924, Eric Portman played his first West End role as Antipholous of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors.
Events began to move fast, and Lilian Bayliss saw him in a Greek play and immediately engaged him for the Old Vic Company, who were, in those days, camping out at the Lyric, Hammersmith. In 1928 it was Eric Portman who opened the rebuilt Old Vic as 'Romeo'. Strong roles in a succession of West End plays followed. In 1933 he scored a great personal success in Diplomacy at the Prince's Theatre. Gerald du Maurier and Basil Rathbone were playing the leads. Du Maurier, personally delighted at Portman's success, presented him to the audience at the final curtain. Portman's portrayal of Lord Byron in Bitter Harvest in 1936 was another West End hit. New Yorkers acclaimed him on the American stage in 1938 in Priestly's I Have Been Here Before. His last London stage show was Jeannie, in which his own personal enthusiasm for unknown Barbara Mullen largely contributed to her playing the role in the West End.
So far Portman has only dabbled in films. He was shrewd enough not to yearn for the elusive halo of movie stardom when he was quite content to fashion his own satisfactory career in the theatre. In 1933 he flew to Paris for a minor part in a bilingual picture with Francis Day and Josephine Baker [See Note], and in 1934 he played a gypsy boy in Tod Slaughter's film melodrama Murder in the Red Barn. It was, oddly, Hollywood itself that inadvertently turned him against films. Warner Brothers. hearing of his stage success in Bitter Harvest, took him to Hollywood in 1936 to appear in The Prince and the Pauper. It was, once again, an example of the old Hollywood habit of snapping up a good British stage actor and casting him in any role that was going at the time. This time the biter was bit. Eric Portman revolted sincerly against this treatment. He walked out. 'And,' he said to the representative of The Hollywood Reporter, 'you can say in your paper that I have walked out on Hollywood.'
That was in 1936. After that, he continued merely to dabble in pictures, appearing in The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936), Hearts of Humanity (1936) and Moonlight Sonata (1937). He wouldn't be driven into anything. His native Yorkshire stubbornness made him rebel against film methods. He disliked the haphazardness and the pandemonium. He had a clear-cut, practical Halifax mind, a mind very much his own.
To director Michael Powell goes the credit for temporarily winning him away from the theatre. Powell is a film man who like the theatre, who took the trouble to go and see Portman act. This gesture convinced Portman that here was someone who might also be able to fashion a good film. Cautiously he undertook the German role in 49th Parallel, planning it with his usual solid ability and sincerity. It made him a star. In one bound he became one of Britain's biggest box-office attractions. He was presented to cinema audiences all over the country when he toured with the film. They liked him, and liked his speech, the theme of which was 'If I have made you dislike Nazis more than you did before, then I have done my job.' When he returned to London, still with the plaudits ringing in his ears, he met film producer Maurice Osterer, who looked at him shrewdly and said: 'Would you like to make pictures for us?' Eric was won over and signed his name to a contract with Gainsborough.
What sort of man is this Portman? Three things strike you when you meet him: his vigorous personality, his genuine interest in what you happen to be saying to him, his fast, low-pitched, direct way of talking. He is a keen talker and an enthusiast for constructive ideas. He will stand and talk good, hard, common-sense stuff about films, vigorously driving home his facts. That he is a fine actor has never been disputed. That he has now reached stardom is undenied. You gave it to him.
Picturegoer, 11 July 1942
Note: There is no record of Francis Day and Josephine Baker ever appearing together in a film. Portman was in The Girl from Maxim's (1933) which starred Francis Day. Josephine Baker made Zouzou (1934) in France but there is no indication that an English version was made or that Francis Day or Eric Portman had anything to do with it or even that Francis Day made any films outside England at that time.
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