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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

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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Submitted by Nicky Smith

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)
Memories of a child actress

[Not everyone may know that there is a not-yet-famous extra tucked away in Thief of Bagdad... - Nicky]

'He [Bill Betts, a family friend] suggested something that turned out to be the start of my professional career in show business. As a member of the "Actors Extra Union" Bill had heard that they needed children for the crowd scenes in the film The Thief of Bagdad. Would Mother agree to us going along to try for it? And would we want to do it? If he didn't he wouldn't bother to put in a good word for us. Did we want to ! Do cats refuse milk? The room became a circus of joy in which we jumped, cart-wheeled and hollered.

... It was the summer holidays so school wasn't a problem. All we had to do was try to live and sleep until we had our interview. It is one of the most unsettling, insecure, distraught-making periods for experienced artists to live though, the waiting to hear if you have the part of your life. And this for the three of us was the part of our lives, especially for me.

"We got the job ! We got the job ! We got the job !" we sang, skipping hand in hand around Mother; we had been told right away, after nothing more than a look at us to see if we could look reasonably Arabic and urchinlike. We were literally jumping for joy. Luckily we had no neighbours underneath: it was a shop that Mother rented in which she was selling off the furniture from the larger houses, yet another non-profit-making business. But soon we were to be earning vast sums of money playing dress-up: two pounds ten shillings a day. This was more money than we as a family had ever to play with: fifty-two pounds and ten shillings a week.

Of course, we never knew from day to day if we were to be asked to return the next day. When we were told to come again tomorrow, big grins would appear on our faces - which might have kept us working a little longer; we were not so blasé as some of the other children on the set. Our smiles kept us in work for three of the happiest weeks of my life, getting up wildly early in the morning to catch the Greenline bus [Note: The famous British Red Bus was usually only found in London. People took the "Greenline" bus to travel out to the country] would take us all to the dream world of Denham Studios. We would arrive in time to have make-up applied, wardrobe to dress us as Arab urchins and lunch boxes handed out before our day began. I was in heaven, a fantasy world in the alleys of old Bagdad.

Sabu, the young fourteen-year-old Indian actor, who was discovered when he was a stable boy in Mysore to play the lead in Elephant Boy, was the star of this film. We saw very little of him, except for one scene, when he had to tip a basket of oranges over to escape from Conrad Veidt's evil threats. The urchins (the extras - me) had to dive after the fruit with glee, helping him to get away in the confusion. I did my whooping and hollering wholeheartedly, flinging myself on the oranges and keeping a couple to eat later. Rex Ingram, the impressive black actor who played the Genie in the film, was very visible throughout my period of filming, calling out 'Hi !' to us all every morning as he passed on his way to makeup or wardrobe. He had a very friendly manner towards us lowlier participants in the film. Most of the other stars, if they passed by, passed by with nothing to say - Rex Ingram was most unusual. But for me it was enough to be on the same studio lot as all of them, picking up the vibes.

One morning an assistant director came to pick out a group for a special scene; he wanted four or five us to leap onto a six-foot-four heftily built palace guard, diverting his attention from Sabu, who was flying by on his magic carpet. We had to imagine we had seen the carpet, realize the danger our friend the thief was in and spring from all directions over the guard's giant frame, to try and fell him to the ground. I was one of the hand-picked jumpers: my stardom had started at last.

The scene was set up, we were put into place for action, the clapper-board was clapped, 'Scene one take one' shouted, then, action ! The director wanted the six-footer to stand unmoved, like a statue, under the sudden impact of the leaping urchins, who would be left dripping under his arms and legs; he wanted nothing to move except his eyes, which at the moment of impact, spotted Sabu flying past. Unfortunately the impact was so strong that the giant of a man crumbled to the floor. The director was, of course, sympathetic. We had caught the towering hulk off-guard. It was the first take; next time he would know the strength of the impact from the little dears and be able to place his feet, to withstand our force.

Several falls later, everyone started to get hot and bothered, with the exception of us urchins, who were enjoying every wild leap and collapse to such an extent that we became hysterical with laughter. Told to control ourselves as this was a serious scene, we tried once again, but the fun was too much for me still - I ruined the next take because I giggled. This set the rest of the children off, and the great mountain couldn't contain himself either, laughing helplessly at the ludicrous situation he was in. So I was out, along with a couple of other gigglers, after which all went well. I had lost my moment of stardom.'

From Cleo, by Cleo Laine. 1994.

[Sadly Cleo didn't get any more extra work (WW2 intervening) but the good news is - she got a job in a library instead :-) - Nicky]

[P&P connection - Cleo is a well known Jazz scat singer in the UK. She is married to Band leader Johnnie Dankworth.]

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