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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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The Tales of Hoffmann
A Study of the Film
by Monk Gibbon

Saturn Press, 1951

An extract from Monk Gibbon's 1951 book "The Tales of Hoffmann" which, I think, wonderfully describes how The Archers worked as a team. Steve

Chapter 7
Tackling the problem

I have dedicated this book not only to the two men who made the film but to their unit which helped them to make it. Only those who have seen a film unit at work can form an adequate idea of the complexity of the whole organisation. It appears to run on oiled wheels, if it all looks as easy as the proverbial "falling off a log", that is because everything and everyone has been tuned up to concert pitch long ago.

No one, therefore, observing anyone in the vicinity of a film set should jump to the hasty conclusion that he is doing nothing. There are no supernumeraries. Everyone has his particular function. The dozens of overalled and shirt-sleeved technicians scramble about in the chain-hung gangways far aloft, awaiting Bill Wall's stentorian shout "Light 'em up!", and if one of the huge arc lamps, which look like a battery of searchlights ready for a Zeppelin raid, and from which one can see the heat rising all the time, should suddenly splutter, go on fire and have to be hastily put out, after a little sizzling carbon has descended upon our heads, they are there to see that something is done immediately about the matter.

And if the electrical staff appears to carry out their functions upon one single order, the scene-builders and stage-dressers seem to function upon a system of no orders at all. Everyone seems so clear upon what exactly is needed that no matter what the job is they always appear engaged upon a routine piece of work.

Interruption, fuss, mere garrulity, is the unforgivable sin, and a healthy tradition has killed the mere suggestion of them long ago.

All this, of course, comes back directly to the two men whose unit it is, and whose partnership has been so successful despite the fact that they seem - superficially - to be the almost complete antithesis of one another.

Of the two partners Powell is the easier to define. One might say that he is as much the director as Massine is the dancer. All his energy is directed towards a single end. Son of a retired army officer, educated at King's School, Canterbury, and later at Dulwich College, Powell found his real metier when he went to join his father in the south of France and - so he says - secured his entrée to a film studio by undertaking the arduous responsibility of mopping the marks of an actress's feet from the studio floor each time she crossed the set. The post - again we only have his word for it - lasted one day, since he broke a pile of priceless photographic plates in the course of it and was promptly sacked. But he returned to the assault and was re-engaged next day in a different capacity. Soon he had served his apprenticeship as stills photographer, camera man, cutter, scenario writer and even actor.

While he was going through these all-important metamorphoses on the way to achieving directorship, his future partner, three years his senior, was experiencing a rather similar sequence of vicissitudes on the far side of Europe. Emeric Pressburger was born on December 5th, 1902, in Miskolz, a little North Hungarian town. At Shepperton it used to amuse me sometimes to think how widely apart the radii of the different individual careers ran out from that one centre, the huge "silent stage" where we all met. Massines's memories took him right back to Moscow and to the splendours of Imperial Russia, and all the glories of the State Ballet at its zenith. Helpmann's trail led back from Stratford-on-Avon and Covent Garden triumphs to Mount Gambier in South Australia and to a momentary glimpse of Pavlova in Adelaide on her last world tour by a young man who had already determined to become a dancer. Moira's star hovered like a will-'o-the-wisp between Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe] and Scotland, Audran and Tcherina hailed from France, Ashton from South America, Rounseville from Massachusetts, Ann Ayars from California, Heckroth from Germany. The ends of the earth seemed to have agreed to meet in this spot, and not the least interesting of these memories would be the camera obscura of Pressburger's mind, going right back to the days of the reign of Franz Josef.

Pressburger's early beginnings include Prague and Stuttgart universities, extra pocket money earned playing the violin in cinemas, perhaps the original source of his interest in films; then post-war Berlin as a youth of twenty-one, with little knowledge of the German language and with even less cash. Sometimes he slept in station waiting-rooms and on park benches; sometimes a cousin entertained him by allowing him to sleep on the floor of his room and hiding him in the wardrobe when the unpleasant landlady entered.

He turned to writing. He wrote short stories but his real ambition was to write for the screen. Ten years later he was one of the most successful script writers in Germany. In 1933 Hitler's accession to power sent him to France where he wrote a number of scripts, and in 1935 he came to England, to restart his career for the third time in a different language. Before long he was under contract to Alexander Korda and then he met Michael Powell.

Together these two men have assembled their unit and have established the tradition in which it so obviously flourishes. Both the members of the partnership have the passion of the creative artist, the kind of passion which made Balzac the despair of every printer whoever worked for him, since every time a page was reset it might come back almost obliterated with further corrections.

To see the unit at work is to watch a completely democratic spirit of endeavour being put easily and naturally into practice. But though the mood of the unit its discipline is as absolute as that of a public school. "If the director of a theatre does not enjoy proper authority" wrote Stanislavsky, the world-famous founder in 1898 of the Moscow Art Theatre, "the work of the theatre will sooner or later come to a standstill." Powell is an autocrat in his own fashion, an autocrat who can be utterly crushing in a single phrase; but a happy autocrat who will next moment break into laughter and relax the tension completely. Fundamentally the man is warm-hearted, genial and extraordinarily vital, loving the work he is doing better than any possible amusement, able to demand that hundred per cent loyalty from others which he is willing to give to the job himself. He puts me in mind of Mathew Arnold's line -
"The young, light-hearted masters of the waves"
for he might well be called -
"The young, light-hearted masters of the sound waves - and light waves."

If Powell can be what the French call 'formidable', Pressburger although silent and reserved is just as awe-inspiring in his own way. There is a touch of the 'Grey Eminence' about the air of tense concentration with which he enters the studio, takes up his position at the side of the set, and stands there, hands in his pockets. He is a romantic, he loves literature as much as his partner loves it. Books are the breath of life to him and he probably prefers them to his fellow creatures, about whom he may feel - as has been said of the poet Hardy - a perpetual noli me tangre. [Touch Me Not] Nevertheless, behind this reserved individual's defence barrier is a fund of genuine kindness and sympathy and an ability to show tactful understanding. Both partners have a fundamental respect for those to whom they have given their confidence. I have known Pressburger to say, when I criticised some minor feature of the film which affected Hein's department and begged him to ask Hein to change it, "You may be right; it is foreign to my own taste; but if I employ a designer I must give him my confidence. I would not feel justified in asking him to change in this particular instance." In the same way Tcherina can testify "J'aime le travail avec Micky. C'est sa foi dans l'artiste et son talent que j'admire!" [I like to work with Micky. It is his faith in the artist and his talent which I admire!]

Pressburger's kindness and generosity transpire instantly when an occasion arises to call them forth. He likes to hear the work of members of the unit praised. When the dynamic personality of Micky is removed the unit seems to find it easy to discuss points of interest in the film with him in a way they could not do if they were dealing with the more mercurial temperament of his partner.

The latter is hardly cast for the role of father confessor. Rather he is a galvanic battery, a tidal wave, a volcano in full eruption. Powell, though abrupt, has the fundamental humility of the true artist, as well as his elation, and what is so reassuring about him is that he is the artist always, working from the creative imagination outwards. I have only to look at his bookshelves to know that he feeds his mind on fare chosen because it appeals to the poet or the romanticist or to the individualist in him.

He does everything under the motive power of an intense and almost boyish enthusiasm. That enthusiasm upholds everyone who works with him. They are borne forward on it. His genius for film making has discovered an outlet which it approves and the man is happy. His very step as he walks quickly towards the studio from his car, with Bill Paton beside him, is the light springy step of a man who thinks that life holds a number of very good moments and that this - 7.45 a.m. and the day's work beginning - is one of them. If he is in the studio the whole atmosphere feels different. His vitality seems to radiate to all. His mere presence brings everyone up to concert pitch. Rotha says of Charlie Chaplin, "An artist such as Chaplin can live only and have interest alone, in the work upon which he is engaged for the moment. This work demands intense concentration, as does that of any real film director. When Chaplin is conceiving and producing a film it is disastrous for him to have any thoughts but those related to that film in his mind." This might have been written of Powell.

A unit is patriarchal. Its destinies hang on the success of its leaders. But it would be equally true to say that interwoven with that destiny is the work of every single contributing individual. The skill of an artist in make-up like Constance Reeve, or Wally Schneidermann, or the work of Ivy Baker or Joseph Shear, people responsible for costumes and wigs and all kinds of minutiae, is an essential and highly important contribution to the total effect, as anyone who has seen a good colour close-up on the screen must realise. It is the realisation that this is so which helps to give the unit its friendly democratic atmosphere.

I am lost, too, in admiration of the sheer technical excellence of all the work done in the studio workshops, the copper cock; the colossal stag's horn candelabra with the huge coloured figureheads which would delight e if I came across them in a Danish folk museum. Heckroth's angel head motif has resulted in lovely angelic faces which reappear on the light threefold screen. Later in the scene, when Olympia is broken we see these faces with changed expressions, drooping mouths and tear-stained cheeks. The huge swan harp, the settee supported by the four white swans - all of these are helping to create the mood and atmosphere of the scene. The inspiration is Hein's, the execution of it is via art director Arthur Lawson, and the actual executant may be Beddoes or Morgan, Lindegaard or the studio modeller, Wilkinson, who has delighted all by the work he has done for Hoffmann. He likes Hein, likes working under him and says to him, "You know, it is a pleasure these days to come to the studio every morning." And Hein likes the idea of artistic collaboration. He is not an isolationist. Rather his spirit is one in which the Gothic cathedrals were built.

Wilkinson has excelled himself in the great sculptured group of sleeping and drunken revellers after the orgy. The group is carried out in plaster painted a deep ochre colour and the steps are picked out with triple lines of gold. It is a triumph of impressionistic modelling, carrying out exactly the intention of Hein's design for the aftermath of a Bacchanalia. The figures in successive groups, one below the other, are huddled together on the jetty stairs in every attitude of relaxed abandon. Their hair is gilded and they lie, drowned in deep slumber, with heads thrown back, with tortured open mouths, a tumbled chaos of humanity, knees hunched up, heads propped against the nearest stone or sunk forward upon the chest, an arm or hand flung out to rest lightly upon a higher step or upon the limb of a companion.

The tragedy of 'Wilkie's' work is that it will be destroyed in spite of its artistic merit. It is made for an occasion. This is its Raison d'etre and, as soon as it has been used, it becomes in the same instant superfluous. I lament this, one day, to Heckroth and he agrees, and then says thoughtfully, "Yes. All the boys who really like bashing things up should be made members of the demolition squads in studios. That will keep them happy!" It is as though he had suggested a new solution for racial pugnacity.

Equally ephemeral but equally effective are Hein's guest puppets with their fantastically coloured wigs, their eyes of small, petalled, artificial flowers, their drooping dandy moustaches of twisted feathers, their tail coats and stilted dignity, their crinolines and simpering sweetness. These life-size puppets, the work of Terry Morgan, are simply full of a freakish personality of their own. I cannot even see them hanging in Morgan's studio with their dustsheets around them without feeling that these are real people, undergoing ignominious humiliation, a humiliation as distasteful to myself as it must be to Hein, Beddoes, Morgan and Ivy baker, who have created them and lived with them for weeks. As for those same puppets, once let on them on the set, allow them to take their places on the merry-go-round, and with the first bars of the famous waltz coming from the play-back they take immediate possession of the ballroom with an almost grotesque dignity and seem to await ardently the moment when they will revolve with all the stately ceremony of mid-Victorian devotees of La Valse. Incidentally, they are launched on their career by burly technicians, elderly men who break into a trot and give a final spin to the wound-up white cords and a final push to the crinolines and tail-coats as the merry-go-round gets under weigh, one more striking example of how making a film is a matter of collaboration.

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