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Contemporary Authors
Michael (Latham) Powell (1905 - 1990)

Nationality: English
New Entry: 06/19/1996

Place of Birth: Bekesbourne, Kent, England

Genre(s): Screenplays; Novels; Autobiography/Memoir; Film

Named fellow of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, 1981.

Table of Contents:
Personal Information
Media Adaptations
Further Readings About the Author
Obituary Sources

Personal Information:
Family: Born September 30, 1905, in Bekesbourne, Kent, England; died of prostate cancer, February 19, 1990, in Avening, Gloucestershire, England; son of Thomas William and Mabel (Corbett) Powell; married Frances Reidy, 1943 (died, 1983); married Thelma Corbert Schoonmaker (a film editor), 1984; children: (sons from first marriage) Kevin, Columba.
Education: Attended King's School, Canterbury, England; studied banking at Dulwich College.

Career: Director, producer, writer, and actor. Worked at National Provincial Bank, beginning in 1922; worked as assistant to Irish silent- film director Rex Ingram, during the mid-1920s; worked as apprentice at British International Studios, Elstree, England, and as still photographer for filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock; associated with American producer Jerome Jackson, beginning in the early 1930s; founded Archers Film Production Company, with Emeric Pressburger, 1942-57; worked variously for British and American television during the 1960s, and served as a lecturer at film schools. Director of motion pictures, including Rynox, 1931; The Rasp, 1931; Two Crowded Hours, 1931; My Friend the King, 1931; The Star Reporter, 1931; Born Lucky, 1932; C.O.D., 1932; His Lordship, 1932; Hotel Splendide, 1932; The Fire Raisers, 1933; The Night of the Party, 1934; Something Always Happens, 1934; Strike!, 1934; The Girl in the Crowd, 1934; (also producer) The Price of a Song, 1935; Some Day, 1935; Her Last Affaire, 1935; Lazybones, 1935; The Phantom Light, 1935; The Love Test, 1935; The Man behind the Mask, 1936; The Brown Wallet, 1936; Crown vs. Stevens, 1936; The Edge of the World, 1937; U-Boat 29, 1939; (with Ludwig Berger, Tim Whelan, Zoltan Korda, William Cameron Menzies, and Alexander Korda) The Thief of Bagdad, 1940; Blackout, 1940; The Lion Has Wings, 1940; (also producer with John Sutro) The Invaders, 1941; An Airman's Letter to His Mother, 1941; Honeymoon, 1958; (also producer) Peeping Tom, 1960; (also producer) The Queen's Guards, 1963; Bluebeard's Castle, 1964; (also producer) They're a Weird Mob, 1966; (producer, with Herbert Brodkin) Sebastian, 1968; (also producer, with James Mason) Age of Consent, 1969; The Boy Who Turned Yellow, 1972; (also producer) The Tempest, 1974; and Return to the Edge of the World. Director and producer, except where indicated, of films in collaboration with Emeric Pressburger, including One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, 1942; (director) The Volunteer, 1943; A Canterbury Tale, 1944; Colonel Blimp (also known as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), 1945; (producer with Pressburger and Ralph Richardson) The Silver Fleet, 1945; Stairway to Heaven (also known as A Matter of Life and Death), 1946; (producer) The End of the River, 1947; Black Narcissus, 1947; I Know Where I'm Going, 1947; The Red Shoes, 1948; Hour of Glory (aka The Small Back Room), 1949; (director) The Fighting Pimpernel (also known as The Elusive Pimpernel), 1950; The Tales of Hoffmann, 1951; (director) The Wild Heart (also known as Gone to Earth and Gypsy Blood), 1952; Oh Rosalinda, 1956; Pursuit of the Graf Spee (also known as The Battle of the River Plate), 1957; Night Ambush (also known as Ill Met by Moonlight), 1958.

Worked as an actor in films, including The Compulsory Husband, 1930; The Edge of the World, 1937; played the dispatching officer in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, 1942; played Mr. Lewis in Peeping Tom, 1960. Director of several theatre productions during the 1940s and 1950s, including Fifth Column, c. 1944, and Hanging Judge. Director of "The Defenders," Columbia Broadcasting Systems (CBS-TV), 1961-65, and of episodes of "Espionage" and "The Nurses," both in the 1960s. Worked on television movie "Pavlova: A Woman for All Time," 1989.

Writings By The Author:


Caste (based on a play by T.W. Robertson), United Artists (UA), 1930.

(With Reginald Berkeley) 77 Park Lane (based on a play by Walter Hackett), UA, 1931.

(With Miles Malleson) Perfect Understanding (based on a story by Malleson), UA, 1933.

(With Jerome Jackson) The Fire Raisers, W & F, 1933.

The Edge of the World, Pax, 1937.

(With Brock Williams) Blackout (also known as Contraband; based on a story by Pressburger), UA, 1940.

(With Pressburger) One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, UA, 1942.

(With Pressburger) A Canterbury Tale, Eagle-Lion, 1944.

(With Pressburger) Colonel Blimp (also known as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), General Films Distributors, 1945.

(With Pressburger) Stairway to Heaven (also known as A Matter of Life and Death), Universal, 1946.

(With Pressburger) Black Narcissus (based on the novel by Rumer Godden), General Film, 1947.

(With Pressburger) I Know Where I'm Going, General Films Distributors/Universal, 1947.

(With Pressburger and Keith Winter) The Red Shoes, Eagle- Lion/J. Arthur Rank, 1948.

(With Pressburger) Hour of Glory (also known as The Small Back Room; based on the novel by Nigel Balchin), British Lion, 1949.

(With Pressburger) The Fighting Pimpernel (also known as The Elusive Pimpernel; based on the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy), British Lion, 1950.

(With Pressburger) The Tales of Hoffmann (based on the opera by Jacques Offenbach), Lopert, 1951.

(With Pressburger) The Wild Heart (also known as Gone to Earth and Gypsy Blood; based on the novel Gone to Earth by Mary Webb), RKO Radio Pictures/Selznick, 1952.

(With Pressburger) Oh Rosalinda (based on the opera Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss), AFB-Pathe, 1956.

(With Pressburger) Pursuit of the Graf Spee (also known as The Battle of the River Plate), J. Arthur Rank, 1957.

(With Pressburger) Night Ambush (also known as Ill Met by Moonlight; based on the book Ill Met by Moonlight by W. Stanley Moss), J. Arthur Rank, 1958.

Also author of screenplay for The Tempest, 1974. OTHER

200,000 Feet on Foula, Faber (London), 1938, reprinted with new introduction as Edge of the World, 1990.

A Waiting Game (novel), St. Martin's (New York), 1975.

A Life in Movies: An Autobiography, Knopf (New York), 1987.

Million Dollar Movie, introduction by Martin Scorsese, Random House (New York), 1992.

Media Adaptations:

The film Strike! (also known as Red Ensign), written by L. duGarde Peach and released by Gaumont in 1934, is based on a story by Powell and Jerome Jackson.

British film director, producer, screenwriter, and actor Michael Powell enjoyed more than fifty years in the motion picture industry, beginning in the 1920s, when he worked for Rex Ingram, an Irish director of silent films, and later as a still photographer for director Alfred Hitchcock. Powell worked in association with American producer Jerome Jackson in the 1930s, during which time he wrote or directed several low-budget comedies and suspense films. By the end of the decade, Powell had directed several award-winning films, including The Edge of the World, which won the New York Film Critics Award for best foreign film of 1937, and the Academy Award-winning The Thief of Bagdad.

Many of Powell's most memorable films were made in collaboration with Hungarian- born screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, with whom he founded the Archers Film Production Company in 1942. One of their early films, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, was a parody of Great Britain's military and was harshly panned by Winston Churchill, to whom the Colonel Blimp character bore an uncanny likeness. In A Life in Movies: An Autobiography, Powell recalls being asked to scrap the "Colonel Blimp" film by the British Minister of Information. Powell cites his insistence on proceeding with the project as the reason he was never considered for knighthood in his home country. In a Village Voice review of A Life in Movies, critic Graham Fuller discussed Powell's account of the incident. "The exchange illuminates not just the loss of a knighthood, but Powell's career-long refusal to lick the boots of those in authority, all in the cause of film, 'my life, my art, my mistress, my religion.' Whether or not he laments the royal rebuff, he remains bitter over his beloved country's failure to understand his work."

Despite their disapproval of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, the British Ministry of Information sponsored numerous Powell/Pressburger wartime productions, including One of Our Aircraft Is Missing and A Canterbury Tale. The Archers produced their most lasting movies, however, after the war, among them Black Narcissus, an eroticized tale about nuns, and The Red Shoes, the story of a ballerina's conflict with love and art. Although the latter film is widely considered Powell's finest, many of the films Powell issued with Pressburger are noted for their passion, mysticism, and artistic imagery.

After his association with Pressburger ended in 1957, Powell continued expressing his artistry, which, at times, was found to be unacceptable to British audiences. His film, Peeping Tom, for example, is an intellectual thriller about a pornographer who kills women with the sharpened end of his tripod, then films their deaths. Peeping Tom is considered a classic by contemporary connoisseurs of film, but when the film was released in 1960 it evoked universal shock and disgust and virtually signaled the end of Powell's career in British film. In retrospect, however, critics list Peeping Tom as one of Powell's finest achievements. Referring to Peeping Tom, David Thomson, writing in Film Comment, opined: "Few directors ever had a milestone like that film, and I am still not quite sure whether to believe the standard explanation of how it stopped his career. After all, failures do not deter lesser directors, and Michael was only 55 when Tom opened. There had always been a feeling in Britain that he was dangerous or unsound; it was all the stranger in that Michael's genius went straight back to Chaucer, Hogarth, the Celtic Revival, Dickens, fairy stories and gallows humor. But he was un-English, too; he accepted the passion of story without demur; he thought excess was fundamental and he disdained the forms of politeness. He knew that everything valuable was fatal. He took it for granted that there was beauty and monstrousness in all of us."

In addition to his work in film, Powell issued a suspense novel, A Waiting Game. Set in 1950s Ireland, the novel concerns the search for the murderer of an American family who were camping in an Irish fishing preserve. The novel was well-received by critics, including the New York Times Book Review's Martin Levin, who deemed the book "first- rate," and wrote that "the tension . . . never slackens, not even for love."

Also praised by critics are Powell's comprehensive autobiographies, A Life in Movies, which covers the author's life until the late 1940s, and Million Dollar Movie, which tells the rest of Powell's life story and was posthumously published. The former book, according to Peter Brunette in a New York Times Book Review critique, is an "intelligent and superbly written autobiography. . . . What is perhaps most fascinating about this book is Mr. Powell's obvious intention of chronicling the entire history of British and American cinema through his own career." Also commenting on the breadth of Powell's autobiography was Geoffrey O'Brien, who wrote in the New York Review of Books: "The book flows along like the monologue of a remarkably high- spirited old man determined to savor the full contents of his memory. Powell's air of voluptuous self-indulgence, his lingering over meticulously reconstructed childhood incidents and landscapes, bespeaks such a pleasant state of mind that one puts up with the book's inordinate length; the author is too clearly enjoying himself for anyone to want to stop him. . . . Powell at eighty-one manages to radiate boyish gusto. He can make a statement like 'I am cinema' seem a perfectly unassuming act of self-definition. His faith in the magical quality of his own life is contagious, and does much to explain how he managed to create the other-worldly atmosphere of his films."

A Life in Movies was also applauded by New York Times reviewer John Gross, who found the autobiography "very different from the common run of movie memoirs. For one thing, the writing is racy and vigorous; for another, the book reveals a man with wide human and cultural horizons. Like a good Powell or Powell- Pressburger movie, it has imagination and flair. Like a Powell movie, it is also inclined to be a bit corny. It is leisurely and self-indulgent and, by any ordinary standards, much too long. I enjoyed it tremendously." Similarly, John Houseman, reviewing Powell's first autobiography for the Washington Post, commented on Powell's attention to every detail of his professional life. "It makes for absorbing reading," Houseman opined, "but not only for film buffs, for this story is told with enormous zest, a deep passion for filmmaking, total honesty and a prodigious ego."

The remainder of Powell's life story is told in Million Dollar Movie, which, due to his failing eyesight, he dictated to his wife, Thelma Corbert Schoonmaker, film editor for Martin Scorsese. In this second volume Powell reveals his feelings about other filmmakers, including Alexander Korda, David O. Selznick, Hitchcock, and Pressburger, and shares many anecdotes about those involved in his craft. Powell especially elaborates on the dissolution of his partnership with Pressburger, citing Pressburger's lust for money, in opposition to Powell's love of art, as the reason they parted.

Reviewers, including Alexander Walker of the Times Literary Supplement, commented on the rambling wordiness of Million Dollar Movie, but the book was nevertheless well-received as an excellent source of information on the film industry. "Million Dollar Movie, for all its chaotic composition and prolixity," Walker declared, "is the exuberant story of a man who loved the world, the art and the flesh-- there is plenty of that joyous randiness which made Powell's first volume of memoirs such a red-blooded delight." New Statesman reviewer Sean French agreed, asserting that the book's "energy is prodigious and captivating, and gives a vivid sense of the depraved film business in which so little time is spent behind the camera. Powell's memory was idiosyncratic, and this book is deeply flawed (as was the first volume) by factual errors. Nevertheless, it deserves to be read as one of the principal funerary monuments to Britain's way with its film talent."

After his career was cut short by the production of Peeping Tom, Powell was virtually bankrupt, sustaining himself by working in episodic television and other endeavors, but never attaining the glory of his earlier days. However, a new generation of filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, "rediscovered" Powell before his death, bringing him the opportunity to become director in residence at Dartmouth College, and senior director in residence at Coppola's studios. Near the end of his life, Powell's homeland also embraced him, even restoring many of his films for posterity. At his death, Powell was eulogized by many, including Sir Richard Attenborough, whom David Thomson quotes in Film Comment: "Of his generation, [Powell] was unquestionably the most innovative and most creatively brilliant filmmaker this country ever boasted."

Further Readings About the Author


Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 11, Gale (Detroit), 1994.

Powell, Michael, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography, Knopf (New York), 1987.

Powell, Michael, Million Dollar Movie, Random House (New York), 1992.



Obituary and Other Sources:



New York Times, February 21, 1990.*

Source: Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 2000.

Gale Database: Contemporary Authors

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