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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 Andrew Kemp

Film Direction
- Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
By Michael Powell

From: Film Review (for 1945-6)
F Maurice Speed
MacDonald & Co

Born in Canterbury, Kent, September 30, 1905, Michael Powell started his working career in a bank, but the monotony of fiscal affairs soon palled and he left to join his father in the South of France. He was already interested in films, and after a series of set-backs of the hire and fire variety, his perseverance and refusal to take no for an answer kept him in a job with Rex Ingram in Nice. That was in 1925. By 1930 he had passed through every department in the movie business; stills photographer, cameraman, cutter, continuity, actor, scenario writer, assistant director, and finally directed his first film "Two Crowded Hours". His greenest laurels were won in 1936 with "The Edge of the World" - it was shown in America in 1938 and voted one of the best ten films of the year by the National Board of Review.

   He worked with Alexander Korda on "Thief of Bagdad" and "The Lion Has Wings", and in 1940 he made his first film "Contraband", with Emeric Pressburger. [The film that brought them together was "The Spy in Black (1939)"] This was the beginning of the most successful writer-director partnership in British films - or indeed in any other film-producing country. "Contraband" was followed by "The Spy in Black" and then came "49th Parallel". This film carried a galaxy of famous and popular artistes, but it succeeded in bringing three ne personalities to a world-wide public notice; an actor, Eric Portman, who was hitherto unknown by film fans, together with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who proved themselves to be a dynamic team of cinematicians. "One of our Aircraft is Missing", "The Silver Fleet", "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp", "The Volunteer", "A Canterbury Tale", and finally "I Know Where I'm Going!" have since been added to their roll of honour under war-time conditions and difficulties. They have just completed their new production, "A Matter of Life and Death".

Films are an art-form run by business-men. The writers of original screenplays are creative craftsmen, working in a medium they half understand, whose possibilities as a story-telling form they have not been given the time nor the chance to appreciate. Good film directors are personalities with a flair for handling people, physical energy, a good eye and a painstaking craftsman's mind: bad film directors lack the last quality: great film directors are great personalities, with all the other qualities. I lay this emphasis upon personality because, if I am to write about directing in the Past, Present and Future, I choose to write about three great men, all of them alive today, all of them singular geniuses in a medium which has inspired few geniuses, all of them responsible for a great stride forward in an art-form, which is indeed, still in its infancy - its second infancy; which has withered again and again after brief flowerings, but which still remains obstinately alive; a hope and a despair and yet a glory to those of us that have flowered and withered with it.

    For the Past, I name D.W. Griffith, the great originator, creator of stars, maker of epics and of sonnets alike, dreamer, craftsman, autocrat, poet, giant; the names of his films proclaim his mettle: "Intolerance", "The Birth of a Nation", "Dream Street", "Broken Blossoms", "Orphans of the Storm", "Abraham Lincoln"; they are showman's titles, but they have nobility, too, and a challenging clang like the poetry of Walt Whitman, which he loves.

    For the Present, I name Charles Chaplin, the greatest clown the world has ever seen, magnificent egotist, trampler on conventions, unique, lonely, loved and unforgettable, the wittiest, the most sophisticated, the most graceful, the most moving actor on the screen, and possessed of a unique capacity to confer these gifts upon all who work with him.

    For the future, I name Walt Disney, magician; greater than Hans Andersen, greater than Lewis Carroll, greater than Mother Goose herself, greater than any of them, for he holds the parents spellbound while he awakens the imagination of their children; the greatest craftsmen of them all, for his power is limitless and he still seeks to limit it, the greatest director of them all because his control of his medium is complete and yet he is never satisfied.

    Looking back on films, these three men seem to me to show quite clearly the course of the director's mind during the astounding period of wonder and disillusionment in the entertainment world, which 20th-Century Fox celebrated so prematurely in 1945 with Darryl F. Zanuck's "Wilson".

    Born in 1905, my parents timed my entrance perfectly for an observer and lover of films; entering films myself in 1925, I worked in the last great years of Silence, I endured the first years of Talkies, the prizmatic years of Technicolor; twenty years ago I have ordered scenes printed on Light or Heavy Amber and the last year I have seen M-G-M. go through waves of sepia-toning; I have worked under Johnnie Seitz, [On The Magician and Mare Nostrum, both 1926] one of the great cameramen of the days of Griffith; and last year "Double Indemnity" was photographed by him; for twenty years, in common with all my colleagues, I have been working so hard in films that I have never had time to stop and think; but now in 1945 I begin to see the way; yes, I believe I can see where we are going.

    Consider these three men, one by one. Each one was necessary to the evolution of film-making - Griffith, the master showman; Chaplin, the lonely genius; Disney, the experimenter and planner; the director of the future will partake of all of them: without them he could not exist, whether he had heard of them or not; and their qualities are interchangeable: who planned and experimented more than Griffith? Who is surer of his effects than Chaplin? Who is a more lovable genius than Disney? These three have enriched the world: the same power is in the hands of every single director: it is an exhilarating and sobering responsibility: and it should never be, for one moment, out of his mind.

    One other thing these three men have in common: an awareness of their medium and its possibilities; they accepted no limits, standards or conventions, they invented, they theorized, they experimented, they spent money like water (their own as well as other men's), and to get their own way they took full responsibility for all they did. The blazed trail was not for them, they led, the others followed: and that, too, should never be out of a young director's mind.

    In 1908 Griffith made his first film, a one-reeler; in 1915 he made "The Birth of a Nation". Show me another film of that calibre of mind and showmanship in 1945. [Does AMOLAD qualify?] In the years between, Griffith had invented the whole basis of modern technique, the close-up, the cut-back, the fade-out, the moving-camera; when he came to films they were as rigid and unimaginative as a snapshot album; in seven years he created an art-form.

    In 1915 Chaplin was starring in his first one-reelers; in 1923 he produced and directed "A Woman of Paris", which more than any other film established naturalism, in acting, writing and directing, as films' most powerful and permanent asset: it was an amazing tour de force, for a comedian who had the world at his feet, as Chaplin had, after making "The Kid" with Jackie Coogan: for when the world is at an artist's feet, he is always in danger of thinking of his feet, rather than of his art. But sequences of "The Kid" had shown what a great director Chaplin was: "A Woman of Paris" was everything a young director was told to avoid: it was cynical, sophisticated, intelligent, adult and its script would never today pass the Hays Office; but the film would; it was made with taste and with masterful direction and was an immense success. Did Chaplin try to repeat it? He made "The Gold Rush": re-issued in 1844, with music and sound-effects, it was the most significant film of the year; nineteen years had passed and it was still equal to the best in every way, while as a film it is a work of genius. Could there be any greater triumph? Or greater lesson for his contemporaries?

    In 1928 Disney made his first Mickey Mouse cartoon: it was silent, of course, and in black and white. In 1938 he released "Snow White". (It took Griffith seven years, Chaplin eight, and Disney ten, to tell the world which shows how tough the competition is getting.) At one stride, with this feature-length cartoon in colour, for making which he had been ridiculed, Disney became one of the world's greatest film-producers. Few of them realized it; few of them realize it now, seven years later, such is the momentum of film-production. Yet, in "Snow White", Disney abolished naturalism, established stylistic settings and backgrounds (echoed recently in Laurence Olivier's "Henry V"), controlled his design of colour and sound (a feat not yet in the power of any other producer), and held audiences enraptured all over the world; and while he laid the groundwork for a method of production-planning, which has been developed by his studios in the intervening seven years (again, almost the same period of time; there must be some magic in it) until, in "The Three Caballeros", he made a film whose influence can only be assesses and realized in 1952. He, himself, says that it is an experiment, a half-finished one, which his brother (who is his business-manager) tore away from him, put titles on and sold. But he says it with a grin and in his heart he knows that "The Three Caballeros" will one day be valued by some earnest craftsman, writing an article against time on Sunday until midnight, with a nine o'clock call on the set in the morning, [Do we get the impression this was how this article was written?] as a great moment in films, along with "Snow White", "Woman of Paris", "The Gold Rush", "The Birth of a Nation" and "The Adventures of Dolly". But by then there may not be any nine o'clock calls, relic of the days when every hour of sunlight had to be snatched; there may even be no set. [Prescience of computer generated films?] It is certain there will be stories, and actors to interpret the parts, and directors to co-ordinate the whole. But what will the films be like? Where is the new Griffith, Chaplin, Disney? Is he reading? I wish that he was writing this article instead of me.

Dated 10th September 1945.

Other mentions of P&P films in the same book:

Looking Forward
Michael is busy on A Matter of Life and Death, which sounds as unusual as its title; he is mixing Technicolor and black-and-white photography to obtain a certain desired effect and the result should at least be interesting.

The British Industry
It has been a busy year for director Michael Powell, what with completing his rather strangely titled I Know Where I'm Going, with Roger Livesey and Wendy Hiller playing leads, the journey to America to watch the launching of his Colonel Blimp (about which there was quite a sensation when the advertising of it was attacked by the press for its sexy angles) and his coming back, with an American starlet in his pocket, to start A Matter of Life and Death, to be made partly in black-and-white and partly in Technicolor.

Maurice Speed was apparently a real conservative on the subject of titles!
- Andrew

Second Half-Year
Films Released July to December
I Know Where I'm Going. The simple love story of two rather ordinary people who meet on the stormbound Isle of Mull; she is on her way to marry the wealthy tenant of the Hebridean isle of Kiloran and instead falls in love with the laird of the place. Cast: Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey, Pamela Brown, Catherine Lacey, Nancy Price, George Carney, Finlay Currie, Jean Cadell, John Laurie, Valentine Dyall, Norman Shelley, Margot Fitzsimons, Murdo Morrison, Captain C. W. R. Knight, F. Z. S. Written Pro & Dir. : Michael Powell (Archers-Eagle Lion) Rel : Not fixed.

No mention at all for the screen writer!
- Andrew

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