Thursday, July 1, 2010

Remembering Ronald Neame

The obituaries for greatish film director Ronald Neame were muted at best.
Look, I know the guy who died at 99 was inactive in recent years.
But consider his output: he photographed such classics as Major Barbara (1941), One Of Our Aircraft Was Missing (1942) (Oscar nominated), This Happy Breed (1944) and Blithe Spirit (1945).
Then he produced great films still watched today: Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948).
When he turned to directing he made such memorable fare as The Horse's Mouth (1958), Tunes Of Glory (1960), I Could Go On Singing (1963), The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (1969).
When I first met up with him in 1984 over lunch in Los Angeles he cheerfully said he was living off the proceeds of his 1972 disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure --he was given 5% of the box office in return for rescuing the film after other directors had departed.
Here are a few choice remarks I recorded:
On Major Barbara: "We shot it during the height of the Blitz then pulverizing London. One day Rex Harrison had Wendy Hiller in his arms and the air raid sirens started blaring. Rex simply dropped her and ran for cover as fast as he could. Poor Wendy was left dazed and confused --she thought she was making a Shavian comedy of wit and here we're being bombed by the Nazis.
On Blithe Spirit : "At one point (director) David Lean wanted Myrna Loy as the wife but Constance Cummings did just fine. Noel Coward told Rex Harrison he was only fit to be a used car salesman but Rex didn't care, he had that certain wicked charm. But the film was stolen by Kay Hammond as Elvira and by Margaret Rutherford. I shot it in what I called muted Technicolor. Anything more garish and it would have seemed absurd."
On Great Expectations: "I produced it and every day David Lean would plead for just one more day to wrap up some scene that added to his masterpiece. But very little of the Dickens novel is actually used. We had to be brutal. David and I had seen it done as an abridged play and knew we had to film it. Among the stage players were Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket and Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham and both were hired for the film."
On Tunes Of Glory: "Alec Guinness and John Mills were signed and then exchanged parts. And then told me. Alec was suprisingly supreme as the Scottish. lackadaisical colonel and Johnny was superb as the martinet. It was a real actor's feast down to the wire. Who won? I considered it an acting tie."
On The Poseidon Adventure: "Pure tosh but I loved doing it. I simply gathered together as many character actors as possible and let them go at it. When Shelley Winters dives underwater she did it like a gigantic orca complete with belly flop. The set all had to be built upside down to show the liner had completely overturned. People flocked to it like I could not believe. And it made me a very rich man."
On The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie: "Vanessa Redgrave phoned me up and said 'I absolutely refuse to play that proto-fascist on the screen.' She'd done so on the stage and was too predictable, I felt. I was so relieved. I didn't like her mannered performance. I had to have Maggie Smith and she was predictably wonderful and got the Oscar that year and it was richly deserved. So there, Vanessa."

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