CHAPTER XXV

 

But through all these days of gaieties and of varied experiences of life and character I carried on assiduously with my work. Between the years 1920--after we were finally and comfortably settled in Villa Bijou--and 1940 I brought out some of my most successful books: The Uncrowned King, A Spy of Napoleon (a story of the Second Empire), The Hon'ble Jim.

The Scarlet Pimpernel had not lost his hold upon my readers, and many adventures of my dauntless hero did I put on record during those happy Monte Carlo years, both in long and short stories. As a matter of fact there are now no fewer than ten full-length romances dealing with him and two volumes of short stories. The play, too, was also constantly before the public either in London or in the provinces. As was only to be expected I was often approached by cinematograph companies for licence to make a film of that ever popular story. Personally, I would have been quite willing; but not so the great Mr. Fred Terry. The contract for the play as between him, together with his wife and partner, Miss Julia Neilson, and ourselves had been drawn up by a solicitor who had had very little experience of theatrical matters and persons. It was very loosely worded. Fred Terry was an avowed and bitter enemy of the films, which he looked upon as successful rivals of theatrical enterprise.

There had been a good deal of correspondence as to whether I as the author of the original book or he as the owner of the rights in the play held the cinematograph rights in the story. Ultimately we were advised to go to law about the whole thing and get a decision from the Court on that very moot point. Well! the case went against us in this way, and whereas the copyright in the book was indisputably mine, the rights in the play were equally indisputably the Terry's. Neither side would be allowed to negotiate cinematograph rights without the consent of the other. And Fred Terry was adamant. There was no question of sharing either. When the word cinematograph cropped up Fred Terry saw red.

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And then it was that the great Master of us all put an end to all controversy. Fred Terry had been ailing for some time. I believe it was a question of gout, which became very acute and finally touched the heart and carried that ideal Sir Percy Blakeney away when he had scarcely passed the prime of his life. For he was, and always will be in my opinion, the ideal in the flesh of my favourite creation. He had the charm of manner, the beautifully modulated voice, the humour, and the dominating personality. Soon after his death the cinema companies got busy again. The London Film Productions had recently been formed and had already attained a great outstanding success in Henry VIII with that fine actor, Charles Laughton, in the name part. It certainly was a magnificent film and deserved the reputation which it conferred on Alexander Korda, in my opinion, the finest film producer, bar none, the cinema world has as yet known.

One of the directors of L.F.P. was that well-known actor, George Grossmith, and I suppose that it was through him that the company learned that Miss Julia Neilson was not adverse as her late husband had been to the filming of The Scarlet Pimpernel. She was approached and so was I. By the decision of the Court the consent of both of us was essential for obtaining the right to produce the cinema version of the ever-popular book and play.

I had never been averse to this and willingly gave my consent: Miss Neilson and I to share equally in the proceeds. It gave me great pleasure to meet Alexander Korda, for I had long been interested in him. He and his two brothers were a trio of young Hungarian Jews with brains enough between the three of them to furnish a dozen and more artistically minded and ambitious youths. They betook themselves to Hollywood and there learned all there was to know of the trade they had decided to make their own, and Alexander, the eldest, burst upon the cinema world as the film producer par excellence. What his brother Zoltán did not know about designing and constructing scenery was not worth knowing, and the last of the three was the great technical expert: a marvellous trio forsooth to come from a small Hungarian village not far from Tarna-Örs where I was born. The Scarlet Pimpernel was shown subsequently over half the world. It is not for me to speak of its success. I understand that it was one of the most outstanding among the many successes achieved by English cinema companies.

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There was one amusing incident in connection with the production to which I cannot help referring here. Alexander Korda had announced in the Press that Charles Laughton had been engaged by him to play the part of Sir Percy Blakeney. . . . Whereupon both he, by private correspondence, and the Press, by way of open letters, were bombarded with protests by film 'fans' as to the unsuitability of that excellent actor to impersonate the Scarlet Pimpernel. Physically he certainly might not have looked the part, though a great actor can always rise above mere physical defects (we had an example of this in Henry Irving), and Laughton is indeed a great actor. But no! the film 'fans' were relentless in their demands: 'Charles Laughton was unsuitable for the part of their favourite hero of romance.' Korda, open-minded as he was, gave way and engaged Leslie Howard instead.

I have so often been asked whether I had been pleased or disappointed in the film version of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Leslie Howard was certainly very attractive, very charming, he knew how to make love, but he was not Fred Terry. Fred Terry was the ideal Sir Percy and there cannot be two ideals in one's mind of the one character. Howard had physical defects just as Laughton had: he was short and could not look strong enough to dominate certain situations, nor could he tower over Chauvelin, played, as it happened, by a very tall man.

As for the working-out of the story, I thought all the scenes as near perfection as any producer could conceive; they also followed the book closely . . . until the end. But the end . . .!! Well! I suppose that by that time film 'fans' were satisfied that all was well with Sir Percy and his lovely wife and were not too critical as to how this had been brought about. This being so, I think I may safely say that my pleasure in the presentation of my romance on the cinema outweighed any disappointment I may have felt.

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There had been one or two amusing experiences in connection with the filming of some of my books. One, in particular, was so awful that it became amusing. This was the presentation in France of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Although the book published by Nelson's and admirably translated, was known all over the country as Le Mouron Rouge and formed part of many important school libraries, the French film censor, not liking the title, had it changed to Le Chevalier de Londres. But that was a small matter compared with the--I was going to say outrage--of turning Sir Percy and his devoted band into French émigrés as it had been done in that never-to-be-forgotten play at the Ambigu. He would not allow a Frenchman (Chauvelin) to be 'downed' by un anglais, even an eighteenth-century one. But the worthy official did not rest with that stricture. He went a step further and would not permit any scene to be shown in which the guillotine could be seen, except quite small and nebulous in the distance. (Was he not aware of the fact that every French boy and girl had learned their history at school and knew all about the revolution and the guillotine?)

Anyway, 'doubled' as it was and shorn of some of its finest scenes with Leslie Howard and Sir Andrew Ffoulkes looking unlike any French émigrés that ever crossed the Channel, the whole show was so bad that it became ludicrous. I had been asked to be present on the opening night and bouquets of red roses were most kindly showered upon me, but you must imagine what it cost me to say something pleasant, even appreciative, to all those concerned in what was nothing but the caricature of my beloved book. I have often asked myself since, why--if the whole setting of The Scarlet Pimpernel was objectionable to French patriotic feeling--it was ever shown in France. Why not have left it alone.

In Italy--as in the case of the play--the film was presented in its original form as Alexander Korda had produced it. Italians are too artistic to play tricks with works of art. Though several of my books were filmed after that and shown not only in England but in most of the European countries, I must confess that I never took great interest in those productions. I certainly never had the wish to go to Hollywood. What was the good? The cinema people--principally U.S.A., of course--would 'gang their ain gait' whatever the author might say.

It is always stated most emphatically in the contracts that 'no alterations in the story should be made without the consent of the author'. Nevertheless, whenever I have been lured to witness a film based upon any book I had read and loved by some favourite author of mine, I invariably came away wondering mournfully why a charming story had been so foolishly mauled about. There is always the story of the author who had witnessed a film based on one of his popular books, remarking to the producer: "An admirable show, Mr. So-and-so. Very interesting. Who did you say was the author of the original book?"

That delightful author, A. E. W. Mason, told me of an amusing incident which occurred in Hollywood during the filming of one of his historical romances. In one scene there was a crowd shouting and making a great noise. One of the principal characters witnessing this from a balcony demands peremptorily: "What is the meaning of this clamour?" The producer interrupting: "What's he saying? Clamour: what's that?" The prompter: "Clamour means noise, sir." The producer: "Then why doesn't he say noise?" The prompter: "It's in the text, sir." A pause. The producer is wrapped in thought. Then peremptorily: "Send for the language expert (sic)." The 'language expert' arrives and explains: "Clamour is archaic, sir, and as the story . . ." The producer, angrily: "A cake? A cake? What kind of a cake?"

I also recollect one really amusing incident which occurred in the filming of my Beau Brocade, a highwayman story of the eighteenth century. The scene is laid in England and the film was produced by an English company and beautifully done. There were some charming pictures of English countryside, moorland, heath, old-world villages, and so on. The producer, while motoring through Surrey and Sussex, had come across an old coaching inn, creeper-clad and entirely unspoiled; even the sign-post 'The Running Footman', looked ancient enough for his purpose. He was delighted with his find. It was just what he had been looking for. Arrangements were soon made with the landlord and some of the best outdoor scenes in the film were enacted in front of the old inn. Only one little thing had been overlooked in the excitement of the rehearsals and this was the notice--black lettering on a white board swinging on a bracket to the right of the front door--'You may telephone from here'. It was only revealed during a private show done for my benefit of a few scenes in which I was specially interested. Of course, these had to be done all over again with the offending notice removed. Luckily the frontage of the inn did not occur more than twice in the scenario; but, even so, getting everything together again, the company, the accessories, the supers, and especially the arrival and drawing up of a coach and four, entailed a great deal of extra expense.

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I want to ask my readers in the kindness of their heart to forget the captious remarks I have made on the subject of cinematography generally, especially those aimed quite good-naturedly at American producers. I am more than willing to acknowledge the pre-eminence of the U.S.A. film productions and of film stars. They got ahead of us all, English, French, Italian, Germans, during the four-and-a-half years that we were busy fighting. They perfected their technique of that intricate art while Europe was engaged in perfecting the technique of war and the flower of her youth were laying down their lives for the honour of their country and the defence of their homes. We owe some of the finest films ever made to American producers. I need only name: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Intolerance, or Broken Blossoms, and there are many, many more which we all remember as reaching the acme of what photography and perfect dramatic presentation can achieve.

We in England reached the peak at that time in Henry VIII, as did France in those delightful comedies, Sous le toits de Paris and Marius. And if we owe the inimitable Charlie Chaplin to the U.S.A., France can boast of her Raimu, and we in England of Wallace Beery and Cicely Courtneidge.

 

©Blakeney Manor, 2001