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Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Pool of London (1951)


Director: Basil Dearden
Writers: Jack Whittingham and John Eldridge
Stars: Bonar Colleano, Susan Shaw, Renée Asherson, Earl Cameron and Moira Lister


Index: 2017 Centennials.

Last year, I celebrated the centennial of Willie Best with a review of The Ghost Breakers, in which I looked beyond the general lack of roles of substance for actors of colour in Hollywood to highlight how horrendous the roles given to coloured talents actually were. Best’s first six roles were credited to ‘Sleep ’n’ Eat’, a name to fit the image the studio was crafting for him of someone whose only needs were ‘three square meals a day and a warm place to sleep.’ Of course, institutional racism was hardly a problem restricted to the United States. I’m British and it’s not that long ago, historically speaking, that we exercised a habit of waltzing in to countries and taking them over because, well, clearly the savages couldn’t govern themselves. However, there were brighter moments that are worth highlighting and this film, a thriller from Ealing Studios in 1951 is a worthy example, as it features an actor of colour in a major role of substance, as a sailor of well defined character for whom a young white lady falls very hard indeed.

This actor is Earl Cameron and he’s celebrating his one hundredth birthday today. He was born Earlston Cameron in Bermuda and this could almost have been called typecasting for him. He had once been a merchant seaman, just like Johnny Lambert, whom he plays here, and he found himself stranded in London when he got involved with a girl and his ship sailed without him. Within the decade, he would marry a white British lady, Audrey Godowski, whom he met while touring with a play entitled Deep are the Roots; they were married from 1959 until her death in 1994. Theatre found him before film, letting him fill a vacated spot on the chorus line in a revival of Chu Chin Chow and he found that this life was surprisingly easy. ‘In theatre, there was no particular colour bar,’ he told The Guardian, perhaps partly because his graceful Caribbean accent allowed him to play believable Americans. It was here in 1951 that cinema tasked him and Susan Shaw to create the first mixed-race relationship on the UK’s big screen.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Blood on the Moon (1948)


Director: Robert Wise
Writers: Lillie Hayward, from the adaptation by Harold Shumate and Luke Short, in turn from the novel by Luke Short
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Preston


Index: 2017 Centennials.

Robert Mitchum was an unlikely movie star. He freely admitted that he didn’t have much respect for the art of acting, infamously interrupting critic Barry Norman with a comment, ‘Look, I have two kinds of acting. One on a horse and one off a horse. That’s it.’ He didn’t take interviews seriously and tended to refuse to speak to biographers. He looked down with disdain at method actors, suggesting that the ‘Rin Tin Tin method is good enough for me. That dog never worried about motivation or concepts and all that junk.’ Katherine Hepburn once told him that he’d never have been cast in a picture if he hadn’t been good looking. Critics had the same sort of response, panning his work for decades as monotonous, dispassionate or lethargic. Yet his stardom rose, because he fit a growing need, a talent for playing characters who could be good, bad or somewhere enticingly in between fuelled by a tough background; as one of the ‘wild boys of the road’ during the Depression, he spent time on a chain gang for vagrancy at fourteen.

He got into the business by accident, having left a job as a machine operator at Lockheed after a nervous breakdown that left him temporarily blind. He had previously spent time as a stagehand, a bit player and playwright in productions of the Players Guild of Long Beach, where his sister Julie performed, so he looked for work as an extra in movies, quickly being hired as a villain in seven Hopalong Cassidy westerns. The studios must have liked him, because he made twenty films in his debut year, 1943, most of them uncredited. RKO certainly liked his performance in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, as they signed him to a seven year contract, with the goal of making him a star in Zane Grey movies. That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, he was Oscar nominated for The Story of G.I. Joe, a war film made on loan to United Artists, and he returned from eight months of wartime service just in time for the film noir era which was tailor made for him. His films Undercurrent, Crossfire and Out of the Past are all outstanding examples of the genre.