Want to Watch A Great Movie? How David Lean Became David Lean

Most every night after supper, Bill and I watch a movie. At this stage of our lives, it’s time together especially cherished. We have a monster screen in the kitchen and sit in front of it each in our big pillowed chair. (I knit, movie-watching is ideal for baby blankets…I’m finishing my seventh, five skeins of Malabrigo’s Rios in Holly Hock, hand-dyed machine-washable merino wool, await the eighth.)

We love movies. Bill taught film for years (actually he created the Film Studies program at Sarah Lawrence College) and I grew up in the movie world. We’ll try anything from ancient silents to contemporary quickies. Lately we’ve been choosing by director, watching work chronologically, observing the artist grow. After a rousing mini-festival of Alexander Payne—About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska—we decided on David Lean.

Writing for Internet Movie Database (IMDB is usually a valuable resource) some dumbbell described Lean as “An important British filmmaker”—whereas writing for Wikipedia a bright button said Lean was: “Widely considered one of the most influential directors of all time…” Seven times Lean’s directing was nominated for an Academy Award: Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, Summertime, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and A Passage to IndiaBridge and Lawrence won. With A Passage to India, Lean was also nominated for his editing, which was apt, because it was Lean’s last movie—and editing was where he began.

The first movie on Lean’s “Director” list (Lean also has lists for “Editor” and “Writer”) was Major Barbara, released in 1941. Except he’s listed as “uncredited.” “Uncredited” means you worked on the picture but the person who signed the contract with the studio for that bailiwick either wasn’t willing to share credit or the studio wouldn’t let him/her, so there was no telling which scenes bore the Lean touch. I thought the movie extraordinary, wondered about why “uncredited,” so I bought Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean by Gene D. Phillips hoping for an explanation. Aha!

David Lean was born in 1908 on the outskirts of London into a stolid Quaker family. A bright handsome boy, he was bored by school–the headmistress wrote his parents, “David daydreams.” Daydreams morphed into still pictures when, at fourteen, an uncle gave him a Brownie box camera. Passionate about photography, the boy developed his own film, and when he could, snuck off to the West End to watch movies. Many believe the source of Lean’s fascination with “cinematic epics” was director Rex Ingram’s 1921 Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. For the first time, the thirteen-year-old nascent film maker would see a movie with sweeping vistas of clouds and sky, luminous studies of light and shadow, classic compositions of two lovers stealing a kiss or a ballroomful of dancers.

Biographers don’t agree as to whether Lean completed his required schooling. They do agree that when he was eighteen, his father Frank shanghaied him off to Frank’s accounting firm in London’s financial district. Each weekday morning the junior accountant parked his bowler hat and furled umbrella by his desk, then stiff in black frock coat and pin-striped trousers squandered talent and time checking endless columns of numbers. Weekends brought the boy respite filming with his Pathescope movie camera then projecting his movies onto the living room wall for his mother and younger brother. (His father wasn’t there–five years earlier Frank’d deserted his family.) Finally when David was nineteen, Frank acknowledged his son’s passion for film, contacted an accountant he knew at Gaumont-British Studios, got David a job interview.

Young David Lean was given a two-week trial without pay as teaboy, serving tea to cast and crew–at least he’d be on a set. Tea well served, David was hired and promoted to clapboy–clapping the board that keeps track of takes, ten shillings a week. He advanced to camera assistant–loading film into the camera. This step up included a lucky break–the camera belonged to director Maurice Elvey. By 1927, Elvey had directed forty-four short feature films and eighty-three full-length (over one hour) movies—among them, The Hound of the Baskervilles, which thirteen-year-old David had loved. Elvey was presently on a feature called Quinneys. When the movie was shown, at the end of the cast list was “Additional crew: “David Lean…Runner (uncredited).”

This was the first of numerous “uncredited” credits Lean earned early in his work.

The next year, Elvey produced or directed The Physician, Sailors Don’t Care, Balaclava, and High Treason…on all four David Lean was listed as “Assistant Director.” On Palais de Danse Elvey gave Lean “Assistant Camera.”

Then serendipity: visiting a projectionist friend in his projection room, David was fascinated to see directors cutting their previous day’s film. In those days there was no “Editor” on a crew list because the director trimmed his (no women directors in England yet) movie. I wonder if young David edited the film he shot at home or if this was the first he knew that film could be cut. Mesmerized—throughout his life, David Lean regarded film as magic (well, isn’t it?)–he asked Elvey if he could assist him editing. Elvey agreed. Soon Lean was helping other directors cut their film and gaining a reputation for himself.

By now, 1930, most movies had sound and Alfred Hitchcock was grumbling that too many films were simply “photographs of people talking…” “…directors forgot that talking pictures should still be moving pictures…”[ii]

More serendipity: Lean was in the projection room helping director Sewell Collins cut his film, The Night Porter. Collins, from the theater, was at a loss as how to synchronize sound and images–the two tracks of film–so Gaumont’s master editor was brought in to teach him. When the lesson was over, Collins still didn’t get it. David Lean did, and Collins asked him to edit the movie. Which he did. It was the second of David Lean’s “uncredited” credits.

But the brilliant young editor didn’t need to worry. When Gaumont’s master editor left for another studio, Lean was given his place. He worked tirelessly cutting the studio’s main product, newsreels, then in 1931 was invited to go to prestigious British Movietone News. Another lucky break: studio head Keith Ayling had connections at Paramount Pictures in France and British and Dominions (B & D) Productions at Elstree Studios. Several first-rate Hollywood technicians had been brought to Elstree and Ayling sent Lean to work with experienced editor, Merrill G. White. Lean learned a lot from White. Ayling next arranged for Lean to edit These Charming People for Paramount in Paris. Variety’s review of Lean’s first editing credit: “Dialog good, and Hugh Perceval’s scenario, judging by the continuity, a workmanlike job, as was the cutting.”[i]

From his first days as teaboy, David Lean seized opportunity, worked hard, and—-in a business so utterly collaborative—was a generous team player. During his late twenties and early thirties, Lean enhanced his reputation for having a strong sense of narrative (anyone know then that Lean also could write?), became an editor’s editor—“Maybe Lean can save this…” Just three years after being Merrill White’s protégé, White sought Lean’s help editing Nell Gwyn (again, without credit). Same year, 1934, Thorold Dickinson, editing Java Head, is quoted as admitting he sought Lean to save his movie (which Lean did, and again, without credit).

As he worked editing talkies, Lean developed his style of following the action/images and letting the dialog take care of itself —“to hell with the sound…” Also, of course, the man had an extraordinary eye.

By 1937–after clocking in at fifteen different studios working on twenty films for twelve different directors–David Lean was the highest-paid editor in England. Story is he was broke because no studio could afford him…

Enter Gabriel Pascal, Hungarian self-styled producer, devotee of George Bernard Shaw, determined to make a movie of Shaw’s Pygmalion. With charm and chutzpah, Pascal (“…should’ve been named Rascal”) pulled it together, including a movie script—with new scenes!–from the 82-year-old curmudgeon himself. Lean took a cut in salary to edit with director Anthony Asquith–although Leslie Howard, the romantic lead, wanted to co-direct, was granted the credit. Turned out Howard mostly showed up for his own scenes. On the set, Asquith constantly consulted Lean about composition and camera angles, asked him to compose several essential montages. Pygmalion was a brilliant success and Asquith is quoted as telling Lean, “It’s a damned shame, you should be up there as co-director.”

What does the movie director do on a set anyway?

For starters, the director (if not the cinematographer) gives us the “establishing shots”—the landscape or street outside the scene’s front door…time of day or night…what part of the world we’re in. And makes it memorable so we’ll remember where we are.

A director composes, continually, moment to moment, what the camera sees/records…these moments are called “shots.” We admire brilliant composition in paintings, but even more than in paintings, light is as crucial an element in a shot as setting or actors. Next time you’re watching a movie, Mute the sound and give a few minutes to observing where the light is/comes from.

Up to this point, a gifted cinematographer can accomplish these jobs. And many of the great directors find their match in one or two cinematographers and work only with them…

Now still with the sound off, observe movement. Is it interesting? Does it flow? Do the actors’ actions advance the story? Choreographing the actors is called “blocking.” When in a scene actors talking stand stiffly lined up or sit immobile, that’s the sign of an inept director. The nub of a director’s job is physicality…which emotions we read from body language: “Stroll a little closer to him, darling…but don’t quite catch up…let the flat of your hand bump along the fence pickets…remember, you’re in despair…”

Too, depending upon the skill/sensitivity/intelligence/experience of the actors, the director instructs the actors how to deliver their lines—flatly…ironically…loudly…softly—any one of the incalculable nuances in which we humans communicate. Yes of course a theater director does this as well, but his/her context is immense, immovable, framed…in a movie, there’s a secret, a surprise, behind every shot…waiting to be revealed when the camera pulls back…

Others of the movie director’s responsibilities are focus…pacing…continuity…grabbing the audience’s attention and not letting go. Lean learned these skills in editing. Invention is a director’s great resource (as of course is every artist’s). For example, if he was cutting a romantic drama and the action, the emotions, were leading to an embrace–but at that point the writer and/or director neglected to film an embrace, I’ll bet Lean would find a blither of rapturous clouds or thunder of crashing surf and slip in a bit of emotion from Mother Nature…

During the two years after Pygmalion Lean edited three more films, none notable. Have to find another biography to see what he did all day. Was David Lean an amateur painter like Winston Churchill?

Ah, here we are at 1939 and the singular Major Barbara. Once again Rascal Pascal convinced George Bernard Shaw to let him make a movie of his play. And write the screenplay for it. And once again, Pascal, wildly ambitious, woefully inexperienced, proved his knack for choosing the best people to help him. Department of belt and suspenders: He hired an experienced editor, Charles Frend, then asked Lean to supervise him. Expecting to direct the film himself, Pascal hired stage director Harold French to help direct dialogue. Hired cinematographer Ronald Neame (who’d assisted on Hitchcock’s Blackmail) then asked Lean to place the camera and choose the lens. Also asked Lean to create dramatic montages for the movie’s climax.

Filming began in London in September, 1939, just when the English declared war on Germany. German bombs began raining down. C.A. LeJeune on October 6, 1939, for The New York Times:

“Writing, as we are, in the ducts at Pinewood Studios spang in the middle of the air-krieg …out of seventeen scheduled set-ups, the “Major Barbara” unit has managed to secure one take. Last night was an all-night session in the London air-raid shelters… We are working now on our big emotional scenes. The actors want to go on. The technical staff wants to go on. But they will not let us go on… Will foreign audiences, we wondered, ever feel the real drama, the tense excitement, behind every shot of them?”

Not knowing any of this when I watched it, I loved the movie not just for its form but for its content. Shaw’s witty script about a young woman devoted to serving the poor interpreted by some of the most beguiling actors I’ve ever seen knocked me silly. I was curious to know what Bosley Crowther, the Times’s starchy-sometimes-contemptuous film critic thought:*

“…To call it a manifest triumph would be arrant stinginess with words. For this is something more than just a brilliant and adult translation of a stimulating play, something more than a captivating compound of ironic humor and pity. This is a lasting memorial to the devotion of artists working under fire, a permanent proof for posterity that it takes more than bombs to squelch the English wit. It is as wry and impudent a satire of conventional morals and social creeds as though it had been made in a time of easy and carefree peace. It is, in short, a more triumphant picture than any the British have yet sent across…

“To be sure, the major part of “Major Barbara” is more than thirty-five years old… Yet for all its comparative antiquity…it still has the cogent vitality of an essay struck off only yesterday. It comes to grips with a problem—the problem of the human soul versus poverty—which is quite as perplexing today as it was back in 1905…

“For, according to most of the recorders, (Shaw’s play) was static and wordy on the stage… By some careful and thoroughly respectful editing, by moving his cameras artfully about…Mr. Pascal has given the film that terseness and illusion of motion which films must have…”

For “Mr. Pascal,” read Mr. Lean. Both stars, Wendy Hiller and Rex Harrison, are quoted. Hiller: “David Lean…who was very clever…directed most of the film.” Harrison: “David Lean was known to us on the set as the ‘whispering cutter.’ It was part of his job to give Pascal advice even on the set. So that it would not be too obvious, he insisted on whispering his advice into Gabby’s ear—which, of course, made it far more obvious than if he had shouted his head off.”

Lean: “I was there for the camera set-ups and did a fair amount of the direction, but I never got a screen credit for it.”

Next the theater’s Noël Coward—also preternaturally gifted—took up David Lean. From this distance it might appear as though he hoped their collaboration would create one incomparable artistic whole. Together they made In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit, and Brief Encounter. Producer Coward was not stingy…Lean has Director’s credit on all four–plus Writer’s credit on the last three. And won his first Oscar with the timeless romantic Brief Encounter.

Next Lean’s Dickens’ period, Great Expectations. Sublime. Exteriors—eerie scenes on the marshes where young Pip sees chain-bound convict Magwich—make your heart stop. Interiors—despairing scenes in cobwebbed halls where Pip yearns for chill Estella—make your heart ache. Lean’s genius for interweaving light and dark was never more stirring.

Oliver Twist was brilliant with its intimacy and sweep of London. Cinematically, the movie is amazing. (However I confess I’d rather spend an evening with Carol Reed’s filming of Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver! I read somewhere that Lean and Reed became rivals…)

Following Dickens, Lean directed an H.G. Wells’ novel about love, The Passionate Friends. Then Madeleine, an aristocratic murder mystery. Then Hobson’s Choice, a comic tour de force for Charles Laughton. All superbly filmed. Watching these movies from the point of view of editing gave them new dimension for me. Then “a bittersweet romance” shot in Venice, Summertime, with Katharine Hepburn. It gained both Lean and Hepburn Academy Award nominations but, so disappointed, we found it underwhelming. Nobody’s perfect.

In 1957—thirty years after Quinneys’ credit as Runner—came Lean’s first so-called epic film, The Bridge on the River Kwai.  It always seems fresh.  Lean’s vision expanded to sweep in vast worlds, he filmed   Lawrence of Arabia, scenes from The Greatest Story Ever Told (back to his old “Uncredited” days), Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, and A Passage to India. Each epic took years.

Bill just mentioned something interesting. From French film critics in the ‘40s and American critic Andrew Sarris in the ‘60s, a fashionable notion about movie directors is that the finest are “auteurs.” Like the authors of plays and novels, their directing embodies personal style and vision. Directors proving this concept? Think of the pathos of Charles Chaplin…comic charm of Ernst Lubitsch…suspense of Alfred Hitchcock. However, Sarris does not regard David Lean as an auteur because his films have no distinctive hallmark.  In Lean’s company–a group characterized as “Less Than Meets the Eye”–Sarris includes John Huston, Elia Kazan, Billy Wilder, Carol Reed, William Wyler, Fred Zinneman…awfully good company, by me. And believe it or not, Michael Curtiz, director of Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Mildred Pierce Sarris categorizes as “Lightly Likable.” Critics!

So let me know what you think of Major Barbara. Oh yes. How to watch these old films? Start with IMDB—the listing will tell you where it’s available.

*The New York Times, May 18, 1941, Section X, Page 3

[i] August 11, 1931

[ii] Hitchcock, Film Production, page 214

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