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Cry ‘God for Larry, Hammer Films and Network!’ April 29, 2007

Posted by John Hodson in : DVD News & Info, British Film , trackback

“If I wasn’t an actor, I think I’d have gone mad. You have to have extra voltage, some extra temperament to reach certain heights. Art is a little bit larger than life - it’s an exhalation of life and I think you probably need a little touch of madness.”

Laurence Olivier 

2007 marks the centenary of the birth of Laurence Olivier (May 22 to be precise), once regarded as the world’s leading stage and screen actor.

Lord Olivier, as he was after being elevated in 1970 (the first actor to receive the accolade; the only other to be honoured by a peerage is Lord Attenborough), is, perhaps, perceived today as an old-fashioned declamatory actor, whose sometimes flamboyant film performances meant that even towards the end of his lifetime, he was being reassessed by those who preferred the minimalist approach of the modern thespian.

However, anyone who thinks Olivier should now simply be considered a rather choice smoked ham should watch, for instance, his spine-tingling performance as Archie Rice in The Entertainer, feel that frisson of disgust as his demonic ’Richard Crookback’ shuffles forward to confide and conspire with the camera in Richard III, genuinely thrill to the Agincourt speech in Henry V, or enjoy his quite intimate screen performance in Bunny Lake is Missing.

As well as bringing, via his screen adaptations, the works of Shakespeare to the masses - and having already mentioned cured meats - it must be said that Olivier relished the opportunity to ham it up with the very best. He couldn’t resist the chance to be lip-smackingly salacious in the adaptation of Harold Robbins The Betsy, and some think his French Canadian trapper ‘Johnnie’ in Powell and Pressburger’s The 49th Parallel maybe needs to be turned down just a notch or two (but not this fan). Towards the end of his career, if Hollywood wanted variations on any number of ‘mittle European ackzents’, Lord Larry was their man. Who can forget Olivier’s ‘weißer engel’, doing for dentistry what Jaws did for recreational swimming? Or his frail (he was actually ill at the time; in fact he was in ill-health for the last two decades of his life) but dogged Nazi hunter ‘Ezra Lieberman’ in The Boys From Brazil?

There’s a great story told by William Goldman about Marathon Man. Dustin Hoffman turned up on set and Olivier was aghast at his appearance. The Great Man asked what on earth was wrong and Hoffman replied that he was playing a character who hadn’t slept all night…so Hoffman hadn’t slept.

Olivier, ever disparaging of ‘the Method’, gave him an exasperated look and said: ‘Why don’t you just ACT it dear boy?’

I always find Olivier, in productions good, bad, or indifferent, to be excellent value for money, in his Shakespearian roles he’s simply hypnotic. As a small boy I was bought an ‘EP’ (remember them?) of Treasure Island, with Donald Wolfit as ‘Long John’. I hadn’t a clue who Wolfit was at the time, but was told he’d been ‘a very great stage actor’, yet he was a man who was little regarded by the time he died in 1968. Maybe Olivier has become a ‘Donald Wolfit’ for another generation? Whatever. I loved that record and thought Wolfit was just fab. Olivier is fab too…

In R2, Network is prepping two box sets for release next month:

Laurence Olivier Presents: Five works by 20th century playwrights, presented by one of the greatest actors of the modern age, with an outstanding range of international talent. Plays include: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Tennessee Williams); The Collection (Harold Pinter); Hindle Wakes (Stanley Houghton); Come Back, Little Sheba (William Inge); Saturday, Sunday, Monday (by Eduardo de Filippo).


The Laurence Olivier Centenary Collection: Henry V, Richard III, The Ebony Tower, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Merchant of Venice, The South Bank Show: Laurence Olivier - A Life (originally aired in two parts), plus the six plays in the Laurence Olivier Presents box.

Meanwhile there are number of celebrations planned throughout the UK including special screenings. The BBC reported recently that Henry V gets digital makeover:

…For a screening at the Brighton Festival on the south coast of England this year, composer Dominic Sewell has digitally removed William Walton’s original score so that the film can have its music performed by a live orchestra. The orchestra will play the music in synchronisation with newly-remastered images on the screen - digitally enhanced as part of an ongoing project to celebrate the centenary of Olivier’s birth……Henry V, made to boost morale during World War II, is regarded as a British film classic. Olivier was both its star and director, and as such the film is at the centrepiece of the centenary of his birth in 1907.

Once it has been fully restored, it will be screened in a number of venues later this year - including at the Cannes Film Festival.

The process of digitally restoring it is being overseen by Fiona Maxwell, director of operations and servicing at British media company Granada International, which owns the rights to a number of Olivier classics.

She said that by going back to original 35mm negatives and re-transferring them on modern equipment, “we can get them back to their former glory.”

“We can regrade them, get the colour that is within those negatives,” she said.

While some restoration will also be in real time - by passing the negative through a bath to get rid of dirt, for example - the frame-by-frame restoration made possible by computer has meant that even scratches that occurred within the negatives on which the film was originally shot can now be removed.

“You can literally take a wipe across the screen,” Ms Maxwell said.

“Sometimes it’s like turning on light - because people have got used to dirt and fading, and think this is what an old film looks like.”

You’ll see at this link that Brighton Festival’s Henry V has sold out. And it looks superb too - Walton’s music, particularly the charge of the French towards the English bowmen, is fantastic. The scene - the sun glinting off the armour, the bright, primary colours of the banners and shields, the verdant battlefield, a deep, azure blue sky - should be a Technicolor marvel, but on the current unrestored R2 DVD, it’s sometimes drab and badly marked. A restored Henry V in all it’s Plantagenet splendour would be an eyewatering delight; it’s not been confirmed, but I cannot believe that the restoration will not be included in the ‘Centenary’ box. Here’s hoping.

‘It’s in the trees! It’s coming!’

This news from HammerWeb is being greeted with delight on various internet fora. Click though and you’ll see that DD Home Entertainment has struck a deal with Columbia which means that UK based DDHE - already responsible for a number of excellent Hammer and horror releases including The Quatermass Xperiment - is set to pull the trigger on even more Hammer:

“…A spokesman for DD is keen to stress that the exact titles due to be released are dependent on the results of an ongoing evaluation of archive materials, but we can confirm that the thirteen Hammer titles provisionally scheduled for release are The Camp On Blood Island, Cash on Demand, Creatures the World Forgot, The Damned, Don’t Panic Chaps, The Gorgon, Maniac, Never Take Sweets From a Stranger, The Stranglers of Bombay, Sword of Sherwood Forest, Taste of Fear, The Terror of the Tongs and Watch it Sailor. There may be other titles to follow.”

Tucked in with the Hammer news is this snippet: “In the meantime, DD’s release of Columbia titles will get underway with the British DVD premiere of the 1957 film Night of the Demon. DD are planning a collector’s edition of this classic horror film and work is already underway on exclusive behind-the-scenes extra features.”

Columbia has already done an excellent job in R1 with Night of The Demon / Curse of The Demon, but a release with some substantial extras would be marvellous. It’s one of the great iconic British horror films, deftly directed by Jacques Tourneur, the noirish shadows and suggestion creating far more creeping menace than the rubber monster foisted on Tourneur for the final scenes. I really must get round to buying Tony Earnshaw’s book Beating the Devil: The Making of ‘Night of the Demon’

DDHE’s presentations vary in quality, sometimes excellent, sometimes awful, and sometimes they make elementary and frustrating mistakes in authoring. They do try hard, however, paying for the inclusion of a commentary here or a featurette there, and I rather like the booklets they often include with their bigger releases. They obviously haven’t the budget of the big studios to carry out major restorations on their own, but providing they are given decent elements in the first place - and you would think Columbia will have access to such - I’m quite hopeful.

With Warners hinting that they are set to revisit their Hammer titles - the crown jewels as far as most fans are concerned - it’s looking to be a great year for afficionados of the films from Bray and Elstree.

Things to Come… 

Finally - finally - the specs and art are up for the Things to Come: Special Edition on the Network site:

• Brand new digital restoration of the longest existing version
• Virtual Extended Edition – a viewing option allowing for the inclusion of text and images from long-missing and unfilmed scenes to present a tantalising ‘what if?’
• Brand-new audio commentary with Things to Come expert Nick Cooper
• On Reflection: Brian Aldiss on H.G. Wells – 25 minute documentary from 1971
• Ralph Richardson interview by Russell Harty in 1975
• Extensive booklet written by Nick Cooper
• The Wandering Sickness – an original 78rpm recording
• Comprehensive image gallery, including many rare stills
• Merchandise image gallery
• US re-release trailer

The artwork is beautiful, certainly an improvement over the proposed box art for the aborted 2006 release. One press release from Network adds: ‘This extended version is taken from a high quality 35mm print from the BFI archives’. If I recall correctly, the restored British Film Institute print, first screened a couple of years ago now, is some three minutes longer than the more commonly seen American cut. Nick Cooper confirmed to me that this release is an improvement on the DDHE transfer; just how much of an improvement remains to be seen.

The waiting is quite painful, and any readers of this blog will know it’s become something of a saga - not long to go, thankfully, now. I might actually get through a post without mentioning it!

Having said that, we may have to go though all this again (groan..). Word came out recently that the U.S. rights to a number of Korda films had passed from MGM / UA into the hands of Janus Films. The Private Life of Henry VIII, Things to Come, The Thief of Bagdad (to name but three), all from Criterion?

It’s a tantalising thought…


1. Daniel Stephens - April 30, 2007

Excellent article John. The Olivier/Hoffman anecdote is a great conversation piece but I’ve heard Hoffman recently say it was taken out of context. He’d been out partying all night and Olivier was having a slight dig at his professionalism. I do prefer the original context though!

2. John Hodson - April 30, 2007

Yup; these stories always get better by the telling don’t they? :D Having said that, I don’t think I’d trust Hoffman if he told me it was Monday.

Thanks for the comment Daniel.

3. Mike - April 30, 2007

No Clash of the Titans? Seriously though, no Hamlet? Even when I was studying the play forty years after the adaptation’s release, it was still required viewing.

In fairness, I do think his Richard III is a fantastic performance - the sheer terror he inspires in the princes when he reacts badly to one of their digs is malevolent perfection.

Great article, as always.

4. John Hodson - April 30, 2007

I thought I’d covered that (albeit lazily - I wanted to keep it short!) with a little catch all when I wrote ‘in his Shakespearian roles he’s simply hypnotic’; but of course you’re right, yes, ‘Hamlet’ (and I hope Granada have scheduled this for a wash ‘n brush up too) and well, yes, mostly anything. Including his ‘Zeus’; I mean, who else..?

By the way, Olivier deserves all credit for his direction and staging of the same; I think having that baby spot played on his face during the opening soliloquy in ‘Richard III’, the way he menaces the camera is fantastic. I just want to back away. ‘Henry V’ has an almost dreamlike quality doesn’t it? 

5. Mike Sutton - May 5, 2007

A nice quote from Clive James:

“People who tell you that Olivier overacts are just telling you about themselves. He is overalive.”

6. John Hodson - May 5, 2007

Perceptive man Mr James isn’t he?

Worth adding here that the version of Henry V included in the collection will be a transfer of the newly restored film.

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