Sunday, January 24, 2010

Through The Ages

The last couple of days I’ve been ruminating at length over the comment from Brian Sibley in regard to the previous post in which he wrote:

I wonder if there are other iconic roles where people cleave to the actor they first saw in the part: Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, Mr Darcy, Fagin, Long John Silver or (with a new one about to fall into Master Burton's Wonderland) Alice...?

Before I gave consideration to the characters mentioned, his words immediately reminded me of the time back in 1993 when a new version of The Three Musketeers arrived on cinema screens, starring Chris O’Donnell, Kiefer Sutherland, Oliver Platt and Charlie Sheen as D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. I couldn’t see the point of it – especially with Chris O’Donnell and Charlie Sheen, for goodness sake – because for me those valiant musketeers will forever be Michael York, Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay and Richard Chamberlain in Richard Lester’s film version, made twenty years earlier.

Written by George MacDonald Fraser, the author of the Flashman series of novels, the film remained remarkably faithful to Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 novel while including a good portion of Lester’s trademark sight gags and slapstick, most of which involved Roy Kinnear as D’Artagnan’s manservant Planchet or Raquel Welch’s accident-prone Constance Bonacieux. Intended to have a running time of three hours, it was split in two by producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind with the darker second half, titled The Four Musketeers, released the following year.

Of course while I was enjoying the quartet’s attempts to save the Queen Consort of France from being discredited by Cardinal Richelieu and his lackey the Count De Rochefort, and surviving the wrath of Milady de Winter, there may have been much older members of the audience sighing at the bawdy humour or frowning as the numerous swordfights descended into brawls. For them Lester’s movies didn’t match up to the swashbuckling version from 1948, starring Gene Kelly and Lana Turner, which they had embraced as a child.

So what we have is a version for each new generation to imprint on. Although saying that I’ve just remembered that my first exposure to the adventures of D’Artagnan and his fellow musketeers was in the series of animated shorts, designed by the esteemed cartoonist and illustrator Alex Toth, that appeared in episodes of The Banana Splits, produced by Hanna–Barbera Productions. Then I wondered if the adventures of Fleagle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky was perhaps my generation’s version of Teletubbies but decided it was best not to go there and move on instead before it devolves into comparing the merits of The Tra La La Song to Teletubbies say “Eh–oh!”.

Still, the diversion was helpful because while I could name which particular actors, actresses and, in one case, cartoon character played the roles that Brian specified, I was intrigued to try and work out why those particular performances are ingrained in my consciousness. Born in the mid–1960s, the combination of television and film adaptations featuring these characters would probably have been seen from 1970 onwards. Of course that doesn’t mean they were all new releases.

Coping with the terrible hardship of only three television channels and no DVDs or even VHS, there were still releases at the cinema and dedicated film seasons on TV that helped up make do in the face of such terrible depravation. There’s no point trying to be too specific about when I saw them because no doubt that unreliable memories from nearly forty years back will be juggling up the exact times of when, let alone where, I saw these films and television. So cut me a little slack if I get some of the dates mixed up.

Frankenstein’s Monster for me is Boris Karloff in James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. That seems like a complete no–brainer. Except he’s not the first actor I saw playing the role, so I’m afraid I fail on that one. The very first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel I remember seeing is the US TV movie Frankenstein: The True Story, with Michael Sarrazin as “The Creature”. Though made in 1973, it didn’t turn up on the BBC until a couple of years after that simply because Tom Baker appeared in as the ship’s captain and he had already taken over from Jon Pertwee in Doctor Who by the time I saw it.

Maybe it was because for most of the time Sarrazin looked human until the process of reanimating the corpse began to reverse itself and he started to look the worse for wear. Either way the shocks and scares that stick in my mind include James Mason’s Dr. John Polidori pulling off his black glove to reveal his horribly scared claw of a hand and Jane Seymour’s head briefly rolling across the ballroom floor. Whale’s classic interpretation of the story must have come a little later and I have a vague recollection of BBC2 running a season of the classic Universal horror films that also included the likes of The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Lon Chaney, Jr in The Wolf Man and maybe even Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Tod Browning’s Dracula, starring Béla Lugosi, must have been part of the package although when I think of Count Dracula it’s Christopher Lee in the role that initially springs to mind. Why that is I don’t know because he first played the role before my time and I never saw any of his further performances at the cinema. In fact the first time I saw Christopher Lee on screen was as Count De Rochefort and then Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, and then as Fu Manchu in the Harry Alan Towers–produced series of films when they were broadcast on television, possibly in the late 1970s.

Having missed the BBC’s 1977 production of Dracula, starring Louis Jourdan and Frank Finlay as Van Helsing, and John Badham’s version with Frank Langella released at the end of the decade, maybe it wasn’t until the 1980s that I was properly introduced to the many screen incarnations of Bram Stoker’s creation. By the time Bram Stoker's Dracula rolled around in 1992, I remember sitting in the West End cinema making a note of all the little visual tricks Coppola had pinched from Murnau’s Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens and the like.

The third character on the list is an earlier one to answer. I haven’t seen 1940 film version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice starring Laurence Olivier as Fitzwilliam Darcy and missed the BBC’s 1980 version, adapted for television by Fay Weldon, so when it comes to Mr Darcy the first image that comes to mind is Colin Firth in the adaptation broadcast in the mid–1990s, putting me in the same camp as a lot of hot and bothered young women. Having watched The Camomile Lawn a few years earlier on Channel 4, I was obviously more interested in Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennet.

Though born just at the right time to see Oliver! when it was released in the late 1960s, the only musical I was ever taken to see as a nipper was The Sound of Music. So instead of Ron Moody, Fagin will always be Alec Guinness in David Lean’s classic version of Oliver Twist, no doubt seen on the BBC at some point although I don’t exactly know when. Once again, it may have been part of a film season because I have an inkling I first saw Great Expectations at around the same time. Although Pip’s encounter with Magwitch in the graveyard gave me the willies, Bill Sikes’ murder of Nancy, with the dog furiously scratching at the door, scared the bejesus out of me.

Lean had cast Robert Newton as Sikes and, probably like everyone else, it’s Newton who I picture as Long John Silver. Treasure Island was the proper book I read when I was four and remember reading it in my grandparent’s house and having to get my dad help me pronounce Hispaniola. Although there was a film version released in 1972 starring Orson Welles as Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous pirate – which would have been ideal timing for me – I wasn’t taken to see it because I must have already seen Disney’s classic adaptation from 1950 starring Robert Newton on television or watched a repeat run of The Adventures of Long John Silver.

So that just leaves Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Far too young to have seen the BBC television production directed by Jonathan Miller for The Wednesday Play and featuring Peter Cook as the Hatter and Alan Bennett as the Dormouse, the first screen adaptation I saw was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with Fiona Fullerton playing the titular character, Michael Jayston as Dodgson and Michael Crawford as the White Rabbit. Yet strangely any mention of Alice in Wonderland makes me think of the animated Disney film from 1951 and I’m not sure why?

It may be that the musical version was stuffed full of so many now–familiar actors and comedians playing Carroll’s wonderfully exotic creations that Fiona Fullerton’s performance got lost in the mix. Or it may be that with clips of the animated feature being shown on Disney Time in my youth, and that particular version of the book being the one I’ve watched since, somewhere in my head Marc Davis‘ character design, based on voice–artist Kathryn Beaumont, has usurped Fiona Fullerton in my imagination. Is that something I should worry about?

In the meantime, those are the faces that immediately spring to mind when I hear those half–dozen character names. Feel free to chip in with what’s in your head while I go and have a lie down.


At 12:19 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

For my parents, Tarzan was Johnny Weissmuller; for me it was Gordon Scott and I reckon I was lucky, because at least two of Scott's films I rate as head-and-shoulders above all others with the character, and TARZAN'S GREATEST ADVENTURE as a tense and brutal classic. Scott's first films in the role were dull American-shot fare but then Sy Weintraub turned to African locations and used a British crew to deliver a revitalized take on the character.

As a one-time ERB freak I've tracked down and seen plenty of other Tarzans -- including the silent guys Elmo Lincoln, Frank Merrill, James Pierce -- but Scott's the guy, and T'sGA is the movie. Apparently Scott spent the last years of his life attending conventions and living as the guest of a devoted fan and his wife.

And -- pace Laurence Payne, classy actor and fine crime writer that you were -- for me William Franklyn is the definitive Sexton Blake.

At 9:30 am, Blogger SharonM said...

I absolutely loved the Richard Lester's The Three (and Four) Musketeers, and haven't felt the desire to watch any other versions since - but I'd already seen the 1948 film, with Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, Gig Young and Robert Coote.
As for Pride & Prejudice, I thought Olivier was gorgeous as Darcy and couldn't be improved, but the Andrew Davies version and Colin Firth proved me wrong.

As far as Frankenstein is concerned, I was hooked on Christopher Lee for a while (he caught my eye as Scaramanga first). But by far the most powerful film for me was Frankenstein: The True Story.
I suppose Brian's thought about the iconic roles, might depend to some extent on how many versions there have been and also if filmmakers have been able to improve upon the original.

Of course it takes us on to a different discussion path, but in terms of remakes, why did they bother with The Wicker Man, The Poseidon Adventure and a host of others?

And as for the remade Edge of Darkness and plans to remake House of Cards and Tinker Tailor, I'd better not comment!

At 5:13 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


I was thinking of mentioning Tarzan but the only note I’d jotted down was: Johnny Weissmüller and Maureen O’Sullivan or Ron Ely first? and hadn’t much gone beyond that.

I suspect I must have seen the Gordon Scott movies because I would always notice if Tarzan wasn’t being played by either Weissmüller and Ely, but I couldn’t put a face to the name and still drew a mental blank when I did a picture search.

Typically Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure isn’t on DVD here and in the States it’s only available from our old friend the Warner Bros Archive Collection, which is a shame.

Ah, and I have to thank you again for directing me towards those Sexton Blake adventures starring William Franklyn last. Along with The Complete Smiley on Radio 4 – which is now into The Karla Trilogy and started up again yesterday with part one of The Honourable Schoolboy – they were great to sit back and listen to.


I thought Richard Lester (and George MacDonald Fraser) got the tone of comedy and swashbuckling action just right. I particularly love the sequence in the second film where, as a bet, they have breakfast in the abandoned fort during the siege of La Rochelle.

I must have seen Christopher Lee as Frankenstein’s monster at some point because I have an idea that I disappointed that he didn’t look like Karloff. Of course what I didn’t know then was that when Hammer bought the film rights from Universal Jack Pierce’s make–up design wasn’t part of the deal. But as I said, I have a complete blank as to when I saw any of the Hammer films.

With the BBC website promoting access to documents in their archive, I really wish schedules from the Radio Times were made available. In would help in the ongoing debate over the 1960s and 1970s being the “golden age” of television and I could see when it was I was first introduced to these characters and many others. Maybe I should pop down to the British Library’s newspaper/periodical library, which is probably only a mile of south from here, and put my mind at rest.

As for those pointless remakes, they just beggar belief. I noticed that Five is showing Neil LaBute’s version of The Wicker Man tonight. I’ll be giving it a miss. Having read the script for the Edge of Darkness movie, I’ll be giving that a miss as well. Why do they bother? When I was working with Dick Williams he would pay homage to classic sight gags but said he would only do them if he could improve upon them. Otherwise, there wasn’t any point.

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