THE LEACOCK LEGACY
At Left: Director Philip Leacock
on location. Above: A scene
from Leacock's most honored
film, "The Kidnappers" (1953),
released in America in 1954 as
"The Little Kidnappers," featuring
Vincent Winter, left, and Jon Whiteley.
Leacock's special gift
was directing children
By JIM BAWDEN
Watching an old movie on TV a few weeks ago was like revisiting an old friend from my childhood. It was the 1953 British film "The Little Kidnappers," which Id first seen at the age of eight at the local Odeon Danforth theatre in Toronto, Canada. I liked it so much I went again a week later to another childrens matinee, but I hadn't seen it since.
Then I noticed the directors name: Philip Leacock.
Id somehow forgotten Leacocks ability to direct children. "The Little Kidnappers" has two of the best performances ever given on screen by children. Both juvenile stars--Jon WhiteIey and Vincent Winter--had even won special Academy Awards in Hollywood at the 1954 Oscars. Then I remembered Id interviewed Leacock in 1987, but had never used the interview because my newspaper considered interviews with directors as somehow too "arty."
Now I'm happy to revive my notes and to present here what is now a rare interview with Leacock, who died in 1990, just two years after our interview.
Philip Leacock was born in 1917 in London, but grew up in the Canary islands. He spent World War II with the British Armys Kinematograph Service and after the war joined the Crown Film Unit. He became famous for his story documentaries which used real incidents supplemented by actors.
In 1952 Leacock made a strong documentary about a Scottish coal mining disaster titled "The Brave Dont Cry," which led to a contract with the J. Arthur Rank Organization.
Heres my talk with Leacock from July, 1987, when we met in an Italian restaurant right across the street from Warner Bros. studios, where Leacock was busy directing American television programs:
Q. How did you get to direct your first big feature, "Appointment in London" with Dirk Bogarde?
A: It turns out Rank had been watching me for some time and after the unexpected success of "The Brave Dont Cry," I was offered the thriller "Appointment In London" (1952). The idea was to use some terrific wartime footage of Britains Lancaster bombers and add them to newly shot scenes with the actors. And this is what Id been doing for some time. I was lucky Bogarde approved of me. He was that big at the time, at least in Britain. A more taciturn man I have never met but it made him a great film actor. Audiences felt they knew what he was thinking. Its all about Squadron Leader Bogarde trying to hold his boys together despite tremendous losses. Yes, it did resemble "Twelve OClock High" (1949) somewhat. But it packed them in and even got a U.S. release.
Q: That got you the film for which you are most remembered "The Little Kidnappers" (1953).
A: Called simply "The Kidnappers" in Britain. It was a story about nothing much really, but it had such simplicity. The problems started with our minuscule budget. It meant we could not shoot in Nova Scotia where the story actually happened. We substituted northern Scotland and nobody knew the difference. The idea was to get the two boys as used to each other as possible. Jon Whitely had already acted so he was fine but I couldnt find my Davy until I looked in at one school and saw this marvelous, fantastically extroverted seven-year-old Vincent Winter and he played himself. They simply kidnap a baby. Were never really told why and we watch as they try to cope along with their wonderful grandfather Duncan MacRae. It was a huge U.S. hit and the two boys got honorary little Oscars as child performers.
We then flash forward to 1985 when Im directing "Falcon Crest." A bearded, burly man, six feet, of huge girth approaches me and I instinctually turn away. But he grabs me and lifts me up and down all the while laughing. It was Vincent Winter, my little Davy quite grown up and still in the business as a production manager (Winter died of a heart attack in 1998 at age 50.)
...the Oscar-winning juvenile
from Leacock's "Little
Kidnappers" went on to
play other featured roles
as a youngster, but left
pictures in his adult years
and died at age 50 in 1998.
Q: Have you heard theyve sold it for an American TV movie remake by the Disney folks?
A: I tried to buy it but I hadnt enough money at hand. I hear they have cast Charlton Heston as the grandfather. I just dont know about that. ("The Little Kidnappers" remake, starring Heston as the grandfather, premiered on cable's The Disney Channel in 199*.)
Q. What was "Escapade" (1955) about? It had a great cast but Ive never caught it.
A: Well, it was the height of the blacklist scare and all of a sudden all this American talent appeared under new names. Our screenwriter Gilbert Holland was actually Donald Ogden Stewart! And the story was all about a pacifist (John Mills) getting so involved in his calling that he neglects his family. By the way it was a Cold War comedya real rarity--but the premise so shocked American distributors it was rarely seen over here. Oh, I had a wonderful cast with Andrew Ray as one of the sons and Yvonne Mitchell as the much put-upon wife and Alastair Sim stole all his scenes, naturally. In America it had this insidious reputation which was not deserved.
Q: You were back with Bogarde and Whitely in 1956s "The Spanish Gardener," which I have seen and liked.
A: They had already co-starred in "Hunted" (known in America as "Strangers In Between," 1952) so they knew each other and that contributed to the astonishing naturalness of their acting. But I gave Dirk bad advice at the first. I asked for a thick accent and he only wanted to try a very slight one. He was right and that accent disturbs me to this day. He was Jose, the estate gardener and Whitely was the neglected son of a British diplomat played just so by Michael Hordern. The boy so desperately needs friendship and then the man gets jailed for a crime he didnt deserve. I got this reputation for how I directed youngsters but the secret was to treat them with dignity and respect. If there was any subtext we didnt see it at the time.
Q: "Innocent Sinners" (1958) found you once again getting marvelous acting from a child.
A: It was based on a Rumer Godden story and was about the efforts of a 13-year old Cockney lass Lovejoy (played by June Archer) who lives with her guardians while her actress mother is away in the provinces. Lovejoy gets a packet of sunflower seeds and creates a bomb-site garden. Flora Robson was the terminally ill lady who helps her along. It was all character study, very down according to reviews. But we saw it as a character study and I wasnt expecting much business at the wickets.
Q: By that time you had moved to L.A. Explain please.
A: Everybody was doing it. The British industry was melting away. Alexander Mackendrick had moved over to direct "The Sweet Smell Of Success" (1957) to tremendous critical acclaim. And he kept talking me up to his employers, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. So I became a bit of a hot commodity because small pictures were then all the rage. But my first wasnt made for HHL but another United Artists producer, Harry Kleiner: "The Rabbit Trap" (1959) with Ernie Borgnine ("Marty," 1955), a nice man, very good at playing average Joes like this one. There was a cast of mainly TV veterans--Jeanette Nolan, Bethel Leslie, David Brian, even Don Rickles was in it and he was fine. But lightning did not strike twice. The film wasnt the kind of feel-good movie people wanted to see. It ran 76 minutes, just about the same length as when it was a live TV drama. I can remember its catchy ad line: This is a happy picture! Well, it was unhappy.
Q: Then came "Let No Man Write My Epitaph" (1960).
A: Directing "Rabbit Trap" had not exactly endeared me to HHL. So I was loaned out to Columbia, specifically Boris Kaplan Productions. The movie was based on a novel by black Chicago writer Willard Motley. It was a sequel to another of his novels made into a movie, 1949s "Knock On Any Door." Not that anybody remembered that film more than 10 years later. Ours was a film noir after that genre had supposedly disappeared, stark black and white and a pretty good cast: Shelley Winters, Burl Ives, Jean Seberg, Ricardo Montalban, Ella Fitzgerald. A dandy little picture but the public (was) no longer attending dandy little pictures. Shelley overacted all over the place. She just won a supporting Oscar and she was going to show the world it was not a fluke. Burl just grunted, whispered, stole every scene from her.
Q: Then came an Alan Ladd vehicle, "13 West Street." I saw it when it came out, the bottom of a double bill.
A: It was Laddie at the end of his tether. He was hard to photograph. His hands shook from drinking, read his lines in an odd monosyllabic way. Completely depressed. How to direct him? Didnt, just let him say his lines and get on with it. I remember a night shoot and were off to one side watching a stunt double race down a street to get the hoods. Suddenly the guy lost control and (the car) veered straight to us. Everybody ran. Everybody but Laddie who sat glassy eyed in his chair. I asked why he didnt run. He could have been killed. "Frankly, Phil," he said, "I just dont care at all, anymore.
Q: I really do like "The War Lover" (1962), a very good war movie.
A: Directing Steve McQueen before he became a super duper star was a treat. He took direction well and added his own charisma which contrasted with Bob Wagners more repressed way of looking at things. It was more character study than actioner and McQueen liked playing the anti-hero very much. The John Hershey novel got a Pulitzer, you know, and this Columbia release did very well at the box office. Yet, it was just about my final feature, Id already been dabbling in TV.
Q: How did that come about?
A: Well, Columbia bought up my contract and the bosses did not like to see their indentured laborers idle. It started in 1960 when I directed a few episodes of the new hit "Route 66" and I later became executive producer. At Columbia segregation ruled. If you worked for the TV subsidiary, Screen Gems, you had to eat in the separate Screen Gems cafeteria. But I never felt I was lowering myself, in fact I was in on something new and exciting.
On "Route 66" we were always on the road, it made for a host of difficulties in getting the film to the editor, for example. And the housing of the crew. In 1963 I directed one with Joan Crawford titled 'Same Picture, Different Frame.' She was difficult in terms of lighting, getting a good trailer etc. But once the lights were up shed do every scene on the first take, not all the guest stars were that accommodating. The star of the show, however, wasnt the guys, it wasnt the car, but Stirling Silliphant, the very accomplished and very nice writer.
Q: Through most of the Sixties you were a TV director for hire.
A: Did them all. Not a problem, Id worked just as fast in the documentary world. Some shows I liked doing include two stints on "The Defenders," two on "Rawhide," "Bonanza," "The Virginian," "Danger Man." I kept jumping from genre to genre.
Q: But you also functioned as executive producer on more than one hit series.
A: Its like being the executive head of a hotel. You must know a little bit about a lot of things. On TV the most important aspect is keeping the production on time. You have editors, sound, publicity all needing fodder. And you must keep that pace. In 1960 they were making around 30 hours a year of a hit series. It was deadly if you didnt know how to make it all work.
I first put that hat on for "Gunsmoke" (1964-66), wound up executive producing 53 hours in two years. Jim Arness was most cooperative as long as you didnt overwork him, humored him and provided fresh scripts every week. Of course, to keep going, he had but a few scenes some times. Other weeks hed be all over the place. When I got there they were toying with old movie names. Jean Arthur arrived for one, 13 years after she retired (with) "Shane"--and was a real pickle to motivate. She had to feed the ducks in the pond before shed report for acting scenes. Jean was treated regally and decided shed had so much fun shed return to acting full timeshe picked a dreadful sitcom which tanked. The cast liked Jean; she was so eccentric. But when Betty Hutton arrived it was total confusion. In 1969 I returned to "Gunsmoke" and directed 12 episodes over the next three years which was ever so peaceful after being executive producer.
Q: You also executive produced "The Wild, Wild West" (1965-66), "Cimarron Strip" (1967-68) and "Hawaii Five-0" (1975, 1976-77).
A: Not much fun on "The Wild, Wild West," where there was cast friction sometimes, plus the problem of mounting all those stunts and not going over budget. On "Hawaii Five-0." it was keeping a popular series on track and meeting the demands of the stars. I much rather preferred directing by then.
Q: In 1972 you switched to TV movies with three big titles: "When Michael Calls," "The Great Mans Whiskers" and "The Daughters Of Joshua Cabe."
A: I had the same amount of time as on a British movie: 21 days to get it all together. It always seemed impossible but great veterans got us through. On "Whiskers" I had Ann Sothern, Charles Lane, John Hillerman, Isabel Sanford. They just knew how to do a scene on one take. On "Daughters," Buddy Ebsen was on set and in makeup at 9 and hed work until dusk along with his buddies Jack Elam and Leif Erickson. It was the young ones who couldnt take such a schedule.
Q: Tell me about your last TV film "Three Sovereigns For Sarah" (1985).
A: Miss Vanessa Redgrave is something else again. Tough, resilient, durable I use these terms in a favorable context. We shot in the dead of winter. Those are real icicles on that formidable jaw of hers. The story is completely true, based on transcripts of the Salem Witch trials and how Sarah Cloyce (Redgrave) and her two sisters are accused and found guilty of witchcraft her two elder sisters are burned at the stake while Sarah serves a term in a small box without any heat in winter. Patrick McGoohan (from "Danger Man" days) was wonderful as the chief prosecutor and I got top value from Kim Hunter and Phyllis Thaxter, two great old pros. Playing the nephew was John Dukakis--yes, the Governors son, his last acting job.
Q: In 1974 you started directing "The Waltons" and wound up with 24 episodes over the next eight years. In 1981 you turned to "Dynasty." I remember when I met you on "Falcon Crest," I asked who was directing that day.
A: And I said, "Jane Wyman is." Which was always true. I got as close to her as anyone can get and I found a resilient survivor of the Hollywood wars. Jane turned this series into a hit, a remarkable fate considering she was at least 65 when the series started in 1981. Now contrast her with Joan Collins behavior on "Dynasty." Joan simply tried to go as far as she could, to test the barriers. Then everybody started behaving that way and it became very difficult.
...the "Falcon Crest" star
was an Oscar-winner who
knew the business inside
With Jane it was a question of kowtowing to somebody who knew the business inside out. Shed first produced "The Jane Wyman Show) aka "Fireside Theatre" (1955-58). On "Falcon Crest," she constantly demanded better production values. You know when Lorimar bought the MGM lot it was assumed the series would have to move to Metro but Jane said that studio had become too tacky and she kept the show on the Warners lot which was her home for so many decades anyway. Directing her is a challenge but not an impossibility. If I raced through a scene shed say, Who the hell do you think you are, Mike Curtiz? But she s very generous with the young talent, you know, its when somebody like Lana Turner arrives that shell rant about the international harlots.
Leacock talked to me in July, 1987, when he definitely felt out of the game at 70. Dogged by persistent ill health, including chronic asthma, he looked frail that day but it still was a shock to learn hed dropped dead on a London street in 1990, aged 73, the victim of a collapsed lung. Wed talked about getting together again but it never happened.
©2008 by Jim Bawden. This column first posted June 30, 2008.
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