KEEP COMING TO AMERICA!
"I found world
fame in America!"
"I became a big
name in America!"
"I staked a rich claim in America!"
"I was at the
top of my game
The invasion of Hollywood by British actors is a bonus
By CHUCK McFADDEN
Two hundred years ago, the British invaded America, burned down the White House and generally raised hell with the young country known as the United States of America.
They were finally defeated by Andy Jackson, winner of later fame on the $20 bill, at the Battle of New Orleans. (Elevate them guns a little lower, boys, Andy is said to have instructed his cannoneers).
A century or so later, the Brits invaded again. This time, the invasion was by invitation and its still under way. I refer to the army of British actors who came to the far shores of the colonies to seek their fortunes in the new motion picture industry. Its a phenomenon that has shaped the entertainment industry on both sides of the Atlantic well into our 21st Century.
British stage actors in the 1890s had begun to hear about some newfangled thing called motion pictures. The idea was that you acted--if thats what you could call it, sniffed these stage actors--before a camera, and then the photographs were arranged in some fashion so that a person could peer into the peephole of a machine and watch you.
Indeed. "Might provide a little bit of extra income, but dont tell
anyone that Clive and I are doing it, darling."
Then, as the 20th Century came along, this business of photographed plays became, rather rapidly, an industry. And there was some real money to be made, old chap, even if one had to cross the Atlantic and then a whole bloody continent to get to where these things were being made.
And on they came to this exotic place called Hollywood. Motion pictures were manufactured there on a grand scale. Charlie Chaplin arrived in 1910, describing Los Angeles as an ugly city, hot and oppressive," and by 1916 had signed a contract worth a warm $670,000 a year. Hundreds of people were employed to appear on the screen as featured players or extras, and thousands more were working as set builders, makeup artists, cameramen, painters and publicists.
Charlie was to spend the next 40 years in Hollywood; his friend Stan Laurel spent 50 years there. Both were propelled to worldwide fame by the power of those black-and-white projected images created in southern California.
Chaplin and Laurel were first-rank entertainers. But they were only two among many: Ray Milland, Ida Lupino, Claude Rains, Cedric Hardwicke, Merle Oberon, Charles Laughton and Herbert Marshall, to name only a few, made their way across the pond during the first half of the 20th Century to find fortune under the palm trees.
And it wasnt just actors. P. G. Wodehouse came to Hollywood twice in the 30s with the idea that he would write screenplays. He was bewildered by the way the studios did things, and wrote uproarious magazine articles about receiving huge amounts of money for doing essentially very little, in fact, just about nothing.
In an article quoted in Sheridan Morleys "The Brits in Hollywood", Wodehouse told the world what it was like:
"In every studio in Hollywood, there are rows and rows of hutches, each containing an author on long contract at a weekly salary, P. G. wrote. You see their anxious little faces pressing through the bars. You hear them whining piteously to be taken for a walk.
Hollywood did take a little getting used to. There was the eternal sunshine, for one thing. And then the studio bosses had a habit of changing the concept of a picture repeatedly--a domestic drama might be changed abruptly into a spy thriller and end up as a musical comedy, all with the same cast of actors. And it wasnt a place for serious work. Films were made out of sequence; techniques were far different -what was a grand gesture that thrilled them in the back rows of West End theatres looked ridiculous magnified on the screen.
But there were other advantages besides the money. A third-rate actor in London could scrape up the money, make his way to California, appear in gradually more important roles in talent-hungry Hollywood, and go back to London to be lionized by audiences who loved those American films.
During the 20s, the British tended to look down on movies as a second-rate art form, and the Americans tended to look down on the British because they seemed incapable of producing movies that anyone wanted to see.
The heyday of British actors in American studios came in the 20s and the 30s, when for a while being British was all the thing. The British got a big break after the arrival of sound in 1927 boosted British fortunes immensely. Hollywood was casting about desperately for actors who had resonant voices and could deliver dialog convincingly. They came to the new sound stages from Broadway and the West End.
Among them were David Niven and Ronald Colman, both terribly good looking and debonair, with the ability to deliver lines convincingly.
Niven abandoned his burgeoning Hollywood career to return to England and re-enlist in the British Army during World War II. He did some public relations work, served for a while as a liaison officer, made some movie appearances and, seeking action, landed on the Normandy beaches shortly after the initial invasion.
Niven liked to tell the story of a conversation he had with Winston Churchill. What you did for your country was a truly marvelous thing, Sir Winston told him. Mind you, if you hadnt done so, it would have been despicable.
Niven did return to Hollywood, picked up his abandoned career, and went on to even greater successes. His friend Errol Flynn, born in Tasmania, had no such patriotic leanings about the British Commonwealth. He stayed in Hollywood and played heroes in war pictures.
You can always count on Errol to let you down, Niven observed. Niven never seemed to be terribly critical of Flynn, but he had unbounded contempt for James Mason, another Brit who did not return to England to serve king and country.
Today, the invasion continues, but with a twist. Instead of bringing class to Hollywood with their plummy southern England accents, British actors are landing roles as Americans.
Vivian Leigh was a pioneer, playing southern women in Gone With the Wind andA Streetcar Named Desire. More recently, we had Damien Lewis leading a company of American actors in HBOs Band of Brothers; Hugh Laurie as the doctor with the worlds worst bedside manner in House and Dominic West as the Baltimore detective in The Wire. In each case, it is impossible for the viewer to tell that these are actors with a natural British accent who are imposing upon themselves an artificial
The second invasion has been a good thing all round. For 100 years, American audiences have had the benefit of some of the worlds greatest actors, and the actors have had their wallets benefitted from lots of American dollars. Three cheers for the Stars and Stripes. Pass the Yorkshire pudding.
©2012 by Charles M. McFadden. The McFadden caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The photos of Charles Chaplin and Stan Laurel are courtesy of Wikipedia. The photo of Ray Milland is courtesy of Film Bug.com;. The photo of David Niven is couortesy of the Internet Movie Data Base. This column first posted Aug. 20, 2012.
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