Back in the 1960’s I was a big fan of the Apollo moon missions and on UK TV one of the presenters was James Burke. Burke also did a TV show called Connections. It was a really fascinating series which connected various historical events to make a sort of chain which led up to something which was pretty unexpected. The episode that stands out in my memory was one about the atom bomb, various unconnected events and discoveries that together, led to the splitting of the atom. In today’s post, I’ve tried to do something similar but all relating to the world of film, so here are five fascinating connections.
Rebecca is actually my favourite film from director Alfred Hitchcock. It was released in 1940 and was Hitchcock’s first American film. It is based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier. The film stars Laurence Olivier as the aristocratic widower Maxim De Winter and Joan Fontaine as the shy young woman who becomes his second wife. The two meet in the south of France when De Winter is on the verge of jumping off a cliff top only to be interrupted by the shy young woman. The woman is never named in the film except for later when she becomes Mrs De Winter. This new or second Mrs De Winter seems to be living her life in the shadow of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife. Later we find that Maxim murdered her after finding out that she was having an affair with Jack Favell played by the smooth and suave George Sanders.
I have to say I have always loved this film, the ruthlessly charming George Sanders, the gorgeous Joan Fontaine and the scary Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper dedicated to the dead Rebecca played by Judith Anderson. Joan Fontaine has never looked lovelier and the only blot on the film landscape are the rather poor models used to represent Manderley, the ancestral home of the De Winter family.
Joan Fontaine was actually the sister of Olivia De Havilland and the two seemed to have had a rather strained relationship. Olivia starred with Errol Flynn in the magnificent Robin Hood but is probably best remembered for her role in Gone With The Wind.
Gone With The Wind 1939
Gone With The Wind was actually being made at the same time as Rebecca and Hitchcock and producer David O Selznick, who produced both films, had numerous fallings out over Rebecca and Hitchcock was apparently happy that Selznick was preoccupied with GWTW which kept him away from the production of Rebecca. Selznick later made many edits and revisions to Rebecca which didn’t go down well with Hitchcock.
Gone With The Wind starred Clark Gable and much was made of a nationwide hunt for an actress to play Scarlett O’Hara. The eventual winner was Vivien Leigh. Olivia De Havilland played Melanie who marries Ashley Wilkes played by Leslie Howard.
The film is set in the American south at the time of the American Civil War and its aftermath. Scarlett O’Hara is the daughter of a plantation owner and she has the hots for neighbour Ashley Wilkes. Wilkes marries Melanie but Scarlett is unable to give up on her romantic feelings for Ashley even when she marries the roguish Rhett Butler.
Gone With the Wind is an epic film in every sense of the word and follows the fortunes of Scarlett and her family through the devastation of the civil war and into the reconstruction era afterwards.
Leslie Howard captures perfectly the slightly wimpy Ashley. Howard was not happy in Hollywood and returned to England after the filming to help with Britain’s war effort. He was a star of many English feature films but was sadly killed when flying back to England after a visit to Portugal where he was promoting the British war effort. Some have suggested that the Luftwaffe shot down Howard’s aircraft as the Germans believed the Prime Minister was on board. Others have speculated that Howard himself was the target as he had angered the Germans with his efforts to promote the British cause as well as the success of his film The First of The Few about the designer of the Spitfire aircraft.
The First of The Few 1942
David Niven plays the part of Squadron Leader Geoffrey Crisp and he tells his pilots of how his friend RJ Mitchell designed the Spitfire. He tells how Mitchell observed seagulls through his binoculars and envisaged a new high speed era of fighter aircraft. After entering an aircraft in the Schneider Trophy, Mitchell convinces Rolls Royce to design a new and powerful engine for the new breed of aircraft and eventually, the Spitfire is born. Leslie Howard played the part of Mitchell as well as producing and directing the film.
Casino Royale 1967
David Niven had left Hollywood in 1939 and returned to the UK in order to re-join the army and fight against the Nazi menace. As well as his army duties, Niven was released from time to time to appear in a few propaganda films, one of which was The First of The Few. He was attached to a commando unit named Phantom whose job was to find out enemy positions and report back to British commanders. After the war he resumed his film career starring in a British film A Matter of Life and Death which was chosen for the very first Royal Film Performance. Niven returned to Hollywood only to encounter terrible tragedy when his wife, whom he had met and married in England, fell down the steps into a cellar when the two were playing hide and seek at a Hollywood party. Niven must have been devastated but he carried on and later remarried.
In 1967 he appeared as James Bond in the Bond spoof Casino Royale. Ian Fleming, the author of the famous James Bond series, had sold the film rights to Casino Royale separately to the rest of the Bond books and producer Charles Feldman acquired them, hoping to do a deal with Eon productions who were producing the mainstream Bond series. When negotiations failed, Feldman who had recently had a big hit with the oddball comedy What’s New Pussycat, resolved to make a James Bond comedy satire and recruited Niven to star as Bond.
The film turned out to be a critical disaster. Two of the other stars in the film were Peter Sellers and Orson Welles. Peter played the part of a card playing expert and Welles was the villain, Le Chiffre, a spy who has spent a great deal of money that wasn’t his and intends to win it back in the casino. All went well during the filming but then Sellers approached the director Joe McGrath and demanded that he and Welles should not appear in the same shot. McGrath replied that the film was in widescreen and this could not be done. Sellers then threw a punch at McGrath and a fight ensued until they were split up by a stuntman. Sellers asked for a break but then disappeared from the set which might be why his character disappears abruptly from the film. Ultimately five directors and as many screenwriters contributed to the film.
As I mentioned earlier, Niven plays Bond in Casino Royale and interestingly, Ian Fleming had wanted Niven to play Bond in Doctor No, the first in the 007 films.
Another actor approached to play the part of Bond was Cary Grant. Grant was urbane and cultured and also British. He was in many ways perfect for the part of Bond. He was also close to producer Cubby Broccoli and in fact was Broccoli’s best man at his 1959 wedding. Grant was interested in playing the part but stipulated that he would only play the role once and wasn’t willing to do a series of films.
North By Northwest
Cary Grant appeared in numerous adventure films with an espionage background, in particular North By Northwest. Grant plays advertising executive Roger Thornhill who calls over a waiter in a New York hotel bar. The waiter was paging a George Kaplan and when Grant calls the waiter over, two thugs nearby assume Thornhill is really Kaplan. It turns out that Kaplan is a fake identity, created by American Intelligence agents to trap a spy played by James Mason. The film is an exciting cold war thriller and was directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock, who directed Rebecca, bringing our connections full circle.