Thursday, March 22, 2012

Celia Johnson: Acting in a Little Cut-Off Bit of Light

Next week, on March 27, the Criterion Collection releases David Lean Directs Noël Coward, one of their lavish boxed sets. It includes In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit. And the Siren is most pleased to announce that it will include an essay from her about This Happy Breed, the second film that Lean and Coward did together, and Lean's first in color. Brief Encounter is the acknowledged jewel of the set, but after watching, rewatching, living and breathing This Happy Breed for the weeks it took her to write the essay, the Siren stoutly maintains it's a close second. Restored to its full glory by the British Film Institute, the movie is simply dazzling. On the release date, the Siren's essay will go live on the Criterion site, and she'll post a small excerpt and link then, and explain why she thinks This Happy Breed deserves a much higher reputation.

For her research the Siren bought a biography of This Happy Breed's female lead Celia Johnson, written by Johnson's daughter, Kate Fleming. Johnson was married to Peter Fleming, an explorer and writer who was also the brother of Ian Fleming. Their marriage lasted from 1936 to 1971, when Fleming died of a heart attack while on a hunting trip to Scotland. Together they had three children, and the book chronicles Johnson's professional life as well as her efforts to maintain a household with a husband who was frequently absent. (The Siren doesn't know whether it was ever even published here--she had to order hers from a bookstore in the U.K. via ABEbooks, where it can be had quite cheaply.)

The biography has sneakily become one of the Siren's favorites. There's Fleming's attitude toward her mother: love and gratitude. That's it. No grim secrets. No "how I overcame the staggering burden of having a star for a mother." Johnson certainly doesn't come across as a saint, but Fleming believes her mother was a remarkable woman. Fancy that.

The larger reason is that the Siren grew to love Johnson. Fleming quotes her mother's witty, intelligent, loving letters throughout, many of them written to Peter as he journeyed anywhere, everywhere. She tells Peter she wants to get on a boat and cross the seas to get to him: "There I would say 'Where please is Peter Fleming?' They would tell me without hesitation and I should walk rapidly inland avoiding all bandits and fall into your arms."

Johnson never considered herself a beauty of any sort (although the photo above, taken in 1933, offers its own disagreement) and one small subtheme of the letters concerns how lousy she always thinks she looks on camera. She moans over that, but her household burdens merit less complaint. And Johnson had plenty to complain about, had she chosen to do so. She and Fleming bought a house well outside London that required much more commuting time and upkeep than was strictly practical for a working actress. During World War II, including during the filming of This Happy Breed, the Fleming menage swelled to include her widowed sister, her sister-in-law and a total of seven small children, hers and theirs, the men all off at war. The Siren read accounts of Johnson's determination to make her train home without fail, gas for a car being out of the question--and doesn't blame her a bit.

She was a marvelous actress, of course, and that's enough. But how wonderful to open this book and find out, shoot, the woman was a riot. Here she is on holiday in Majorca, mentioning to an American tourist that she had just been working in New York. The American remarks:

'Oh I saw [Raymond] Massey's Hamlet on the first night and couldn't stand the Ophelia--who was that?' In a still small voice I said 'Well that was me'--and [he] spent the rest of lunch apologising and explaining it away, and me by saying how right he was about it over and over again. He has avoided me frantically ever since, smiling nervously when he sees me and immediately starting to talk very hard to someone else.

Johnson's filmography is short, shorter than it could have been, though it includes the indelible Brief Encounter and fine late-career work in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and the television drama Staying On. And while she was primarily a theater actress, her list of credits there isn't large, either. She simply didn't pursue or accept roles that would interfere too much with her family. Like most great talents, though, the acting still mattered. It mattered a lot. So the Siren closes with this from Johnson, a piece called "Film Star Manqué" that she wrote in the 1950s and sent to a literary agent, but never published. Johnson's mind never switched off; she saw a great deal more on a set than her own scenes. She starts with a hilarious story about a director who introduces her at a film festival, and she wonders why his speech (in German) is taking so long, until she floats onstage, he thrusts some flowers at her and whispers, "That was a near thing…I had to spin out my speech for ages because I simply couldn't think of your name."

The passage that follows will remain one of the loveliest things the Siren has ever read about film acting.

…Sometimes I get a sort of nostalgia for the actual work of filming. I miss the strange, unmistakeable smell of size and paint that you find on all film sets and the hot powdery smell of the makeup rooms. I miss the curious sort of camera worship that goes on. It has its own devoted band of acolytes who feed it and polish it and push it gently about and shield it from harsh lights. They even fling blondes in front of it like tributes to a savage god. There is an an organised confusion on a film set when nothing seems to happen for hours and then everything goes quiet for a seconds, and in those few seconds you have to try and fit something consistent and true on to something that you probably did days before or have not yet done. There is a challenge in trying to act in a little cut-off bit of light, with no audience but the technicians and a fastidious director. Those technicians not concerned with the take are probably filling in their football pools and if you can make them look up and watch to the end of your shot you have probably achieved something.

I like the dedication that great directors have, when nothing matters except the film they are making and they cannot think that anything matters to anyone else either. I like being measured for focus by a tape from the end of one's nose to the camera and measured for light by the camera-man with his meter and I like to watch the skill of the technicians and I forget all the things I don't like. There were many. Mainly the waiting about, particularly on those depressing days when one had an early call, and that means dawn rising, and then, because of some hold-up, not be needed on the set until dusk. Rushes I never liked. That is when you see the shots of the day before and are horrified at your lack of subtlety or the size of your nose.

I used to be annoyed by what I thought was the waste, but at the same time impressed by the lordly way in which anything--however peculiar, rare or costly--could be produced at a moment's notice. I liked the machine that can make cobwebs, delicate threads of a rubbery solution shot from a spray in a twinkling and the detailed observation shown by the continuity girls, who can tell you the length of ash on your cigarette necessary to match for a close-up. I have always liked professionals and to watch professional film-making from the inside is a pleasure, though not, I think, from the outside, and I am glad that for a while I was able to do this. I never felt anything but surprise at being there, but I also think and hope that I became a professional at it on the set, though never on parade.


  1. Congrats on the Criterion essay. Count me among the millions who love Ms. Johnson in BRIEF ENCOUNTER. I was just reading Mitchell Zuckoff's oral biography of Robert Altman, and in it Altman talks about how BRIEF ENCOUNTER was the first movie that made him realize what film could do, and how he admired Celia Johnson in it. I don't have it with me, but he says something like, "she's not beautiful, she's wearing these sensible shoes, and I'm in love wih her."

  2. Blogger made me enter the characters "edtom" to prove I wasn't a robot. Is it suggesting we talk about "No Country for Old Men" instead?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I love Johnson, Brief Encounter and This Happy Breed. I also love Robert Newton, for what it's worth.

    Above all I'm thrilled that Criterion is using your essay as well they should for any classic film they release. You inspire us all.

  5. As usual, this post makes me want to go off and watch tons of films, not least This Happy Breed, which I have caught briefly on TV a couple of times but never stuck with. I'm also very interested in the combination of Johnson, Guinness and De Carlo in The Captain's Paradise. On the other hand I'm in no great hurry to revisit Brief Encounter yet again, especially as I know a pair of voice coaches whose idea of a good time is to rattle off vast chunks of the film in authentic Johnsonese.

    I seem to recall that Johnson made a particularly fine Countess (admittedly a plum part) in the 1981 version of All's Well that Ends Well for the BBC. Your post does make her sound rather marvellous as a person - modest, funny, smart - though I wonder if that's just a generational thing. (My late grandmother, four years Johnson's junior and from a similar background, was cut from much the same cloth.)

  6. (I won’t congratulate you, chère Madame; rather congratulate the folks at Criterion for their good fortune and the wisdom of their choice.)

    “I miss the strange, unmistakeable smell of size…” sounds intriguingly poetic until a Brit lout like me points out FYI that “size” in UK construction means a spackling-type undercoat.

    Not beautiful? Not beautiful??

  7. The Siren and Criterion, a match made in movie heaven. Much like Ms. Johnson and Mr. Newton in "This Happy Breed".

  8. Yes, Siren, your writing and your tips meet the criterion of value. Memory tells me that when Johnson first appeared in Jean Brodie, the entire audience gasped at the transformation. Few had seen anything of her since Brief Encounter. This has to be a false memory. In reality I suppose few in the audience would have known or cared about the earlier film. Probably only I gasped. But as the photo demonstrates, she did have a unique beauty in late years.

  9. I love her description of filmmaking. Lovely post.

  10. I saw THIS HAPPY BREED a while back, and liked it, as I've liked anything I've seen that has Noel Coward's name on it. It's odd that he's remembered mostly these days as a humorist, as such dramas as BREED, IN WHICH WE SERVE (one of the greatest war movies ever) and BRIEF ENCOUNTER were, in my opinion, excellent. He's also remembered for being a bit of a snob, but the working-class in BREED is treated with sensitivity. Rightly so, as that was from whence he came. As for David Lean, I prefer his more modest films of the '40s to his '60s behemoths. Sorry, but I can only stare at a sand dune for so long. Finally Celia Johnson. Who couldn't fall in love with those sad eyes of hers in BRIEF ENCOUNTER?

  11. Noel Coward was most certainly not a snob. I don't know who remembers him that way, but either they haven't seen or read his work, or had no idea what was in front of them. Again, Coward was not an every man, but a snob by definition is someone who apes his betters. Not Noel Coward.

  12. Coward a snob? Is it impertinent to ask whether he had any friends who weren't famous?

  13. Thanks, Yojimboen, for the picture of the mature Celia Johnson showing the beauty of a well-lived visage. Some women get more beautiful as they age with a loveliness that blows the dewy freshness and firm faces of the latest glamour girls out like a candle.

  14. Thank you for including CJ's evocation of a movie set. I sent your post to my son, who endured a childhood of TCM at my hands, against his will, and is now a film major at Emerson College. Someday, Siren, he will understand what we do.

    Your blog is a treasure. I second Yojimboen in his congratulations to Criterion for their excellent judgment.

  15. Yes, but Johnson was also lovely in youth and middle age. If only she didn't favor those efficient hairdos. A shame that Brief Encounter, being English, didn't allow her a Dorothy Maguire moment.

  16. Crikes. I meant Dorothy Malone/The Big Sleep. I would also like to see Kathleen Byron's hair liberated in The Small Back Room.

  17. Third attempt with iffy link.
    (pls erase the first two?)

    Sorry X, semi-liberated is the best I can do this time of night:

    CJ and KB

  18. Thanks Y. Is that Sister Ruth? If so what's she doing in (old) Penn Station? Not that she wouldn't be welcome hereabouts. Or is it the Bibliotheque Nationale?

    I do wish there had been something like the Beveridge Report for ladies' hair after the war. These photos could have provided vital information.

  19. Dear Self-Styled Siren,

    I bask in your divine command of words and images-thank you for being the best, most intelligent and purely unadulteratedly, if that is a word- fun blog ever!

    You are a treasure trove of delicious insight and a true goddess of phraseology-I mean, "Joan Crawford's " Harriet Craig", an iceberg prowling around looking to sink a liner", or close to it, had me seeing double through tears and spasms of laughter.

    In short, I am just a slave for, no not VIP, but your marvelous blog.

    Please, visit my nutty blog, the joan crawford deluxe suite,if you ever want to give that wonderful mind of yours permission to trip, on my goofy glamor site, or is it "cite"?

    Hands down the, you have the best blog writing about classic films I have ever read!

    Ricky aka. Toby @ the joan crawford deluxe suite

  20. So interesting. Love the description of being on set.

  21. I'm with Joe on this. Brief Encounter is one of the finest films ever made, and deserves all the praise given to it over the years. What I admire most is the sincerity with which Johnson plays Laura. She was a marvellous performer.


  22. Rachmaninoff 2nd is more than apt.