Posts Tagged ‘Robert Donat’

There’s an old piece of film that I have often seen in snippets, usually in a montage about the earliest days of film in the late 1890’s.  It’s a short film of a dancer with swathes of fabric twirling, very modern dance-ish in style, and as she spins the fabric changes color.  It’s a pretty mesmerizing piece of fim, even more so given the infancy of the medium of the time.

Doing a little research I found that this was filmed by the French film pioneers, the Lumiere Brothers, in 1896.  Each film cell is handpainted to achieve the color effects.  The dancer in the film is Loie Fuller, an American-born pioneer of modern dance who was the toast of Paris in the 1890’s, starring often at the Folies-Bergere

I find this film quite enchanting which is pretty amazing considering how many different  moving images, how much computer generated animation and other advances in film-making I, like most people, have witnessed in this time, over 110 years in the future.  Can you imagine how mind-blowing this must have seemed to the average person of the day?

This point is well illustrated in the movie, The Magic Box, a 1951 film in which Robert Donat portrayed British inventor, William Friese-Greene, who had invented and patented the motion picture camera a year before Edison but never received any credit and died in virtual anonymity.  In the film, when he finally is able to fully demonstrate the motion picture with his invention he is alone in his lab, late at night.  He is frantic with excitement and runs out into the London streets to let the world know of his triumph.  The only person he encounters is a London police officer, played by Laurence Olivier.  The bobby suspiciously goes along with Friese-Greene thinking he has a psychotic on his hands.  He hesitantly agrees to look at Friese-Greene’s demonstration and when the film rolls and the images of the London citizens strolling in Hyde Park appear, he is frozen with amazement.  It is as though he is looking on a true miracle.  And perhaps he was– the miracle of invention.

Anyway, take a look to see a beginning point and realize how far we have come…

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Tomkinsons SchooldaysA few weeks back I came across the old film, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the one from 1939 with Robert Donat, not the later awful musical version with Peter O’Toole.  It’s a very sweet chronicle of a schoolmaster’s life at a British upper crust boarding school, the type of film that would never be made today.  Watching it, however, reminded me of another such story.

In the 1970’s Michael Palin, in his post-Monty Python days, did a short series for the BBC that consisted of half hour episodes, each a different story with him as the main character in each.  It was called Ripping Yarns.  Seeing Mr. Chips reminded of one such episode called Tomkinson’s Schooldays which tells of a young student’s trials and tribulations in such a school.  

I remember seeing it 30 years ago or so and laughing very hard and still use references from it.  I have been wanting to revisit it all these many years and I always look for it but it never seems to resurface.  But of course, I hadn’t checked Youtube.  With a few clicks, there it was, in several parts.  

It was as funny as I remembered.  Here is the first part of Tomkinson’s Schooldays and for those of you who enjoy Python-like humor, you can see the rest on Youtube. 

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The 39 Steps posterAt least once a year, usually more, I watch Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps in the studio.  It’s one of his early films and has  a very dark look to it, pretty grainy which might turn off some who don’t appreciate the unique qualities of black and white films.  Like most Hitchcock films it’s suspenseful but with comic touches and moves along quickly as we follow the hero, played by Robert Donat, who is wrongly accused of the murder of a mysterious woman and pursued across Britain as he tries to find the real killers.  It serves as a loose framework for his later and better known North By Northwest, featuring the iconic scene with Cary Grant being chased down a prairie road by a plane.  It’s good fun and a great film  that I recommend highly, especially if you have any fondness for Hitchcock and his genre, which I certainly do.

 Robert DonatThe reason I mention this film is actually to mention Robert Donat, the star of the film.  He is probably totally unknown to most movie fans today which is tragic.  He was one of the most popular British actors of his time and died in the 1950’s at age 51 from asthmatic complications. He is probably for his portrayal of Mr. Chips in Goodbye Mr. Chips in 1939 for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor, beating out Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind, Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights.  Pretty stiff competition.  

I have to admit that I didn’t know a lot about Donat but over the years, as I continue to come across his films, I have come to really appreciate the greatness of his talent for communicating his roles on the film.  He had a very malleable look that could be very soft and foppish or could come across as strong and dashing.  He could play both poor or aristocratic characters with ease and gave all a great a depth.  I hope that more fans of movies will rediscover this now somewhat forgotten actor.  

 There are a lot of great actors out there who are very much like Donat in that they,too, are little remembered.  One of my favorites is Joseph Cotten who starred in scores of great movies like Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Third Man and Niagara just to scratch the surface.  He was always exceptional but, unfortunately, remains relatively unknown today.  But to those who have found him and Donat and many others, they remain huge talents whose body of work lives on today.  

They’re out there waiting to be found…

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