THE SCENE WAS a street in Oxford back in the winter of 1919. The huge cast of the Dramatic Society performance of Thomas Hardy's The Dynasts was assembling for a photograph. Down the street came trotting a cavalcade of hired horses bearing Napoleon and his marshals in resplendent uniforms with cocked hat and feathers, followed by Wellington and his generals and then Blucher and his Prussians. A goodly sight, much appreciated by the town boys on the sidewalk.
All these undergraduates had only the year before come out of the Flanders trenches and were now embarking on government-shortened courses at the universities. Very few were straight from school. I was one of the few. Dressed, myself, in the uniform of an aide-de-camp to Wellington, I was gazing up in wonder and admiration at Marshal Ney, who was endeavoring to prevent his horse from kicking Napoleon off his. Ney's hat was on the back of his head, his golden epaulets were bouncing up and down like terrified canaries and he was roaring out, in stentorian tones and Canadian accent, swear words worthy of any Northwest Mountie.
His mouth was wide open and his large brown eyes flashed fire. It was a face which, once seen, could be recognized a mile off. And so it was, later, across the whole English-speaking world...for Marshal Ney was to be transmorgrified into the person of Abraham Lincoln. Ney was Raymond Massey.
I was to meet him again in 1935 on the great set which Alex Korda had built for the bombed Everyman Town in the film Things To Come. I was playing the browbeaten old scientist, Dr. Harding. Massey had arrived costumed like a tall black beetle with a glass top. He loomed up from the cockpit of a futuristic black monoplane to confront the demented leader, Ralph Richardson, who was camping about in a colossal fur-lined cloak and tin hat with egret plume, looking and sounding like an infuriated Caruso. I felt more sorry for Raymond than for myself. I was only 34, condemned to wear a grey beard and whitened hair, but he would have to stay looking like a grotesque cockroach for the rest of the summer's filming. We all envied Ralph his freedom to swish and swirl himself into a frenzy; it was the only touch of glamor on the set.
The dominant personage on the set, day after day, was not the director, William Cameron Menzies, nor even the great Korda whose Rolls occasionally galumphed across the cratered fields of the derelict city; it was H. G. Wells himself. All kowtowed to H. G. He was God. But you cannot have two gods on one set: Raymond was displeased, and he tells just what he thought of H. G.'s "fingering" girls' clothes and preaching old-fashioned socialism.
Most of his book, however, is devoted to the theater rather than to the cinema: Massey is and was a distinguished actor and stage director, and he tells us all about it. There are lavish illustrations of actors and actresses; gossip and great names are not just dropped but positively flung at us. Naturally, there is plenty of dialogue from the past; actors, after all, are trained to remember lines. And there is the popular technique (introduced, I believe, by Noel Coward in his memoirs) of recording telephone calls and telegrams in a riveting style. Thus, for example, Massey was standing in the foyer of some hotel when the bellhop handed him a telegram. Breathless, we are allowed to read it: "WILL YOU CONSIDER PLAYING TITLE ROLE LONDON PRODUCTION TOPAZE COSTARRING WITH DELYSIA, PLEASE PHONE EARLIEST POSSIBLE ANGUS MACLEOD. DANIEL MAYER COMPANY." That was in 1930. The laconic suspense of this could not be bettered by Mickey Spillane.
The person who seems to have made the most impact on Massey was the English actor of the '20s, Gerald du Maurier. In the Edwardian theater, all had been decorous and very stiff. Sir Gerald broke with it and invented the school of "naturalistic" acting. He played parts like Bulldog Drummond and Raffles, the "gentleman cracksman," who, besides robbing fat dowagers of their jewels, played cricket for England. When Sir Gerald wiped his mouth on the back of his hand before kissing the girl at the final curtain, it not only thre the women into a swoon but was considered a giant stride forward in the theater. (After him came Noel Coward scything all previous stars off center stage like an electric lawn motor.)
Remembering Sir Gerald's naturalism, Massey rages at James Dean and his Method hijinks on the set of East of Eden. Playing the role of Dean's father, Raymond became angry when Dean held up the shooting in order to work himself up into a motivation for each shot. Dean got his lines and cues wrong, did not stand where he had been told, was in general quite maddening. When Dean had tothrow blocks of ice down a ramp in his fury, he kept everyone waiting whilst he worked up a maelstrom of blind hate against those bloody blocks of ice and then hurled himself upon them like an infuriated Jupiter. Massey thought all this the affected antics of a spoiled brat misuising the old "naturalism" of du Maurier. He had no conception of the revolutionary gulf between the tricks of du Maurier (by now old and creaky and on film very artificial) and the Stanislavsky teachings.
What baffles me most about this book is its almost total exclusion of the events of the outer world. Not a word about the outbreak of war, the fall of France or the Battle of Britain. At last, on page 273, we read: "In the summer of 1941 I was working on my first picture under the Warner contract. I was miscast, the script was dreary, the war news awful...." One is inclined to ask, what war? His second mention of the world events comes on the next page: "Pearl Harbor stunned me..." While France was falling and the bombing of London beginning, he writes "At this time in 1940 all the big studios were paying homage to the railroads by working the story of their early days into what were really Big Westerns...." He acts in the film The Invaders and wonders "just how effective a propaganda weapon [it was]...The attack on Pearl Harbor had already involved the United States in the war by the time the picture was released."
That is about all. One wonders what is an artist for? If he turns the rest of the world into a sort of backdrop, what is he interpreting? One hears on all sides that show biz is merely a business like any other and acting a trade, a profession. It is not "done" to speak of it as Art. I wonder what Hsakespeare would have said to that!
The actor's art is a vocation, plying the imagination, which has lifted mankind above itself. Shakespeare once succinctly defined it in Hamlet's advice to the players to "hold themirror up to Nature." Today the actors hold themselves up to the mirror. CAPTION: Picture 1, Raymond Massey as John Brown; Picture 2, with Adrianne Allen in "Never Come Back" (1932); Picture 3, Maurice Braddell and Massey (right) in "Things to Come"