Film-maker Charles Crichton (1910–99) has a body of work that can be read as a microcosm of the British film industry across six tumultuous decades. He began his career in the thirties as an editor at Korda’s Denham Studios and ended it in the late eighties when, aged seventy-seven, he directed the blockbuster Oscar-winning comedy A Fish Called Wanda. But his reputation rests on the films he helped created for Ealing Studios in the forties and fifties, where he was a principal architect of such popular and acclaimed comedies as Hue and Cry, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt. As this first-ever study of Crichton’s complete body of work reveals, his film-making skills extended way beyond just comedy. His versatility stretched to film noir and wartime drama as well as – when the domestic film industry contracted in the sixties – a seamless transition into prime-time television, including such popular programmes as The Avengers, Space: 1999 and The Adventures of Black Beauty. Featuring the first-hand testimony of colleagues and collaborators ranging from Dame Judi Dench and Petula Clark to John Cleese and Sir Michael Palin, this anecdote-packed account of Crichton’s fascinating life in film, which also included a short-lived flirtation with Hollywood, will appeal to academics and film students as well as the general reader.
Chapter 4 covers Charles Crichton’s career in the latter part of the forties. Following the end of World War II, Alberto Cavalcanti, the man who had recruited Crichton, quit Ealing Studios, reportedly in a dispute over money. Studio boss Michael Balcon proceeded to outline an approach to film-making that aimed to explore all elements of post-war British society while keeping costs low enough to be sustainable on the domestic market alone. Crichton, meanwhile, remained busy racking up more directorial credits on the trail-blazing Ealing comedy Hue and Cry (1947), the ‘mistimed’ war film Against the Wind (1948) and the tonally inconsistent Another Shore (1948), a whimsical ‘comedy-tragedy’ that Crichton himself preferred to forget. One of his most important contributions to the Ealing brand, however, was his uncredited intervention in Alexander Mackendrick’s Whisky Galore (1949), which helped turn around a troubled production and led to what may be the studio’s biggest global hit.
Chapter 3 recounts Charles Crichton’s activities during World War II. Crichton expected to be called up at the beginning of the conflict, but instead he was recruited by the Brazilian émigré film-maker Alberto Cavalcanti to edit a short documentary called Young Veteran (1940). This was to be the first in a series of such films that Crichton worked on at the new Ealing Shorts Unit. He made his feature-length debut for Ealing as editor of The Big Blockade (1942), and soon after was elevated to the role of ‘associate producer’ on the film Nine Men (1943). His directorial debut, the well-received For Those in Peril, followed in 1944, and he went on to direct Painted Boats and a segment of the Ealing classic Dead of Night (both 1945).
Chapter 2 continues the story of Charles Crichton’s period working as an editor for Alexander Corda at Denham Studios. It was his work on the 1936 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come that began to cement his reputation. Though the film was not ultimately a success, it was highly ambitious in conception and scope, utilising trick photography, full-size and miniature sets and elaborate model work. Crichton’s next job saw him working with Nanook of the North director Robert Flaherty on Elephant Boy (1937), another difficult project that enjoyed a mixed reception. The great Korda success of the period, however, was The Thief of Bagdad (1940). This was the last film Crichton worked on before the outbreak of World War II.
Chapter 1 explores the early years of Charles Crichton’s career, during which he was employed by Alexander Korda at Denham Studios. Starting out as a tea boy, he soon began to work directly as an assistant on the films, which notably included Korda’s first magnum opus, The Private Life of Henry VIII. The arrival at Denham of William ‘Bill’ Hornbeck provided Crichton with his true mentor, and 1935 saw him gain his first full editor credit with Sanders of the River.
The introduction begins by noting the lack of scholarly attention that has been given to Charles Crichton up to now. Despite his numerous cinematic successes, including A Fish Called Wanda, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, the general attitude remains that he was a capable journeyman at the creative end of the film industry. This is largely due to his being closely associated with ‘Ealing comedy’, a series of films that are unfairly viewed as being effective variations on an established formula. In fact, Crichton was a highly versatile film-maker, equally adept at directing dramas and film noir. However, he was not an adherent of auteur theory, but instead saw film as a collaborative medium.
Chapter 5 follows Charles Crichton’s work at Ealing Studios in the first half of the fifties. With the rapid appearances of Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore and Kind Hearts and Coronets in 1949, ‘Ealing comedy’ had become firmly established as a term of audience affection and expectation. These films set the pattern for a kind of modified war drama, where a small band fought back against a larger force, but now in the context of peacetime. Crichton’s first film of this period was Dance Hall (1950), a rare female-led drama that received mixed reviews. He followed this up with The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), one of the most loved of all Ealing comedies and winner of ‘Best British Film’ at the 1951 British Film Academy Awards. After that came the well-received crime drama Hunted (1952) and the comedies The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) and The Love Lottery (1954), both of which had a mixed press.
Chapter 10, the final chapter of the book, covers Charles Crichton’s work in the eighties and beyond. The focus of the chapter is A Fish Called Wanda (1987), the international success that was Crichton’s first feature film for twenty-three years and the last of his career. John Cleese was the prime mover for the project, writing the script, starring and assembling much of the team. His confidence in Crichton, who by this point had made a number of short films for Cleese’s Video Arts company, was crucial to securing studio approval for the septuagenarian director’s involvement. The result was a triumph, with almost exclusively positive reviews and a top spot at the US box office. Awards followed, with Kevin Kline receiving the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and Crichton and Cleese being nominated for best director and screenplay. Crichton hoped to direct the sequel, but delays meant filming did not start until 1995, by which point he was eighty-four years old. He spent the final years of his life directing shorts for Video Arts, though he also collaborated with screenwriting guru Robert McKee on an ill-fated screen adaptation of Noel Coward play Hay Fever.
Chapter 7 covers Charles Crichton’s activities in the early sixties. After a brief stint working on The Birdman of Alcatraz for Hollywood production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, Crichton found himself helming The Battle of the Sexes (1960) for Michael Balcon’s new company, Bryanston Films. This adaptation of the James Thurber short story ‘The Catbird Seat’ was generally well received, with particular credit going to Peter Sellers’s performance in the lead role. Crichton worked for Bryanston again on The Boy Who Stole a Million (1960), an Anglo-Spanish adventure comedy that was welcomed by American critics but fared less well at home. A three-year stint directing episodes of the undistinguished ITC series Man of the World followed, before Crichton returned to the big screen with The Third Secret (1964), an ambitious but flawed thriller that is notable for providing Judi Dench, already a star of the stage, her first film role at the age of twenty-nine. More TV work followed with the series Danger Man and The Human Jungle.
Chapter 6 recounts Charles Crichton’s final years at Ealing Studios. Having received disappointing notices for his preceding two films, The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) and The Love Lottery (1954), Crichton would see his critical fortunes quickly revived by the drama The Divided Heart (1954). Based on the true story of a Slovenian woman’s legal battle to regain custody of the son who had been taken from her during World War II, the film might seem a strange match for a director best known for his comedies. But Crichton was deeply invested in the material, and his sensitive treatment was widely praised by critics. His thirteenth and final film for Ealing Studios, The Man in the Sky, followed in 1957. This tense drama about a crisis during a test flight was also well received, though its box office performance was lacklustre. By this point the studio had been bought by the BBC, and with the departure of Michael Balcon many stalwarts had begun to reconsider their positions. Crichton’s first non-Ealing feature since he’d joined the studio, Law and Disorder, was released by British Lion in 1958 to mixed reviews. He fared better with the disaster film Floods of Fear, also released in 1958, for which he received one of his few writing credits.