By Carter B. Horsley
In 1939, Kay Walsh shared a dressing room with
Martita Hunt, who was then performing in Alec Guinness's adaptation
of "Great Expectations" at Rudolph Steiner Hall in London.
Walsh was married to David Lean and urged him to go to the play.
"Not bloody likely," he replied, according to Kevin
Brownlow, Lean's biographer.
In his chapter on the film in his book, Mr.
Brownlow provides the following account by Kay Walsh:
"We sat on little gilt chairs and in five
minutes the whole lot of us were spellbound," said Kay. "It
was Alec Guinness's adaptation of Great Expectations produced
by George Devine. Alec Guinness sat on one side of he tiny stage
and Merula, his wife, on the other and they narrated. Marius Goring
played the grown-up Pip, Yvonne mitchell played littled Estella.
Vera Poliakoff the gorwn-up, Alec played Herbert Pocket and Martita
was Miss Haversham. It was absolutely wonderful."
Mr. Brownlow wrote that "David Lean said
that unless he had seen the Alec Guinenes stage version he would
never have done the film," adding that he thought it would
make an "exceptional film" but "hehad to be sure
that Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan shared his enthusiasm."
Neame soon put the idea to J. Arthur Rank who said "Go away
and make it." Lean wanted a Dickens expert towrite the script
and Havelock-Allan suggested Clemence Dane, but Lean, according
to Mr. Brownlow, found that "What she worte was so awful
I cannot even begin to describe it," adding that "It
had practically every incident in the book but done in shorthand
so one never got to grips with any one scene. She took snippets
of everything and didn't give anything real weight." Lean
and Neame set about doing the script themselves and Lean left
out anything he thought was "dull," adding that he was
"rather encouraged by the Clemence Dane approach because
it removed my fears of trespassing on the great."
Kay Walsh came up with the idea for the film's
ending: "I thought if Pip had a long white beard...and Estella
had put on forty pounds and they met in a graveyard, Wardour Street
wouldn't come through with the money and anyway, you couldn't
finish the film like that. And so I got the idea of Miss Havisham
and her influence on Estella, who'd just been jilted. It seems
so obvious now that she would repeat the pattern of Miss Havisham.
What was really good was Pip coming back and the voices - 'Don't
loiter, boy!' and the gate creaking and the camera going up the
stairs and you think you're going in to Miss Havisham and it's
not her at all, it's Valerie [Hobson] as Estella. John Mills was
absolutely thrilled with the ending because it gave him the chance
to pull the curtains down, for the mice to run out, and for 'I
have come back, Miss Havisham!' and 'Out into the sunlight!' and
According to Mr. Brownlow, Lean "had been
impressed by Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (see The
City Review article)...,and he tried to analyze why it made
such an impact," adding that "he realied that cinematographer
Arthur Edeson had used long focus lenses, which provided a heightened
sense of intimacy by keeping the faces sharp while softening everything
around them." "When production designer John Bryan heard
what David had in mind," Mr. Brownlow continued, "he
realised his sets might disappear into that softness and brought
the ceilings sharply down so they would appear in the picture.
Forced perspective had been a feature of German silent films,
and Kane revived the practice, but in few films would it be used
with such boldness. Once the sets were built in this way, the
furniture had to be designed to fit. David was so intrigued by
this idea that he allowed it to take precedence over his Casablanca
scheme. 'John's sets are all planned to be shot from one angle,'
David told Norman Spencer, 'it takes away my freedom, but they're
so bloody good I don't mind.'"
Shortly after the film opened, Mr. Brownlow
provides the following quotation from Lean:
"What we were trying to do...was to create
that larger-than-life picture which is really just characteristic
of Dickens' kind of writing. The scenes of the boy, Pip, lying
terrified in his bedroom after a night of fear, creeping downstairs
at dawn and then stealing the food for the convict out on the
marshes was something Dickens wrote as if he were inside the boy
himself. We tried to make the audience share Pip's fear. If we
hadn't done this, we should have been face with quite a different
problem - making the audience accept what is really a pretty exaggerated
piece of melodrama. They might easily have found the convicts
and their fustian dialogue just funny instead of terrifying if
we had not built up the fear in the audience at the same time
as we did in the boy - first of all, of course, with the sheer
physical shock when Pip suddenly collides with the convict in
the churchyard at the beginning of the film and hears the horrifying
threats in this throaty voice."
Mr. Brownlow quotes Lean was stating "Who
has ever seen a lawyer like Jaggers? We were lucky that Francis
L. Sullivan was alive and a good actor. He was wonderful."
Of Martita Hunt, he quotes Lean was stating that "That part
could so easily descend into a kind of farce. She was another
At one point, Lean replaced Robert Krasker
as the cinematographer and replaced him with Guy Green, who won
an Oscar. Lean confesses that when he saw "The Third Man"
that Krasker went to work on his reaction "Oh my God, what
a terrible mistake I made. What an injustice."
I saw the film in 1948 two years after it was
made and when I was an impressionable 8 years old. Finlay Currie
scarried the daylights out of me and the macabre Miss Havisham
made me suspicious of the very rich but not so much as not to
be enchanted by Jean Simmons and bemused by the quite stout and
pompous Francis L. Sullivan. In retrospect, John Mills was the
Robert Redford of British films in those days - handsome and heroic
and while he is widely reviewed as rather bland in this role he
went on to a very illustrious career, though not as great as that
of Alec Guinness who would shortly after this film make some of
the greatest comedies in film history like "The Man in the
White Suit" (see The City Review
In his August 22, 1999 review of the movie,
Roger Ebert states that it "does what few movies based on
great books can do: Creates pictures on the screen that do not
clash with the images already existing in our minds. Lean brings
Dickens' classic set-pieces to life as if he'd been reading over
our shoulder: Pip's encounter with the convict Magwitch in the
churchyard, Pip's first meeting with the mad Miss Havisham, and
the ghoulish atmosphere in the law offices of Mr. Jaggers, whose
walls are decorated with the death masks of clients he has lost
to the gallows."
"In Miss Havisham's mansion," Ebert
continued, "is the young Estella (Jean Simmons, astonishingly
beautiful at 17). The old woman has adopted the girl, and brought
her up for one purpose only: to break men's hearts. Pip falls
instantly in love with her, but Estella tries to warn him away,
perhaps because she really likes him. Her purpose is to cause
men pain, so that Miss Havisham can somehow settle her account
with an unfair world. Pip, who has been reared by his shrewish
older sister (Freda Jackson) and her husband, the good-hearted
blacksmith Joe Gargery (Bernard Miles), is too rough-hewn for
the elegant Estella, but a mysterious benefactor finances his
transformation. Pip is summoned by Jaggers, Miss Havisham's lawyer,
and told that his expenses will be paid while he undergoes education
and training in London - not least in how to dress and speak like
a gentleman. He shares rooms with elegant young Herbert Pocket
(Alec Guinness), who sets a fine example. Of course Pip assumes
that Miss Havisham is his benefactor, and that he is being groomed
to marry Estella (played by Valerie Hobson as a 20-year-old).
Whether he is right or wrong is one of the questions Dickens solves
in his story's melodramatic conclusion. The Lean version makes
minor repairs on the ending to satisfy the sentimental requirements
of audiences, which means that those familiar with the novel will
not necessarily know how the film ends. Since
Dickens draws his characters in bold, colorful strokes, typecasting
is probably the best approach to filling the roles. Pip himself
is a somewhat colorless hero; like many of Dickens' central characters,
he's not the source of the action but a witness to the colorful
events and people that thrust themselves into his life. It's the
supporting cast that makes the story vivid....The only misstep
in the casting may have been the choice of John Mills as the adult
Pip. Mills was 38 when the film was made, and Pip is supposed
to be 20 going on 21."
For contemporary audiences accustomed to color
and special effects and the sumptuous settings of PBS series set
in great English country houses, "Great Expectations"
may at first be somewhat disappointing. Its strengths, however,
shine through from the casting to the cinematography to the direction
and to the great underlying themes of loyalty, honor, familial
ties, and class issues.
"Great Expectations" was nominated
for five Academy Awards and won for Best Art Direction and Best
Black & White Cinematography.