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Peter Cushing: A centenary celebration

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Mark Iveson celebrates a centenary of one of England's finest actors...

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For the fans of this wonderful man, which I proudly count myself as one; 26 May 2013 marks the centenary of horror legend Peter Cushing. One of the most versatile actors to grace the big screen, Cushing never gave a single bad performance throughout his 50-year career. A dedicated perfectionist, who believed in giving nothing less than his best effort, Cushing’s 100% commitment always lifted a bad film. The movie may fail him but he would never fail his public.

Cushing began his acting career in repertory theatre and with his legendary one-way ticket to Hollywood, made his film debut in 1939. After a couple of productive years in the States, he worked his way back to England following the outbreak of World War 2. Marrying actress Helen Beck, he worked on stage but struggled to find good roles until he became a member of the RSC under Laurence Oliver. As British TV’s first big star, Cushing’s award winning performance as Winston Smith in 1984 led to his long association with Hammer Films. Among his best known film roles were Baron Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), Professor Van Helsing in Dracula (1958) and Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959).

peter cushing moffCushing’s varied film career included the cinema’s first Dr Who and Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977). The death of his beloved wife in 1971 overshadowed him greatly but he continued working, even defying poor health, in the hope he would be reunited with her. His death on 11 August 1994 left fans with a profound sense of loss.

Most of Cushing films were horror and of course critics and fans have discussed them in great detail. For his centenary I’m going to focus on ten non-horror films. I haven’t seen Time Without Pity (1958), Violent Playground (1959) or Shatter (1973) so my apologies for leaving certain films out.

A Chump At Oxford (1940):

Before an actor becomes a star, he has to work away in small film or TV roles until they hit big time. In some cases those early roles achieve a cult following. Think Sean Connery in Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1958), Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th (1979) or Pierce Brosnan in The Long Good Friday (1980). Cushing falls into that category with his second film, appearing opposite Laurel and Hardy. After foiling a bank robbery, Stan and Ollie get scholarships to Oxford University, but from the minute they arrive on campus they fall foul of the practical jokes made by the students.

Cushing said his role as one of the students was just a bit part but in actual fact he has a reasonable amount of screen time and gets notably more lines than his fellow classmates (his English accent is less exaggerated). With his wavy black hair and pencil thin moustache, Cushing looks every inch the handsome Hollywood star on the rise. And with the scene where he dons a fake walrus moustache to pose as one of the lecturers, he makes the most of his comic moments without trying to upstage the stars. Its Stan and Ollie’s film all the way, but Cushing’s early attempts at scene stealing shows an actor with screen promise. It’s not surprising he regarded his time with Laurel and Hardy as one of the highlights of his career.

Vigil in the Night (1940):

Had he remained in Hollywood, Cushing could have made it as a light leading man on the lines of David Niven or Ray Milland. His performance in this medical drama also showed how effective he could be a serious role – second male lead to be exact, which he got on the strength of his Lancashire accent. In a rare dramatic role, Hollywood funny girl Carole Lombard plays a dedicated nurse who takes a malpractice rap to protect her sister (Anne Shirley). Cushing turns up as cabbie and former boyfriend Joe Shand, who ends up marrying the sister. Despite first rate performances from all concerned, the film is a tad too gloomy at times.

Cushing makes the most of his few scenes and handles them very well, holding more than his own against Lombard and a good cast. The film wasn’t a commercial hit but it was critically well received. Although he returned to bit parts, Cushing’s Hollywood career was ticking over nicely and a well received performance as Clive of India in an MGM short brought him to the attention of the Hollywood majors. However a combination of homesickness and war in Europe prompted him to turn down the chance of major stardom so he could work his way back to England. Had he stayed, who knows what might have happened!

Hamlet (1948):

peter cushing hamletReturning to England, Cushing spent much of his time on stage, firstly with ENSA, where he met his wife, then in London. Laurence Olivier’s screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic story of revenge marked his British film debut. Impressed by Cushing’s refusal to do an American accent at an audition for a forthcoming stage play, and equally impressed by his performance as a French man in another play, Oliver thought he would be perfect for the role of effeminate courtier Osric.

His first appearance comes late in the movie but it adds welcome humour to the dour proceedings as the flamboyantly attired Cushing, with his over the top gestures and constant bowing, trips over himself as he greets the Danish prince! But his camp mannerisms hides a much darker character, especially during the final duel between Olivier’s Hamlet and Terence Morgan’s Laertes when he swaps the latter’s rapier for one with a poisoned tip. Cushing only has a few scenes but he makes a worthy impression, enough to make him a member of Olivier’s mammoth RSC tour of Australia.

The Black Night (1952):

With Cushing becoming the first star of British television, the film offers slowly increased. This excursion into medieval times is hardly a trust worthy history lesson, especially with Alan Ladd (in the title role) squawking away with his out-of-place American accent. Good battle scenes, colourful costumes, excellent scenery, and the presence of British stalwarts, Patricia Medina, Harry Andrews, Andre Morell, Laurence Naismith and Patrick Troughton add a great deal to the proceedings.

However it is Cushing as the villainous Saracen Sir Palamides who walks away with the acting honours. Less exaggerated than Osric with the courtly gestures, and certainly a much darker character, Sir Palamides cuts a more interesting figure than Ladd’s avenging hero and looks magnificent in costume. Cushing is clearly in his element and gives a memorable performance that saves the film from total disaster.

The End of the Affair (1955):

Although I haven’t read Graham Greene’s wartime novel about religious guilt, many critics have stated that it would be a hard book to transfer to the screen. I have seen the film and on the whole it’s an interesting but ponderous effort torpedoed by leading man Van Johnson, whose one-dimensional performance is equal to a bull in a china shop. Playing Vera Miles is Deborah Kerr, whose affair with Johnson’s writer sparks off a crisis of faith which brings about her downfall. As good as Kerr is, her relationship with Johnson isn’t very convincing and is further undermined by Peter Cushing’s outstanding performance as her civil servant husband Henry. The typical bowler hatted city gent, Henry is the stiff upper lipped Englishman whose emotions are as neatly press as his pinstriped trousers. But he is not without feelings.

This shows in his first appearance when he breaks down slightly because his job dealing with widows’ pensions has brought him into contact with young widows whose husbands were killed in action. Although he loves Vera, and is a kind man by nature, he is too dull for her and finds himself unable to comprehend her increasingly erratic behaviour. Cushing is so moving in the role the audience sympathises more with him than the intended Vera, who in my opinion needs a good shake for mistreating such a good man! His own emotional collapse brings a genuine tear to the eye. Although a big TV star, he was still pretty much unknown outside the UK. Had he been a better-known actor, he would have earned an Oscar nomination for his performance.

Alexander the Great (1956):

peter cushing alexanderCushing’s film career gathered momentum in the mid fifties. If he hadn’t became Hammer’s star actor, he could have happily commanded high profile supporting roles in big budget features like this rather overblown epic about Greece’s most famous king. As a spectacular, Alexander the Great has the scenery, the costumes and the cast, but it lacks that vital ingredient, action. What makes an epic work are the brilliantly staged battle scenes, and this dull, talkative and boring effort has very little of that. The situation is not helped at all by an ill at ease Richard Burton in the title role. The solid cast of Fredric March, Harry Andrews, Stanley Baker and Michael Horden adds weight but it’s not enough to save the film.

In actual fact the best performance comes from Peter Cushing as General Memnon. Looking every inch the Greek warrior, Cushing turns up about half way and acts nearly everyone off the screen. Equally impressive as Memnon’s wife Barsine is Clare Bloom. When she falls in love with Alexander (once again Cushing plays the cuckolded husband), their final meeting before Memnon dies in battle generates the film’s only gritty dramatic moment. Sadly Memnon’s death is a bit of an anti-climax. One hopes for a well-staged battle where the General could be killed in spectacular fashion. Instead he gets bumped off before it the battle starts (we don’t even see it), and after that everything grinds to a dull halt. Once Cushing is out the film, the interest fades.

Fury At Smugglers Bay (1961):

Cushing was a huge fan of westerns; his hero was the silent movie star Tom Mix. What makes this enjoyable but forgettable pirate romp interesting is the fact it was the closest he ever came to appearing in a western. There plenty of shooting and horseback riding, a pub brawl and a High Noon (1952) confrontation with Cushing’s Squire Trevenyan as the Lee J Cobb type landowner. Looking at the film, with a change of scenery, costume and accents, it could play like a western. Its solid entertainment with a good cast that includes William Franklyn, John Fraser and Bernard Lee, but it hardly ranks as a classic. This was a period where Cushing dropped out of horror films to play other roles that suited his style but sadly lacked the impact of his Hammer work. As a piece of entertainment, it is a fine effort but nothing more.

Cash on Demand (1961):

This remains Cushing’s finest non-horror performance. It’s an unusual but very effective thriller that looks like a re-working of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Playing the Scrooge character, Cushing is Fordyce, an uptight, humourless and tyrannical bank manager who runs his local branch with an iron fist (making him extremely unpopular with his staff). It’s Christmas and Fordyce receives a visit from an area manager named Hepburn (Andre Morell) who has been assigned to check the bank security. In reality the smooth talking Hepburn is a criminal who has Fordyce’s wife and son hostage, and unless the bank manager helps him with the theft of £93,000 from the vault, he will have them killed.

What makes the film intriguing is the fact that Hepburn is equally fascinated by Fordyce’s miserable persona so he sets about playing mind games on him. Now a nervous wreck at the hands of Hepburn, Cushing’s emotional collapse is brilliantly played. Morell is also impressive, displaying a vicious intent behind the avuncular charm. Hepburn is caught but Fordyce’s experience has, like Scrooge, made him a better man. Cash on Demand is a brilliant two-hander with Cushing and Morell on equal footing. So much so that camera operator Len Harris thought the film would work just as well if the actors swapped roles. Such was their versatility.

A Touch of the Sun (1978):

After appearing in Star Wars (1977), many fans hoped for more high profile film roles. However, Cushing’s later career consisted of obscure efforts made abroad and considered lost for many years, although Battleflag (1978) and Touch of the Sun (under the name No Secrets) have been on British TV. Cushing always regarded The Blood Beast Terror (1967) as his worst film. Well compared to this truly dreadful excuse for a comedy, it’s a cinema classic. Budgeted at around £1.5 million with location filming in Kenya, one can only assume that the lion’s share of the budget went on Oliver Reed’s barroom bill because there’s precious little of it shown in the movie. With some story of a missing rocket and the lead actress making several pointless nude scenes to keep male audiences awake, there is nothing remotely good or entertaining about the film.

Of the cast, Wilfred Hyde-White looks ill and Keenan Wynn appears to be in a furious mood - he has good reason to be! Even Oliver Reed, who made a fair few bad movies, looks ashamed. I’m only giving this house room because Cushing emerges from this mess with a very funny performance as Commissioner Potts, who has lived in Africa so long he had no idea Churchill has died! He has an inspired moment when he stumbles on his native levies all dressed as Noel Coward! He’s so good one gets the impression that he wandered off from another film being shot at the same time – was it The Wild Geese (1978) or Zulu Dawn (1979)? But as good as he is A Touch of the Sun represents the nadir of his often-brilliant career.

Top Secret (1983):

peter cushing top secretKeeping with comedy, the creators of Airplane! (1980) sent up the spy genre with this hilarious offering. Starring Val Kilmer as a singer involved in some espionage plot (don’t even bother to follow it), it’s basically an excuse for a succession of gags and inspired comic visuals that are piled up one after the other. Kilmer excels in an early starring role but the main fun comes from the strong supporting cast of Omar Sharif, Jeremy Kemp, Michael Gough and Peter Cushing, all gleefully making good humoured fools of themselves.

Cushing’s contribution is a small role of a Swedish bookseller whose first appearance has him looking through a magnifying glass. When he lowers the glass his enlarged eye stays the same! The rest of the scene is performed backwards but reversed on film to give the impression that he is moving forwards and talking normally! It’s a shame Cushing did not have more scenes but sometimes its best to have one good scene in a good movie, than a lot of screen time in a dreadful one like A Touch of the Sun.

With his 100th birthday celebrations, both his two volumes of autobiography and David Miller’s excellent book on his career have been re-published.

Happy birthday Peter, and while I’m at it, happy 102nd to Vincent Price!


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Comments 

 
#1 RE: PETER CUSHING: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION bob carr 2013-05-29 06:52
Nice writing. As a long time fan of his work for hammer, and a dedicated fan of the older films where plot, pacing and characterisatio n took precedence over shock,effect and gimmick, i always enjoyed Mr. Cushing's work perceiving him as an English counterpart to the incomparable Basil Rathbone, some of who's roles were later echoed by Mr. Cushing.
It is no suprise to find him shining in the minor roles that proliferated in films when every scriptwriter new the truth of film, that well written supporting roles were integral to a well
balanced script. As a scrupulous technician he was always believable in his roles, even those where reality was at best a notional concept.
I usually steer clear of the kind of celebrity personal detail that clogs modern media preferring to enjoy the performance without knowing the prurient detail of another's life, so biography and autobiography aren't genre that interest me, but i might relent for an actor as dignified and seemingly likeable as Mr. Cushing, consequently Amazon might be getting a little business from me.
A well written and readable article about a slightly forgotten gem of the British stage and screen, i thoroughly enjoyed your writing sir, although i would be interested to know who Larence Oliver was, and whether he was a friend of Laurence Olivier who was at the RSC at the same time...
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