Usually when I do these 100th birthday tributes, the star or director in question has been dead for a few decades. Not this time. British director Ronald Neame would have turned 100 this April 23, but he left us only ten months ago, passing away at 99 last June. This was nearly a case of celebrating a centenary with the subject around to blow out the candles. Neame was hardly a household name in America, though U.S. audiences certainly saw a number of his movies, with The Poseidon Adventure the disaster movie that we all went to see back in 1972. He also directed Judy Garland’s screen swan song, I Could Go On Singing (1963), and Maggie Smith’s Oscar-winning performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969).
Neame first came to prominence as a cinematographer in England, shooting David Lean’s first three movies, each a collaboration with Noel Coward: In Which We Serve (1942), This Happy Breed (1944), and Blithe Spirit (1945). These films certainly secured Neame’s place as a major cameraman of the decade.
My favorite of the films he directed is The Horse’s Mouth (1958), adapted from Joyce Cary’s novel. Incidentally, the screenplay was written by the film’s star, Alec Guinness, who received an Oscar nomination for his efforts (losing to Alan Jay Lerner for Gigi). Guinness also should have gotten Oscar attention for his performance, one of his finest comic turns (and that’s really saying something!). Guinness plays the wonderfully named Gulley Jimson, an eccentric painter with white hair and a growl of a voice. He’s marvelously theatrical and offbeat and simply hilarious. It’s a portrait of the artist as a charming rascal, a schemer, also practically starving. But certainly some kind of genius, a visionary unto himself, passionately and selfishly committed to his art and a bit insane. The movie celebrates his eccentricity, and Guinness’ performance manages to be touching as well as delightfully inventive. For all its merriment, Neame’s film shows considerable feeling for the otherworldliness of the artist, set apart from regular folks. The film also boasts extraordinary color and sublime use of music by Prokofiev.
In addition to Guinness, the cast includes a host of reliables: Robert Coote, Ernest Thesiger, Kay Walsh, Michael Gough. Two moments stay with me: Guinness’ faux karate moves in his escape from Thesiger’s house, and Coote (along with his wife and secretary) stepping onto a rug that is covering a large hole in the floor; slowly, rug and all, they disappear to the floor below. It’s a far more wondrous effect than anything in The Poseidon Adventure.