East End Memories

THE EMPRESS, MARE STREET, HACKNEY

PART EIGHT – A WHITE FEATHER, A MAN CALLED PETER & A VIRGIN QUEEN

I only managed to see films at the Empress Hackney on five other occasions. Needless to say, I did try to get into see others but the A-Certificate and the inability to find someone to take me in limited my successful visits.

The first time I went after seeing How to Marry a Millionaire, was to see A Man called Peter. Being young at the time, I fear that I did not go because I was an admirer of the film’s main character, the theologian Peter Marshall, I went to see Jean Peters, someone that I considered to be a voluptuous beauty that I knew from other films.

A Man Called Peter is the story of a Scotsman who emigrated to America and eventually became the Chaplain to the Senate. Richard Todd played the lead and was obviously trying his luck in Hollywood after having made Walt Disney’s first feature length film, Robin Hood. I was such a cultural snob as a child, as I had refused to see him in The Dam Busters. I disliked English films at that time and found films photographed in black and white to be old-fashioned and of little interest. I regret to say that my tastes favoured flashy Hollywood films and I demanded Technicolor! The more spectacular a film, the better I liked it. Thank goodness one’s tastes change!

Bottom right: Peter Marshall

I had taken an immediate liking to Jean Peters as Anne of the Indies. The combination of her charms and playing a pirate proved too potent for a young boy and immediately heralded her entry to my list of favourites. However, like so many great loves, besides bringing me pleasure, Anne of the Indies sadly had its tragic side. The conclusion of the film caused me much sadness since she was killed in a sea battle. At my young age, I was not ready for heroines to die. I needed much comforting at the time. This was the first film I saw at the Foresters cinema on Cambridge Heath Road. The cinema had been closed for a number of years following bomb damage sustained during the Second World War. The cinema was part of J. Arthur Rank’s Gaumont chain and had been freshly renovated. Despite its more swanky appearance, I believe that Anne’s untimely demise was the root cause of my never really caring for the Foresters cinema despite its newly found grandeur.

As I said, the allure of Jean Peters and CinemaScope proved too much for me to resist and despite my promising myself never to go to the Empress Hackney without telling my parents, I set off to see A Man Called Peter. It had not been too long since I saw Ms Peters hurling coins into the Trevi Fountain in the film, Three Coins in the Fountain at the Essoldo Bethnal Green. As silly and as not-especially interesting to a young boy as this film may appear, it introduced me to the grandeur and beauty of Rome. Who says going to the pictures is not educational?

(Click on the collage to see a video clip from the film)

An incidental point regarding Three Coins in the Fountain is that it was one of the few films made by Maggie McNamara who had a short and somewhat tragic life. She had previously starred in the film, The Moon is Blue, which was directed by Otto Preminger of Carmen Jones fame. The Moon is Blue gave the censors in the United States headaches thanks to the use of the word, virgin, in the dialogue. Apparently in 1953, the word was found to be objectionable and ruffled the feathers of many groups determined to safeguard society’s welfare. In the U.K., the film was given an X-certificate and so entry to anyone under the age of 16 years was restricted. Naturally to all us kids, the handing out of such a certificate made the film totally fascinating to us. I remember finding an adult that actually saw this film and I asked her for a potted account of the plot. She told me in no uncertain terms that the film was one long bore and that she and her man friend got up and walked out after an hour of this rubbish.

(Click on the collage to see the film's trailer)

Maggie McNamara also starred in another of those 20th Century Fox CinemaScope films that was never shown at the Essoldo Bethnal, but which enjoyed screenings all over London, including the Empress Hackney. This film, Prince of Players, starred Richard Burton as Edwin Booth, the brother of John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Lincoln. The Booth family were successful actors and Edwin was considered to be the greatest Shakespearean actor of his era. I did not see this film until 1993, thanks to the television channel, Cinemax, in the United States. The career of Ms McNamara did not fare well after her initial success and several years later she was living in New York and supporting herself as a secretary. Evidently, she had a history of mental illness and in 1978 she committed suicide.

(Click on the collage to hear the theme music of the film)

Although I did not know it at the time when the film was first released, Prince of Players was one of the few films in which Eva Le Gallienne, an Anglo-American actress of note appeared. In 1981, without realising who Ms Le Gallienne was, I had been lucky enough to see her in her last role on the Broadway stage in 1981. The play, To Grandmother’s House We Go, was not especially well received and closed after only 61 performances. Despite the play not being memorable, I was impressed with her performance, but it was not until I read her write-up in Playbill that I realised who she was. It is interesting to note that she starred in the original production of the play, Liliom, playing the role of Julie. Liliom was that play that Rogers & Hammerstein set to music and renamed as Carousel. Ms Le Gallienne was both a talented actress and an extremely colourful and controversial person.

Eva Le Gallienne
(Click on the collage to see a video clip from her last film)

The next film I saw at the Empress brought me a great deal of trouble. I was going to be allowed to visit a friend of mine on a Saturday afternoon who lived some distance away on the other side of Hackney. I was going to be allowed to go there alone on the 653 Trolleybus. Naturally my parents thought that this was going to be the first time that I had made this journey alone. I had been given strict instructions about how to get on and off the bus and told to wait for the bus to stop before I got out of my seat. I was also given strict instruction to sit close to the exit and to tell the bus conductor where I was going. Finally I was given a time when I should be home, which I promised to keep. I remember that my friend and I went to the Empress. Unfortunately we went to the second showing and so came out of the cinema well after the time that I should have been home. Naturally I found my parents both worried and furious when I finally got home. I had no excuse for arriving so late. I told them that I had been to the cinema. This only made them more angry and upset, since I had already been taken to the cinema by them earlier in the week. I received a smacking from my father and that hurt look from my mother. It took me the whole of the next day to receive forgiveness from her. I had to promise never ever to do what I had done again. I have to admire my parents as they never grounded me or whatever it is parents insist on doing today and was allowed to go out again without them and even to Hackney to visit my friend. However when it came to clandestine trips to the Empress, I was careful not to bring them grief again. I learned that it was best to keep what I was doing to myself and to be certain to return by the allotted time.

(Click on the collage to see the film's trailer)

The film that we saw on that Saturday was The Virgin Queen. The star of the film was Bette Davis, who reprised here her role of Queen Elizabeth I. The film is of mild interest today if only for her portrayal. The film also starred, yet again, Richard Todd, this time playing Sir Walter Raleigh who brought back both tobacco and potatos to Europe and who laid his cloak down for the Queen to walk over, along with Joan Collins and Herbert Marshall. To be honest, the enjoyment gained from this film was in no way worth the resulting grief that it brought me.

As a child, I was very fond of swashbuckling films. I liked Knights in armour, pirates and court intrigue. I remember seeing Errol Flynn at the Empress in The Dark Avenger. This film had different titles over the years, but this was its name when I saw it. It dealt with a knight who I later learned was The Black Prince and who went into battle incognito since he wore dark armour and hid his face. I have since seen this film on television and was surprised to see how terrible it was. However, at the time, it fitted well into my likes and so I was pleased to spend a happy hour or two lost in the world of Plantagenet England.

I remember going to the Empress with a young couple, Freda and Bill, who were regular customers at the pie shop and friends with my mother. Freda had occasionally looked after me whenever my parents had to go out and I was not allowed to accompany them. One such time was when my parents went to see Tyrone Power in Mister Roberts. I was more than a bit miffed at being left out of this outing. However Freda made the evening very nice for me and I was grateful to her for it. I was very fond of her and she used to hold my arm whenever we went out, which made me feel very grown up. She used to joke that she was in the company of her two favourite men, as she walked down the street arm in arm with Bill and me. She came from Newcastle and had a strong accent, which I found delightful. They took me to the cinema from time to time. I also remember seeing Davy Crockett at the Excelsior with them, which I think they enjoyed more than me!

(Click on the poster to hear the film's theme song)

We went to the Empress to see The Lieutenant Wore Skirts. This film starred Tom Ewell and Sheree North. 20th Century Fox had the habit of pairing Tom Ewell with voluptuous women. He had appeared with Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch prior to this outing and later with Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It. In the mid-1970’s, he played in the television series, Beretta with Robert Blake and a cockatoo. I am afraid that his acting abilities were lost on me.

Tom Ewell
(Click on the pictures above to see video clips)

Sheree North came to prominence as a result of studio difficulties between 20th Century Fox and Marilyn Monroe. When Ms Monroe refused to appear in How to be Very, Very Popular, which also starred Betty Grable and Robert Cummings, she was suspended and the role given to Ms North.

Sadly for Ms North, she received few roles of substance. Her most obvious success came several years later once she moved to television where she became Very, Very Popular on The Mary Tyler Moore Show where she played a girl friend of Lou Grant, the gruff editor of the news in the story-line. His wife had divorced him sometime earlier and, once encouraged to date, Mr. Grant proves to be very shy with women. After a number of attempts at dating, he meets Charlene Maguire, a lounge singer played by Ms North. There is one especially charming scene between the two characters where Mr. Grant learns of Charlene’s past. Feeling a certain inadequacy, he decides to end their relationship. Charlene understands the situation only too well and handles it with tact while remaining true to her character and offering him no apology. I was very taken with her in this role. She obviously had depths not tapped by Hollywood.

Bottom Centre: Sheree North as Charlene Maguire with Ed Asner as Lou Grant
(Click on picture to hear the theme song of The Mary Tyler Moore Show)

The Lieutenant Wore Skirts is the story of an older man married to a younger woman who believes he is to be recalled to the military. He goes for his physical examination and interview and either realises that he is too old for such a life or else is refused. Meanwhile, his young and very attractive wife decides to join the army herself, as a surprise! As the adverts said, and it was a surprise to him! She becomes the lieutenant wearing skirts and they get posted to Hawaii where her husband becomes a house husband and all kinds of silly situations develop. The reader should remember that this film is from the mid-1950s and so the story-line was considered racy by the Americans at that time. Even at my young age, I got the premise, and yawned through it all.

(Click on the collage to see a video clip from the film)

The final film that I saw at the Empress - and which has become, in my opinion, a classic – well, it is to me! – was White Feather. This was one of the first westerns to portray its story-line through the eyes of the Indian. According to the introduction, the film was based on a true story and starred Robert Wagner, the beautiful Debra Paget, which was the reason why I was travelling to Hackney to see this film, and Jeffery Hunter. The film also starred Eduard Franz who gave a terrific performance as the Chief. His feather bonnet had to be seen to be believed! The story tells of the events surrounding the signing of the Peace Treaty between the Cheyenne Nation and the United States Government and the subsequent displacement of the Cheyenne from their land. The chief’s son and his friend refuse to go and challenge the Army in battle. The challenge is made in a most dramatic fashion when a rider gallops up to the Captain of the troops and flings down a knife with a white feather attached. The challenge had to be accepted and its resolution is both tragic and interesting.

(Click on the collage to see the film's trailer ...... in German!)

I was very taken with this film and saw it again a few weeks later at the Essoldo Bethnal Green. I went with my parents who both enjoyed it. Over the years, White Feather was revived periodically and I went to see it whenever I knew that it was being shown. The last time that I saw this film in a cinema was at the old Moulin Rouge cinema in Headington, which is part of Oxford. I was in college and insisted that my friends see it. They did and I remember one of them telling me that this was one of the best westerns that she had ever seen.

When so-called film classics began to appear on videocassette, I was horrified that White Feather was not amongst them. I remember writing letters and sending emails to CBS-Fox Video demanding that they explain this miscarriage of justice. Eventually in 1994, I noticed that the television premier channel, Cinemax, was going to present the film. Although I dislike intensely these so-called premier channels, I immediately telephoned my cable company and arranged to have the service included in my package. I owned one videocassette recorder at the time and immediately set it to record the film. Just prior to its emission, I became suddenly seized with panic. What if the recording failed? I very quickly ran out and bought a second machine and set that for recording at the required time too! And just to be certain, I arranged for a friend to record it also. Fortunately I was soon to have three copies of this film in my possession. Although the film was never released on videocassette, it was released a few years back, at long last, on DVD. Naturally, I own a copy – just one! However the disc contains two versions of the film – one is in so-called regular format and the other, in widescreen. Guess which version I watch? However, as much as I liked How to Marry a Millionaire, the film that I most favour from my visits to the Empress is White Feather.

There is still one more film that I wish to introduce in this tale of my memories of the Empress before closing. When I was a child, cinemas were still in the habit of presenting two films unless the featured film was of longer duration. These films, now called B films, could be good, sometimes bad, but more often dreadful. However, the film that I saw with The Virgin Queen, although probably not great in terms of acting despite having a good cast, proved to be quite influential as the reader will soon learn.

AFTER THOUGHT – THE MOON IS BLUE

Regarding The Moon is Blue: I remember thinking the woman who told me that she and her boy friend walked out of the film to be a total Philistine and Leper! At my young age, I was incapable of understanding how anyone could walk out of any film!

I have walked out of only three films during my entire cinema-going days. The first film that I left before the end was Henry V – yes, Olivier’s Henry V! The second film was Tommy – yes, The Who’s Tommy! I went to see Tommy in Amsterdam and the level of noise gave me a headache. I also must confess that after leaving these films, I soon became convinced that had I stayed, the film would have turned into a classic and become a film that I would want to see again and again. Although after going to see Henry V a second time, I did realise its merits and was at a loss to understand why I had left early the first time. Although I had always enjoyed the films of Ken Russell, I still did not find Tommy to be completely to my taste once I sat through it in its entirety. I found it to be loud and excessive. However, I do enjoy the soundtrack, as long as I am in control of the volume level!

(Click on the collage for the St. Crispin's Day Speech)

(Click on the collage to see Pinball Wizard)

The third film that I walked out of was seen at a make-shift cinema in Didcot on a cold and wet Saturday night during my college days. Some friends and myself had been studying all day long and needed to get out for a while. So we decided to go out for a drink or two and for some unknown reason, we ended up in Didcot. One of us suggested going to the pictures, which seemed like a good idea at the time. Since it was getting late, we decided to go to the local cinema. I don’t think we even looked at what was showing. We needed a divertissement, something to amuse us, and this we found or at least I did. I never did discover the name of the film, but it was an Italian sword and sandal film with unknown actors and poorly dubbed into American English. The plot proved impossible to follow, but I suspect that our late arrival might have a role here. The print was in a poor state and obviously had been spliced together following multiple breaks on numerous occasions and the soundtrack was practically inaudible. The cinema was cold and draughty and we could hear the whirling sound of the projector above the soundtrack. The place was a mess and the seats were creaky and a number were broken. We stumbled in without the help of an usherette who was too engrossed in the film to offer us assistance. We groped our way down an aisle and into a row only to find that my seat was missing! Eventually I found a place at the far end of the row and settled down to enjoy the film.

Unfortunately, my concentration was periodically broken by foul language coming from a patron who had just found themselves on the floor. Apparently their seat had suddenly given way under their weight and sent them crashing to the ground. Their cries told of their annoyance, displeasure and probable pain. Having soon given up trying to follow the action on the screen, I soon found the whole situation to be very funny and once I started to laugh, I could not stop. I tried everything I could think of to do so but failed miserably. Even a stuffed handkerchief in my mouth failed to help minimise my laughter. Alas, few members of the sparse audience appreciated the situation in the same way as me and my laughter seemed to incense some of the local leather jacketed brigade present to express their displeasure in my direction. Apparently they had excellent hearing and were able to follow the plot and were not pleased by the disruption that I was causing! As a result, my companions decided that retreat was the better part of valour and informed me that we were leaving. I stumbled my way out of the cinema, still choking with laughter as I did. I remember the usherette made some unkind remark as I passed her on my way out. Amazingly, immediately the night air hit me, my laughter stopped and I returned to being my old self once more. I am still somewhat upset that I never discovered the name of the film. Needless to say, I also never did get an opportunity to see it again, for which I am deeply thankful.

Regarding The Moon is Blue: I saw this film on television about two years ago. It was shown on a film channel and presented commercial free. I tell the reader this since I don’t anyone to think that my opinion of the film is based on having seen a chopped up and edited format. It was seen as originally presented in cinemas in 1953. As is the way of Otto Preminger, the director, the setting was limited to the main room of an apartment and a few minutes atop the Empire State Building. The dialogue was what can only be described as reflecting the wit and sophistication of the time. What perhaps once seemed avant garde and somewhat racy in the early 1950s, now came across as dull and somewhat silly. I owe that woman, and her man friend, an apology I fear, as the film was one long bore from beginning to end. Although I wanted to switch the television off, I did not! You never know, one lives in the hope that an unpleasing film might suddenly turn into a classic!

(Click on the picture)


PHOTO GALLERY

Jean Peters

Maggie MacNamara

Dorothy McGuire

(Click on the poster to see the ballet sequence from the film; click on the collage to see another video clip)



I would like to thank Mr. Brian Hall for his kindness in allowing many of his pictures to be reproduced here.


Continue to Part Nine - Poster Gallery of films shown on the Essoldo and Granada Circuits

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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins