35: Eddie’s Acre (1964)
In spring 1963 Sherriff was approached by his old friend Bill Whittaker at Associated British to see if he might be interested in writing a script for the comedian Charlie Drake, who wanted ‘to get away from knockabout and act a straight character part’ (according to Sherriff’s agent, Spencer Curtis-Brown).
The resulting story had Drake as Eddie Potter, a window cleaner who was a gifted grower of roses, who declines to sell his land to a large conglomerate when they try to buy a slew of properties in his village in order to build a factory there. He is put under pressure by the local Lord of the manor, by the others in the village who are willing to sell up (but are told they cannot as long as he holds out), and finally by representatives of the company itself. Throughout he is steadfast: he will not leave his land at any price, for it would mean moving his roses, which would likely die in the attempt. The Chairman of the company, impressed by his rose-growing skill, offers him a post as gardener in his country estate, but Eddie still refuses to move. The Chairman then contacts Harry Wheatcroft (a very famous British rose specialist, whom the producers were confident would be willing to play himself) and offers to pay him whatever it would take to move Eddie’s roses successfully. In the end, Wheatcroft is not needed, because Eddie’s roses are killed by an accidental spillage of weed killer. The picture concludes with Eddie, now installed as the Chairman’s gardener, conducting tours round his new rose gardens.
Sherriff delivered the final script to ABPC at the beginning of 1964, although Whittaker was unable to look closely at it at that point, being distracted by problems on his latest Cliff Richard movie. The decline in the company’s fortunes (the success of their teen movies notwithstanding) meant that the script was never put into production, which was a pity, since it was an entertaining tale which would have suited Charlie Drake very well.
34: Windfall (1935)
Produced by Embassy pictures, the movie was largely based on Sherriff’s 1934 play of the same name. The play tells the story of Tom Spooner, who wins £80,000 in a sweepstake, and wants to continue to lead a normal life, although everyone around him has their hands out in different ways to try to grab a piece of his success. Eventually his world crumbles with the suicide of his brother-in-law, for which most people seem to hold him at least partly culpable.
The play was based on Sherriff’s own experience of coming into a windfall (the £80,000 or so he made over two years with Journey’s End), and was not well received when it was first performed, largely because of an unusual, expressionistic, final Act which was not at all what people expected of him. Despite the poor reviews, Embassy Films picked up the option on the play for £225 in 1935 and had produced a ‘quota quickie’ by the end of the year. There are numerous differences between the film and the play, most notably the film’s use of Tom’s son as the primary contrast with Tom’s own behaviour (the boy barely features in the play). The film was also notable for the performance of 18-year old Googie Withers (arms akimbo in the poster shown) as a femme fatale who leads the son astray.
33: Shadow of the Wing (1937)
When Michael Balcon became the first Head of the newly formed MGM-British in December 1936, he took with him a number of projects from Gaumont-British, including Shadow of the Wing, which was intended as an ‘aerial adventure’ promoting the RAF, and starring Clark Gable. By the time Sherriff was assigned to the project it had been through a couple of draft scripts, and Balcon had already sent experienced aerial cameraman Elmer Dyer to England to capture a range of flying shots.
Sherriff’s script, dated January 1938, begins with the 20th reunion of a wartime unit of the Royal Flying Corps – and amidst all the laughter and speeches it is notable that the participants give voice to the ‘theme song’ of the 7th Squadron – which just happens to be the same theme song as Sherriff’s old ‘C’ Company of the 9th East Surreys: ‘Call Round Any Old Time’. Thereafter the story concerns Tim Burke, the the veteran pilot who is put in charge of the testing of a grand, new flying boat that the Air Ministry is building (essentially as a weapon of deterrence, the logic of which is interesting given the growing military pressures at the time the movie was being scripted). The flying sequences are leavened by Tim’s ongoing clashes with his technologically minded second in command, and the development of a ‘hate-at-first-sight’ love interest.
The film went nowhere, however, after the RAF withdrew its co-operation (probably shortly after Sherriff’s version was completed), supposedly after they learned that an American would be taking the lead role. Some of Dyer’s shots were put to good use, however, in Alexander Korda’s 1939 propaganda movie The Lion Has Wings, promoting the power of the Royal Air Force, and Sherriff re-cycled some of the themes in subsequent wartime scripts, notably Flight Command (1940) and Standby for Action (1942).
32: A Prize of Gold (1955)
Prize of Gold is based on the thriller by Max Catto, about a heist that goes badly wrong. It was brought to Sherriff, in 1953, as the fourth picture produced by Warwick Films, a British based production company founded and run by two Americans – Irving Allen and Albert (Cubby) Broccoli (later to become famous as the producer of the James Bond franchise.
The plot centres on the attempts of two young soldiers – one British, one American, to steal a shipment of gold that is being flown on a US military transport. The plot is hatched by Roger, the young Brit, who enrols his uncle in the scheme, and between them they manage to entice the once shady, but now respectable businessman, Alfie Stratton, to act as their potential fence, and to bankroll the operation. Roger, still in the army, wants to make some money quickly because he has dreams of moving to Rhodesia with a recently-rediscovered lost love. The American, Joe, who is Roger’s best friend, wants the money to fund a young German woman he has met (Maria) who wants to relocate some refugee orphans to Latin America. The plan involves hijacking the transport plane, to do which they need to recruit a pilot; Alfie recommends Brian, who is at once charming and unscrupulous. When the plan is implemented, they are successful in stealing the gold, but the aircrew in the plane take possession of it and try to fly off, crashing and dying in the process. Thereafter the thieves retreat to a warehouse which Alfie has provided, but they fall out and fight, leaving Roger and Brian dead, and the certainty of capture awaiting the others.
It is not a happy tale, nor is it especially dramatic, in book form, because much of the back story comes in the form of internal monologues. But the two main characters, Roger and Joe, are very sympathetically drawn. Joe, in particular, is motivated by honourable impulses and was the obvious character on whom to centre the screenplay, because Roger, while also well-meaning, is a romantic at heart, and rather sentimental. Brian makes a first rate villain.
Sherriff’s script follows Catto’s story in broad terms, but prunes Roger’s back story, focusses more on Joe’s links to the refugee children in Berlin, and makes Brian even more villainous than in the book. He completed it in August 1953 but it was not submitted to the PCA until December (by which time it might well have been amended in some degree, although Sherriff’s name remained the only one on the script). The PCA had some objections to one (suggestive) scene, but otherwise were content to let it through. At some point thereafter, however, the Producers seem to have wanted to take the script in a different direction: perhaps the decision to cast Richard Widmark as the leading man meant that Sherriff’s ensemble approach had to be replaced with a script which favoured Joe’s perspective. The changes were obviously made without Sherriff’s assistance, since the writing credits eventually went to Robert Buckner and John Paxton.
The film, eventually released in 1955, was directed by Mark Robson (fresh from The Bridges at Toko-Ri, and who would, a few years later, direct Ingrid Bergman in the very successful Inn of the Sixth Happiness) and featured, in addition to Widmark, Mai Zetterling as Maria, George Cole as Roger and Nigel Patrick as Brian. The reviews were not encouraging: ‘some spectators may wonder why good scenery and a cast headed by such fine players as Richard Widmark and lovely Mai Zetterling were battered by such a leaden and synthetic plot,’ although credit was given to Nigel Patrick, who, ‘as the real villain, walks off with the picture.’ Sherriff, if he thought about it at all, probably felt he had been lucky not to have been associated with the picture, especially since the plot holes identified by the critics were largely those imported from Catto’s original, and his script would likely have suffered very similar criticisms.
31: They Met in Bombay (1941)
When Sherriff moved to the US in June 1940, at the behest of Alex Korda, he worked for a few weeks for MGM, before turning to Korda’s project, Lady Hamilton. He stayed with that until October 1940, whereupon he went back to see out his contract with MGM. He initially worked for a little while on Mrs Miniver, before moving on to a naval film, Cargo of Innocence (known as Stand By For Action in the US, and the next film in our 50-movie countdown).
After finishing work on that, he served out the last few weeks of his contract (up to the end of June 1941) on script doctoring work. One movie on which he offered some rewrites was They Met in Bombay. Starring Clark Gable and Rosalind Russell, the film tells the story of a con man (Gerald) and a jewel thief (Anya) who are each looking to steal a priceless diamond, but who then team up to evade capture. He accidentally becomes a hero after being mistaken for a British officer in Hong Kong and pressed into service against the Japanese.
The film was previewed in May, and a Report of the audience reaction included a number of suggestions for improvements, including the rewriting of two significant scenes: one in Anya’s cabin, as she and Gerald swap back-stories while trying to evade pursuers; the second a very important (and rather poignant) scene in which Gerald is awarded the Victoria Cross.
Sherriff duly obliged, rewriting the cabin scene on 22 May, and the Victoria Cross scene the following day. Neither of his scenes was eventually used, although – as might be expected – his Victoria Cross presentation scene was a big improvement on the one that was eventually screened. Sherriff’s MGM contract came to an end in the last week of June 1940, and shortly afterwards he moved on to Twentieth Century Fox.