30: Cargo of Innocence/Stand By For Action (1942)
Sherriff started working on Cargo of Innocence in late 1940, after having spent a few weeks on Mrs Miniver.
The film started as a short story of the same name, in Ken magazine in May 1938. Written by Laurence Kirk, the story was an account of a real incident which occurred during the Spanish Civil War, when a group of refugee children (accompanied by some heavily pregnant young women) were picked up in the Bay of Biscay by the British ship HMS Tremendous. Metro had commissioned a treatment in 1939, and had even submitted the story outline to the PCA, but then seems to have put it up on the shelf.
Sherriff got to work quickly – his first notes on the subject are dated 18 December, and he had obviously looked over the existing story:
‘Having read previous treatments of this story, I think the mistake to avoid is that of confusing the main idea with an outside plot. They talk about babies and children too much before the time comes for them to rescue the actual babies and children….The rescue should come as a complete surprise, not only to the audience, but to the crew of the Destroyer as well…’
His note then set out the main strands of the story, most of which remained throughout script development (even after he had moved on). His view was that the movie should focus on the life of a British Destroyer under war conditions, to familiarise people with a routine Atlantic patrol. He suggested a young Captain being given, as his first command, an old boat that had fought at Jutland, but had been renovated and brought back into service. Many of the men assigned to the boat would be disappointed with their posting, but the new Captain would strive to instil a fierce pride in the crew, and he would be assisted by an old sailor who had fought in her all those years before and maintained a watching eye over her ever since. Only once the rhythms of the voyage had been established should the surprise of the babies confront the crew. A story outline a couple of days later expanded on the theme, adding an extra character – a young, supercilious Lieutenant from a upper-class family who serves as the Admiral’s aide-de-camp but whom the Admiral is beginning to tire of and who, he feels, would benefit from a tougher job.
There next followed a 60-page script treatment by Sherriff, in conjunction with Harvey Haislip, with whom he had briefly worked on Flight Command earlier in 1940. The script hews to Sherriff’s outline fairly closely, but now the ship is engaged in a search and rescue mission, as well as joining a convoy. It is while steaming to join a convoy that they encounter a small tramp steamer holed by a mine, and limping home. The steamer has a party of women and babies on board – refugees from the Spanish Civil War. The final quarter or so of the script shows how the sailors look after the babies, and focuses on the successful births by the three pregnant women who came on board with the babies – all carried out under the watchful eye of the Commodore who is charged with leading the convoy.
There were subsequent changes to the script – an extra plot about the old seaman dying, and the rooky Lieutenant disobeying the Captain’s orders in order to help him – but by 14 March Sherriff and Haislip handed in their final script. MGM seems to have been thinking about perhaps shooting some of the scenes in the UK, with Robert Donat and Edmund Gwenn, but wartime production difficulties convinced them to shoot in Hollywood. When the US entered the war after Pearl Harbour, the focus of the film changed from the Royal Navy to the US Navy, and the ocean from Atlantic to Pacific. By that time the assistance of the US Navy had been sought by the producers, and some action scenes added (with a very effective close-up of a Japanese plane being shot down by the ship’s gunners, led by the privileged young lieutenant). Production took place during 1942, with the final release date set for the very end of the year.
The film was eventually released, as Stand By For Action, in the United States on December 31 1942 (although it remained Cargo of Innocence in the UK); it starred Brian Donlevy as the ship’s new Captain, and Robert Taylor as the Harvard-educated Lieutenant whom the Admiral wishes to teach a lesson: the Admiral, in this case, was a hopelessly miscast Charles Laughton. Walter Brennan played the old sailor who had been with the ship man and boy. The reviews were not good. This from Bosley Crowther in the New York Times sums up the flavour:
‘Even if Noel Coward’s superior picture In Which We Serve had not recently raised critical standards for all naval films at least 20 per cent, Metro’s florid thriller Stand By for Action…would still be several points below a respectable norm. …It seems like a lot of bad taste and posturing. For – as still seems to be a popular scheme for Hollywood war films – it centers about another of those impudent whelps who must learn a service code; it goes through a lot of familiar and mawkish dutiful-devotional stuff and it sandwiches within a serious war plot some of the most incredible farce you ever saw…Charles Laughton plays …the admiral like a character out of HMS Pinafore and Walter Brennan seems on the verge of tears perpetually as an ancient mariner who is devoted to the ship’.
Sherriff – well away from MGM by the time the film was distributed – would likely have been disappointed, but not surprised, given what he later wrote to Haislip:
‘the happiest months of my stay in America were those when I was working with you on Cargo of Innocence, I enjoyed every moment of that collaboration and do hope one day that we shall work together again. It was a pity the picture was so horribly mutilated, but that is the luck of the game.’
29: Freedom Radio (1941)
Also known as A Voice in the Night, Freedom Radio was produced by Two Cities Films, a company which had been founded by two Italians (Filippo Del Giudice and Mario Zampi) in 1937, but which went on to make some of the best British classic films of the war (including In Which We Serve (1942), The Way Ahead (1944 – a particular favourite of mine since it included an appearance by my father, albeit enclosed inside a Sherman tank in a training montage), Henry V (1945) and The Way to the Stars (1945 – the film which incorporated Rattigan’s Flare Path).
Freedom Radio was the story of an eminent Austrian doctor, who has Hitler for a patient, but gradually turns against the Nazi government when he sees their brutality close at hand, despite the fact that both his wife (a famous actress) and brother-in-law are ardent supporters of the Fuehrer. With the assistance of a young radio repairman (bitter at the loss of his own career because of his anti-Nazi views, and by the rape and arrest of his girlfriend) he sets up a small pirate radio station which proceeds to broadcast anti-Nazi propaganda, encouraging the ordinary people of Germany to fight back. The doctor was played by Clive Brook, an old friend of Sherriff’s, while his wife was played by Diana Wynyard, who had made such an impression as Clare Corven in Sherriff’s 1934 film One More River.
The extent of Sherriff’s involvement in the film is unclear. He began working on it in April 1940, and the relatively small sum which he was paid suggests that he was mainly used in script doctoring work: his manuscript annotations can be seen in the script copy in his files. His work was likely cut short by his departure for the United States in May, at the behest of Alexander Korda, and he certainly did not do enough to warrant a screen credit. The Producers must have liked what he did, however, because he would work for Two Cities again (on Odd Man Out) once the war was over.
28: Mary Stuart (1955)
Early in January 1955 Sherriff received an invitation to lunch with Fritz Gotfurt, the Scenario Editor at Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC). The company was obviously pleased with the job that Sherriff had done on The Dam Busters (which would come to the screen just a few months later), and wondered if he might be interested in writing a script on Mary, Queen of Scots. This was meat and drink to him, as he wrote in a letter to Gotfurt:
‘The suggestion of a screen play dealing with Mary Queen of Scots attracts me very much. It is a period of history which I have always been interested in and the story is a very dramatic one.’
The Mary, Queen of Scots film, or Mary Stuart as it was eventually titled, looked as if it was going to be another prestige project for Associated British. Right at the beginning of Sherriff’s contract he went along to the Cafe Royal for lunch with Gotfurt and the three most senior British men in the company: Sir Philip Warter (Chairman), Dr Eric Fletcher (Vice Chairman) and Robert Clark, the Company’s Head of Production, and the man who had been responsible for Sherriff’s selection as the Dam Busters screenwriter. Clark afterwards wrote to say that ‘like you, I feel we have alighted upon a very good subject which will result in a first class film…I have told Mr Gotfurt…that I would like to be kept advised of his meetings with you just in case I can find time to look in and listen.’ It was good news that Clark wanted to stay closely in touch, since he was the man holding the purse strings.
Sherriff started preparations in a very similar way to his work on St Helena (his play about the last years of Napoleon) – simply reading up on the subject (including biographies such as The Life of Mary Stuart, by Agnes Strickland and Eric Linklater’s Mary, Queen of Scots; and plays by Schiller (Mary Stuart) and Gordon Daviot (Queen of Scots)) and then setting down a series of events in chronological order which would form the basis of a structure. Within a few weeks he and Gotfurt had embarked on a series of meetings which would continue from June all the way through until the beginning of November, but in the meantime, in late July, Sherriff delivered what he called a ‘Scenario’, although it looks much more like a screenplay and presumably represented the initial fulfilment of the contract. But the screenplay continued to develop as the months wore on, until eventually a final script was completed on 17 November.
Tackling Mary’s entire life story in a single script is a very ambitious project, but Sheriff tried to simplify the task by breaking it down into four broad stages:
– The first quarter of the script covers the infant Mary’s coronation, her departure for France, and her life there until the death of her young husband (King Francis II) in 1560.
– The next section covers her triumphant return to Edinburgh, and her subsequent immersion in the intrigues of the Scottish nobility. It then examines her marriage to Lord Darnley (who was egged into the marriage by Queen Elizabeth, who preferred that match to Mary’s betrothal to the son of the King of Spain); and the murder of her Secretary Rizzio by her husband and his followers.
– The third section focuses on the ‘tragedy of Bothwell’ – his love for the Queen, his murder of Darnley, and his subsequent exile;
– The final section begins with Mary giving up the throne of Scotland to her son (who would become James VI and I), with her half-brother (James, Earl Moray) as Regent; and then it follows her to England where she is arrested and imprisoned and, despite efforts to rescue her, ultimately executed.
The early sections present a remarkably vivid account of Mary – pretty, smart, talented and strong minded. She is shown as loving her young French husband, and reinforcing him in his Kingly duties, and she herself is seen as embracing the duties and status of her role with some relish. The early scenes are by far the most engaging, because by the mid-point of the script (which, at 240 pages, is on the long side) it begins to get lost in the weeds of Scottish politics. Nevertheless, there are some excellent character portraits: Bothwell, in particular, is a magnetic presence on the page. Mary’s half-brother James, and Darnley are much less sympathetic, but still very well written characters whom it is easy to picture on-screen.
Sadly, however, their characters would never make it off the page, perhaps, in part, because Clark was shunted aside as Director of production having upset Jack Warner with what were perceived to be his anti-American sympathies. In due course the studio sold off the rights they held to both the Gordon Daviot play, and Sherriff’s screenplay for just £3,000, considerably less than the £5,000 they had paid him for writing it.
27: Spur of Pride (1937)
When Sherriff left for Hollywood, with his mother, on 7 August 1937 he took with him the initial draft of his third assignment for MGM (following his work on Goodbye, Mr Chips and Three Comrades) – an adaptation of a P C Wren story, The Man of a Ghost (published in America as Spur of Pride, which was what the film was to be called). He kept working on the script while in Hollywood, eventually completing it when he returned to England in October.
Wren’s story is a real Boy’s Own yarn, about the court-martialling, cashiering (and apparent subsequent death) of a British officer, Captain Richard Wendover, who then becomes a private spy for the British among the gun runners and bandits of the Afghan mountains; after many adventures he is finally exonerated, partly with the help of his friend Hazelrigg. It combines elements of many other adventure yarns, bringing to mind books such as Kim, The Four Feathers and Wren’s other fort-bound books like the various Beaus, but its primary interest lies in the vitriol it heaps on the main villain – a Doctor in the Indian Medical Service, Lieutenant Alec Breckinge, a ‘half-caste….Eurasian’ whose grandfather was a British general, but whose grandmother was an untouchable sweeper-woman, from whom he inherited ‘vices additional to those of the fathers…’. Although not an especially long book it is difficult to bring to the screen since it has so many different episodes in different locales, united by an overarching theme. Thankfully, Sherriff’s script made sure to lose the racist asides completely, and much of the plot, replacing it with a long device of his own making – gun-running by pleasure steamer – which would have greatly added to the visuals if the film had ever been made (especially since it included a posse of young soldiers going incognito as women on the boat).
The most interesting change between book and screenplay, however, is in the relationship between Wendover and the friend who helps him challenge the court-martial verdict. In the book his friend is slightly older (a Major to his Captain), while in the film he becomes a much younger lieutenant, prompted to action by his hero-worship for Wendover. It is not obvious why Sherriff felt he had to make the change: perhaps he felt that Hazelrigg’s commitment to his friend was easier to explain in a young and idealistic man, than in an old and more senior friend; or perhaps he was comfortable returning to a Stanhope/Raleigh type of relationship. Whatever the reason, at least on this occasion the young “Raleigh” did not die from his wounds. Nor did Wendover, although Sherriff did have him opting out of the army for ever (whereas in Wren’s book he seized his old role with relish again).
Sherriff’s script is lively, very cinematic, and leavened with his trademark humour. There were several other, similar, movies in vogue at the time (including Korda’s Sanders of the River (1936), The Drum (1938) and the Sherriff-scripted The Four Feathers (1939); Paramount’s Lives of A Bengal Lancer (1935) and Beau Geste (1939); and RKO’s Gunga Din (1939)), and this would probably have stood up well against them.
26: Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Carl Laemmle Junior, son of the Head and Founder of Universal Studios, had produced a number of successful horror movies for the company – Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Man and the Wolfman – and he was interested in preparing sequels of all of them, hoping that James Whale would direct the first two. He acquired the rights to a Bram Stoker short story (Dracula’s Guest) from David O Selznick, at MGM, and planned to have Whale direct it straight after completing Bride of Frankenstein, with Sherriff as scriptwriter (because of the good job he had done on The Invisible Man). But, after Bride, Whale wanted a break from horror, hoping instead to direct a remake of Show Boat, which had been a massive stage success and which – as a big budget movie – had been featured on the Universal schedule at various points in the previous few years.
After Sherriff had completed his work on Her Excellency the Governor (Movie Countdown No. 42) he began work on Dracula’s Daughter in May 1935, finishing his initial draft around August . The first section of the script sets up Dracula’s back-story. It opens, stirringly, with the Count’s men rampaging through the countryside abducting young women from their villages and transporting them to the castle for the pleasure of the Count’s guests, who play dice for the privilege of first choice among the captives. Dracula seduces one of the young women, and calls her his daughter. The villagers enlist the help of the ancient magician Talifer, who turns the Count into a vampire, and his guests into various other creatures. The castle is then condemned to age a thousand years in an instant.
Still at the Castle, in the present day, four young people (two brother-sister engaged couples) hear the vampire legend, and the boys decide to explore the Castle at night: one (John) falls under the spell of Dracula’s daughter, and is kept in the Castle, while the other (David) escapes but is driven almost to madness. The vampire hunter Van Helsing comes to help, and, when they find that Dracula’s daughter has been shipped to London in her coffin (with John at her side), they follow closely behind. They eventually track her down, and when she realises they are closing in she quickly arranges to be shipped back to Transylvania in her coffin, again with John as an escort. On board ship, they try but fail to get through to her coffin, and when they finally persuade the Captain to inspect it, she summons up a mighty storm, causing the ship to founder, but not before Van Helsing drives a stake through her heart, lifting the spell on John.
With its very obvious satanic, sexual and sadistic themes it is a wonder that anyone at Universal felt they would be given the opportunity to make the film. According to the records of the Production Code Administration ((PCA) – the US movie censor), the film was submitted ‘off-the-record’ to its boss, Joseph Breen, in early September 1935. He was horrified, writing in an internal memorandum that:
‘This story…contains countless offensive stuff which makes the picture utterly impossible for approval under the production Code. [We] talked with Junior Laemmle about the matter yesterday afternoon, and told him definitely, we could not approve the picture.’
He went on to note that he had since spoken to Junior Laemmle, who had assured him, that ‘Mr Sherriff, the playwright’ was rewriting the story entirely, ‘cutting out much of the dangerous material which it now contains.’
The film had also been submitted to the British Board of Film Censors, whose chief censor, Colonel John Hanna, was equally abrupt:
‘Dracula was ghoulish-weird-eerie and every other adjective in the language that expresses Horror, but Dracula’s Daughter would require the resources of half a dozen more languages to adequately express its beastliness. I consider this absolutely unfit for exhibition as a film.’
It seems likely that not everyone at Universal was surprised, or even disappointed, at the results of the PCA’s deliberations. There seems little doubt that Whale was not keen to begin work on Dracula’s Daughter, preferring to continue his preparations for Show Boat, which he would eventually begin shooting in December 1935. And it has been suggested that Whale may have egged Sherriff on to write a script that was much (much!) more outrageous than his normal fare.
Sherriff had written the script in England, but travelled to Hollywood (with his mother) for talks in September, carrying with him an updated screenplay. Further redrafting took place over the next couple of weeks, and a new script was sent to the PCA, which still urged further changes, suggesting, ‘respectfully, that you take out of the script those elements in scene, dialogue or action, which tend to flavour the story with sex…’ They then set out an extensive list of suggestions, most amusingly that, in the early part of the script:
‘where Dracula’s soldiers sweep the countryside and bring to his castle a group of young women, with the sprinkling of men, that you affirmatively indicate that the purpose for which the young girls have been abducted is to provide dancing partners for the Count’s assembled guests at the banquet.’
The point was reinforced by the suggestion that Dracula’s speech to his guests could be amended to include the line: ‘…you shall choose your partners for the dance in order of your rank…’. The rest of the detailed points were made along similar lines, but with additional proscriptions on religious or sadistic imagery, or excessive drunkenness. It was clear, though, from the generally conciliatory tone of the letter that the PCA felt that things were moving in the right direction.
The whole business had dragged on so long, however, that no progress was now possible with James Whale, for he was very firmly engaged on Show Boat. Sherriff, too, had moved on, for Universal had given him permission to sign with Irving Thalberg at MGM to write the screenplay for Goodbye, Mr Chips. But Universal carried on with Dracula’s Daughter, as they needed to begin production before February 1936 or the rights to the story would lapse to Selznick. A new script was completed by Garret Fort and the film was handed over to director Lambert Hillyer. It bears little resemblance to the project as conceived by Sherriff and Whale, although it was well reviewed when it was eventually released on 11 May 1936 – just six days before Whale’s triumphant Show Boat.
Sherriff was unlikely to have been much troubled by the fate of the project, for in the six months between his script discussions in Hollywood and the film’s release, he had prepared the first draft of Goodbye, Mr Chips for MGM; had seen his Napoleonic play, St Helena (jointly written with Jeanne De Casalis) finally produced on stage, first by the Old Vic, and then at Daly’s in the West End; and had seen his latest novel, Greengates, serialised in Good Housekeeping, prior to its publication by Gollancz in June 1936. Not bad for someone who described himself as a ‘slow writer’.