David Lean: A Biography

Source: Kevin Brownlow, David Lean: A Biography (London: Faber & Faber, 1997 [orig. 1996]) p. 203

Text: I was making GREAT EXPECTATIONS down at Rochester when the first print came through [of Brief Encounter] … I suggested we ask the local theatre if they would run a preview. Rochester was a pretty tough town in those days and at the first love scene one woman down in the front started to laugh. I’ll never forget it. And the second love scene in got worse. And then the audience caught on and waited for her to laugh and then they all joined in and it ended in an absolute shambles. They were rolling in the aisles – partly, I must admit, laughing at the woman, she had such a funny laugh. I remember going back to the hotel, and lying on the bed almost in tears thinking, ‘How can I get into the laboratory at Denham and burn the negative?’ I was so ashamed of it.

Comments: David Lean (1908-1991) was a British film director, whose films included Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946). The film being previewed was Brief Encounter, and the Rochester cinema was the Majestic (later named Gaumont).

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3 Responses to David Lean: A Biography

  1. David Rayner says:

    I think that in David Lean’s version of “Oliver Twist” (1948), Abraham Sofaer would have been far better as Fagin than Alec Guinness was. In some instances, Lean didn’t seem to have the common sense to know when something wasn’t going to look right on film and sorely needed someone at his side to tell him when things weren’t right. For instance, forty minutes into “Great Expectations” (1946), the character of 13 years old Pip (Anthony Wager) aged six years to 19 and was suddenly played by the 39 years old John Mills, who looked far too old to be a teenager and couldn’t have looked older if he’d been wearing a trench coat; a trilby hat and been puffing on a pipe. It looked ridiculous and I can almost hear J. Arthur Rank at the first private screening of the film saying to Lean “For God’s sake, Dave, what have you done? He looks no more 19 than I do!” As for “Oliver Twist”, again a bad decision by Lean having Alec Guinness wear that gigantic parrot’s bill type false nose. It makes the whole part of Fagin look completely farcical. It’s a damn shame, really, because the rest of these two films are excellent and it really does make me wonder how Lean could make two great films that were completely ruined by, in the case of John Mills, the wrong actor for the part and in the case of Alec Guinness, the wrong make up.

  2. I would add to that having Estella change from Jean Simmons to Valerie Hobson, an abrupt change of facial and physical type that has always marred Great Expectations for me.

  3. David Rayner says:

    Yes, Luke, that is very jarring too. The problem here is that Anthony Wager and Jean Simmons are so superb while they are in it for the first forty minutes, that when they leave the film, it has nowhere else to go but down and never quite recovers from the abrupt change. The child character having to ‘grow up’ into an adult version during the course of a film has always been a problem and if the right actor or actress to play the grown up version of the character isn’t chosen with extreme care, the results can be dire.

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