Five stand out performances by the “best bad girl in British films”.
The following is an extract of an interview with Googie Withers and Claude Gonzalez at the Sydney Film Festival June 2003.
ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING and MICHAEL POWELL
Claude: A wonderful role, Googie.
GOOGIE: It was wonderful, yes. It was.
CLAUDE: It’s – it’s incredible too that Michael Powell saw the fact that he could actually tap into a serious side from the roles you had been playing in comedies. The role was quite assertive – you put all the men in their place in the film, and your presence is felt for the rest of the film. That style became part of your character almost, to stand up for yourself, to call attention to who you were. And that came out in a few films, this one in particular.
GOOGIE: I still kept them as friends.
CLAUDE: Yes, it’s quite refreshing in that period.
GOOGIE: Yes, I didn’t let them get away with anything very much.
CLAUDE: You never let Powell get away with much too, because he was very assertive himself.
GOOGIE: Oh, I didn’t let him get away with anything. He was a cruel man and he was quite cruel sometimes to some of his actors. I mean, Godfrey Tearle was a very, very, very famous actor and he was in this film, ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING, and he was really one of our great leading men and he had this part of the – the rear gunner, rather old for a rear gunner but he was – you know, he came down and we were getting him through and he wanted him to do something. Oh, I don’t know, something quite silly: a sort of a embarrassed kind of thank you to me and shake me by the hand and give me a little sort of bow and it didn’t come naturally to him, you know. He didn’t really know what he – what – what Mickey wanted and Mickey looked at him and he said, “You know, Sir Godfrey, I always was told that you were a great actor. I’m not seeing much of it now.” And I thought, ’Oh, God!’ Really, he was – he was frightening. He was like that.
He – I once couldn’t stand for my lights for some reason. There was a girl who was my – you know, if you’re playing a big part, you have somebody to stand in for your lights, because otherwise you’d never get a rest and she was standing for my lights, but when she came he was terribly rude to her and said, “You know, if you want to get anywhere, you shouldn’t be doing this job. Go and be a, I don’t know, bus conductor or something. I mean, it’s ridiculous.” And he really – he made her feel very small and she burst into tears and he said, “Oh, well, go away. Get out of my sight.” And so he said, “Googie, I’m sorry, I’ve got to ask you to stand for your lights, because,” he said, “You know, your stand in has gone.” I said, “Yes, you sacked her, quite – you – you’ve got no right to have sacked her.” I said – it wasn’t her fault that she was late," but I said, “You lost your temper and you were quite impossible,” and I said, “I’m not going to stand for my lights.” And he said, “What?” I said, “I am not going to stand for my lights.” I said, “I’ll stand for my lights if you call her back now and apologise to her.” He said, “I’ve never done that in my life.” I said, “No, well, you’re going to today. I can promise you.” So she did, she came back. He called her back and he said, “I’ve been asked by Googie to apologise to you.” So she said – he said, “You can stand for your lights now.” She said, “Mr Powell, I wouldn’t stand for the lights on anything that you do ever again as long as I live.” And she walked off and I said; “Now I will stand for my lights.”
No, he was – he was a funny man.
CLAUDE: Powell & Pressberger had a very interesting sense of humour because both didn’t mind having fun with roles, and Powell actually cast your mother in a small bit part.
GOOGIE: Oh, but that was sweet. What happened was that – that in this film they wanted Dutch-speaking people. Well, of course, there were a lot of Dutch people at that time in England who were refugees. And my mother was living outside London because of the bombing and everything and she was living in a small place called Gerrards Cross, which is near Denham Studio. And he said, “Does anybody know Dutch speaking people?” Well, he said to me, he said, “Well, for instance Googie, your mother speaks Dutch, of course, because she’s a Dutch woman.” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, do you think she’d – she’d play one of the parts, because I want her to speak Dutch?” I said to him, “I’m sure she’d love to.” I said, “I think she’s been wanting to be an actress all her life.” So he got her and she was thrilled to bits. It was so sweet. She had her car call for her 5.30 in the morning to get her made up and ready to go on and she played the part of a – of a peasant and she was a wonderful Dutch peasant and she had her few lines.
And then, interestingly enough, one of the parts in the – in this film was played by Bobby Helpmann and he was a Quisling and he had to speak Dutch, of course. So my mother coached him and he had some lines in Dutch and I could see them in a corner, you know, while he was trying to pronounce them properly. Well, Mummy was saying, “No. No. No, nobody would think of you as being Dutch. Not with that voice. It’s a terrible voice,” which was very funny. It was rather sweet.
ROBERT HAMER and IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY
CLAUDE: Robert Hamer was one of the most collaborative directors you worked with on a few of your films.
GOOGIE: Robert Hamer was a great, great director. He was a wonderful man. He – he wasn’t an actor. Now this is so funny because we always think in our business that an actor who becomes a director what goes on in an actor’s mind and we like to be directed by actors. But in this case Robert was not an actor. He was a mathematician and he had left Oxford with all the degrees in the world for – aren’t they know as wranglers? Is that right? He was a senior wrangler.
And so, I mean, why go into the film industry. It’s very funny, isn’t it? But, however, he was a great director and I loved working for him, but he was a drunkard and that was what killed him. It was very sad.
CLAUDE: Because his reputation really hasn’t surfaced – he did PINK STRING AND SEALING WAX, the DEAD OF NIGHT sequence with you, and then very famously, IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY.
CLAUDE: Which was really one of the first European – well, English films, to take that European reality…
GOOGIE: Absolutely. We were the first English film to do that. We went out into the streets and we – we hardly had a set in the studios at all and it gave a tremendous reality to the film, and it made more money for Ealing Studios than any film they had made. Even, including all those – those films with – with Alec Guinness, you know, which were always so funny. They were lovely films.
CLAUDE: It was also ahead of its time with showing the reality of domesticity – sleeping in the same bed for example.
GOOGIE: Well, you weren’t allowed to sleep in a double bed in those days. Weren’t allowed to sleep and you weren’t allowed to have kissing in the lying down position. You had to be sitting up. Weren’t allowed anything like that. But I – I did IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY and I had a – an elderly husband and I was his second wife, I was the same age as his daughters, and he and I got into bed together because Robert Hamer was absolutely determined that we were going to get into bed together, which we did. And I said to him, I said, “God, you’ve got cold feet.” I said, “I’m glad I’m not married to you.” Icy cold feet he had.
CLAUDE: He’s a very detailed director, Hamer, as well and he seems to put a lot of work into this work.
GOOGIE: Yes, he was. You know, he once said to me when he chose me, when John (McCallum) shows his back – because he’s been whipped, you know, and he said, you know, my immediate reaction is one of horror and I say, “Your back!” And he (Hamer) said, “I don’t want to hear the K.” “What?” I said. He said, “I don’t want to hear the K.” “What, ‘Your ba..!’” He said, “That’s it.” Yes, detailed is right. He was. He was a very particular man about those kind of things.
CLAUDE: What do you think makes a good director, Googie?
GOOGIE: Well, that’s always a difficult one, isn’t it? You know it the moment – you get together. You know it. Reputations are nothing. I mean, you might hear that so and so is a great – a great director and then you meet him and you find that he does nothing. Nothing. I remember John (McCallum) and I had Claudette Colbert out for lunch when she was over here doing AREN’T WE ALL, and – and he said, you know, he said, “You know, that IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT was marvellous.” And I mean, everybody got Oscars for it and so on and he said, “What did you think of Frank Capra?” She said, “He doesn’t say a thing.” So he said, “Well, who was good?” She said, “None of them.” Well, you’ve got that attitude too because sometimes you – you – you find that they don’t really know what they’re – but maybe they’re great – this is – I’m talking about films. Maybe they’re great on camera work and on editing and they can make or break a performance by editing. That’s easy. I mean, you know, you get a wonderful shot and – and they think, oh, that’s – that’s no good. We’ll shoot the bridge of – the bridge over there. So I mean, some wonderful piece of acting goes for nothing.
I think that directors, if they can visualise what they want and they have cast you because presuming they know what you can do and they want you in the part, and then you get up on that stage or in a film studio and they give you your head. In other words they say, "Well, right. Okay. We’ll go ahead with this, and they watch you and then they might, if they are good, they will come and say, “I think you could do this with it.” Then you’ve got a director. But if they say, “Yeah, that’s all right.” You know, you think, “Oh, God, it can’t be all right. You know, it – must be something wrong with it somewhere.” And you do need that – that confidence in a man that he knows what you can do and he leaves you to do it but gives you encouragement.
NIGHT and the CITY and Jules Dassin
CLAUDE: The escalation of the studio system in the UK and of bringing out American stars had occurred by then, and you were working with quite a few people – like Richard Widmark in NIGHT IN THE CITY?
GOOGIE: Yes. Well, NIGHT AND THE CITY was a wonderfully exciting film to make because it was made at night, in London and in the streets and all the people that we used as sort of extras were real people.
I mean they weren’t extras. There were the boxers, and there were the sleazy fellows who ran those awful, awful clubs, and there were whores and they were all in the film. It was a wonderful film to make.
CLAUDE: What was Jules Dassin like to work with?
GOOGIE: Jules was great. He was a great, great director. Wonderful man and he was – he was very funny because eventually – it was quite tough this film. It was tougher than it was allowed to be. The censor cut an awful lot and I got a letter from him from Hollywood. I can’t repeat what he said in the letter but I can tell you what he thought of them. It was such a funny letter. But an awful lot of it was cut. Words and – I mean it was the first time, I think – I said to him, “You’ll never get this one.” You know, it was 1951 or something like that.
CLAUDE: Fifty, yes.
GOOGIE: Fifty, yes. I mean, you’ve never heard words like that. I mean, one never even heard it normally but to hear it on a film, you know. I mean they had these – these – these girls and these wrestlers and things all in SOHO.
CLAUDE: And all the characters were quite vile. You played a very acidic person.
GOOGIE: Oh, they were. I was a vile woman. Oh, dreadful woman…Widmark was a sweet man. He was nice.Read less