History of Leith, Edinburgh

October 18, 2005

My Edinburgh Movie Memories

M y first visit to a Cinema was in 1932 to the Haymarket Picture House (the Haymie) in Dairy Road. I was five years old at the time, and apparently over-whelmed by the darkened auditorium, I howled the place down, and had to be taken home. Time, however, healed all cinematographic wounds, and I soon became a firm film fan, albeit On Saturday afternoons at matinee times.
Like all youngsters, the ‘heroes’ were the favourites, and such ‘goodies’ included Tom Mix. Johnny Weismuller, and Buster Crabbe. Imitations of their screen activities could result in some parental concern, and a ‘thick ear’ was perhaps the only reward for some ener getic impersonations.
What used to baffle me about films in those days was the fact that I’d see James Cagney being plugged in ‘Public Enemy Number One’, then a couple of weeks later, he’d appear as large as life in ‘0 Men’ with not a scratch on him.
Apart from the swash-buckling heroes. one tended to forget those inevitable villains, whose names appeared half-way down the cast lists, yet who managed to maintain steady employment as out-and- out ‘baddies’ bent on plying their wicked trade, and doing the heroes no favours whatsoever.
In this respect. Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were the arch-villains, whose Frankenstein and Dracula connections were not conducive to pleasant dreams. Villains were never more evident than in a cowboy picture, with those mean, ornery-looking, unkempt. unshaven critters, usually dressed in black, their trigger-fingers itching to prove — “This joint aint big enough for both of us-” The ‘goodies’. of course, had to beat the ‘baddies’ in the end, with ‘High Noon’ perhaps the prime example of that.
Gangster movies proliferated in the Thirties, and while Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson served their Hollywood apprenticeships in ‘bad guys’ roles, their later careers concentrated on more substantial Oscar-related characterisations. In such gangster films, however, one would invariably observe the regular villains in the forms of Joe Sawyer, Barton McLane, and Eduardo Cianelli. The latter mellowed in later years, and often appeared in more law-abiding parts as a Judge or local Doctor. Perhaps he
just got fed-up carting a tommy-gun around, or chucking all them stiffs out of bullet-proof car doors.
Despite his flawless diction, Basil Rathbone made an excellent villain. especially in ‘Captain Blood’, where he sought, by fair means cit foul, to succeed in that remarkable sword-fight on the beach, but he just couldn’t do that to Errol Flynn.
Henry Danielle was another, whose English accent was impeccable, but he was usually scheming sadistic schemes in the Royal Courts of long, long ago.
The ‘Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde’ theme threw up a hero/villain complex, with Spencer Tracy proving the definitive villain in his version of Stevenson’s story, hut my favourite villain, if such it may be called, was George Zucco, who starred as the wicked Professor Moriaty in a Sherlock Holmes adventure. The man simply oozed villainy, thus reveal ing his obvious talent as a great actor, which could not be said of some of the present cult of so-called filmland personalities, who depend largely on visual gimmicks to see them through.
Were there any villains in British films in the Thirties? Severe critics would suggest, “Yes — the film-makers.” They seemed to lack the Midas touch in cinematic presentation, and really churned out some (dare I say it?) monstrous films
The one man, who did carry the British villain banner, was Tod Slaughter in his fearsome ‘Sweeney Todd’ role, though in recent years, it would be safe to say that Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee managed to project a healthier approach to villainy.
Less villainous villains were Thurston Hall as the scheming politician, always doing shady deals, and Bruce Cabot as the two-timing. double crossing D.A., who gets the canary to sing with the promise of a pardon, which he doesn’t provide, and the ‘cons’ in the big ‘pen’ aim to settle that score when they ‘bust out’. All good villainous stuff worth a hiss or two at the best of times.
The villain is evident in all walks of life, and the eventual triumph of good over evil is an essential part of the film maker’s flair.
In the film industry, the unwritten law seems to be that — ‘as long as the “baddie” gets his come-uppance, then it’s good for business.’ So it’s easy to see why there’s always a villain.
JOHN M. ROBERTSON
© Scottish Memories

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