The Show Of Shows
Being the back-stage story of the visit of leading Hollywood stars for this year´s Royal Film Performance of "The Mudlark"
Story by Leonard Wallace - Photography by James Jarché
A plane cruised over the landing-field; a woman stepped down the gangway; reporters pressed forward; cameras reached upwards. Hats waved; there were quick handshakes; a rush through the formalities; and the star was off to London town. The overture was over; the show was due.
It was Monday seven days before the Royal Film Performance. The next week was to be a long slog of rehearsals, conferences, fittings and interviews - one of the most arduous weeks any star could spend.
Jarché and I set off with camera and diary to report it.
The woman at the airport was Claudette Colbert.
Very trim and chic was Claudette after a long Atlantic flight, very much the Colbert you have come to know through her delightful light-comedy performances.
She posed easily and naturally for the cameramen, pointing out her worst side (photographically), although we could discern no difference between the fascinating right profile and the fascinating left.
Asked for the secret of a happy marriage she said, with a Parisian shrug of the shoulder: "I guess it´s being married to a nice man."
On the Tuesday a much delayed plane arrival kept us hovering over the telephone, awaiting the arrival of Montgomery Clift and Irene Dunne.
Flight 101 finally touched down four and a half hour behind schedule. As the stars arrived in London, we scrambled frantically between the Savoy and the Claridges. Jarché and I caught Monty Clift at the Savoy, making a most un-starlike entry, carrying one of his own bags and handling two others to a page. From one a pair of pyjamas was spilling.
Simply dressed in comfortable tweeds an looking oddly young for so striking an actor, Clift relaxed immediately with a complete lack of formality. His first act was to read his large mail.
We made date with Clift for a later occasion and dashed off to Claridges. But Irene Dunne was resting after the long journey: we didn´t disturb her.
When we finally photographed Irene, after she had recovered from the journey, it was in a room so full of flowers as the orchid house at Kew´s - and exquisitely arranged flowers, too.
Miss Dunne - one tends to call her that - was charming, as always. But one sensed an anxiety concerning the all-important night. She was not unaware of the controversy which attended the choice of The Mudlark as the Royal Film, and so she said, rather breathlessly: " I hope they´ll like it." One rather gathered , though, that she thought they would.
Gloria Swanson exploded among us. There is no other word for the impact which this vital, evergreen personality made from the moment the liner tied up at Southhampton.
She swept into Waterloo, late in the evening, and received an ovation from those fans who mysteriously get to the right platform at the right time.
At the Savoy, with and audience of Press inquisitors, Gloria gave a superb performance, answering every sort of question fluently, wittily, flamboyantly and sometimes devastatingly. All the time she talked into the microphone of a portable recording set, so that the interviews could be sent back to the United States for use on her radio programme.
A Round Of Reception
Her beautiful daughter, Michelle, an eighteen-year-old with all the glamour of a sophisticated gazelle, watched her mother alight with eyes of admiration. So indeed did everyone else in the room. The woman is, quite simply, miraculous.
Wherever Jarché and I went, we ran into Peter Duncan, "In Town Tonight´s" producer, waiting to brief one star or another regarding the radio assignment.
Apart from all this, there were constant Press interviews and photographic sessions, and, for the feminine stars, visits to hairdressers and couturiers. There weren´t many half-hours left to the Amercian visitors for purely holiday pursuits.
On Friday Vera-Ellen came back. As she stepped off the plan we saw that she put back a little of the weight she had lost while making Happy Go Lovely at Elstree. It was a great thrill for her to be back.
And so to the official Press reception held this year at historic Londonderry House, with portraits of Londonderry ancestors exchanging rather startled stares over the heads of several million pounds worth of modern glamour tightly packed amid a mass of professional observers.
It was impossible to meet everyone, but as I was propelled from star to star by other´s people elbows, I could see, that Claudette Colbert was having a considerable personal success.
On Saturday, Jarché and I went backstage at the Empire, where, in a cramped underground rehearsal room, a bevy of British screen beauties and their equally notabel escorts ran through a number from "Floradora" in charming white period costumes.
Somehow, inspite of hovering publicity men, photographers and flash bulbs, it was reminded irresistibly of the end-of-term play at school.
From the rehearsal we went on to Broadcasting House, where the American stars, with Alec Guinness as compère, were to appear in "In Town Tonight". We watched the rehearsal.
Irene Dunne kicked off her shoes as she rehearsed and munched a bisquit between lines of dialogue. MOnty Clift ran through his lines with his shirt collar open and tie loose. Gloria Swanson put on her exotic spectacles to read her script. Claudette Colbert smilingly asked, after one passage: "Must I say that? It´s true, but it´s so dull?"
Finally, the Big Night. For the American visitors the climax of a week packed with hard work, continuous interviews and photographic sessions. But they left with a moment in their minds they will always remember.
(Picturegoer, November 18. 1950)