Focussing on the 1930s to 1950s, my PhD examined the career of the actor James Mason as he achieved stardom in Britain, and then made a difficult transition to Hollywood. My primary aim was to explore the inter-relationship between performance, stardom and national identity, in what I believe to be a diverse and under-examined career. As with any star, part of this also involved considering the performance of the off-screen or ‘real’ James Mason during this time.
Although in later years he acquired more of the aura of a benign elder statesman, Mason had an enduring off-screen reputation as a ‘difficult’ actor – with one profile in the 1950s describing him as ‘the rudest man in Hollywood.’ This was probably most evident when, during the height of his stardom in Britain, he seemed intent on sabotaging his career. After eight years of limited success as a leading man he had become enormously successful as the eponymous Marquis of Rohan in the 1943 Gainsborough melodrama The Man in Grey. Further successes, in Fanny by Gaslight (1944), The Wicked Lady (1945) and, especially, The Seventh Veil (1945), quickly consolidated his status and created a distinct and unusual persona for a major star, that of a saturnine, charismatic, brute – while studio era male stars sometimes played anti-heroes, very few consistently played villains.
James Mason in The Man in Grey (1943)
A parallel off-screen image emerged during this time which established the actor himself as a truculent and opinionated figure. Unusual at a time when publicity material tended to stress a star’s dedication, modesty, and gratitude to the industry and their fans, this was at least in keeping with his on-screen persona. By contrast, a contemporary such as John Mills would have struggled with such an intransigent image. Mason was also an unusually prolific author of articles in this period, and used them to freely express his views about his career, and also about the British film industry and its perceived shortcomings. These pieces were not confined to fan magazines, and, with such titles as ‘I Hate Producers’ and ‘Why I am Going to America’ were far more opinionated and polemical than the standard, often ghosted, promotional material expected from film stars. Along with the drawings he frequently produced to illustrate these pieces, they can be read as a counter-narrative to the often negative accounts of Mason which began to appear in the fan, trade and lay press.
Mason was consistently forthright in his criticism of the domestic industry and his admiration of Hollywood, and became increasingly outspoken and intemperate during the decade. In ‘What encouragement is there for British Stars?,’ a 1944 article for Picturegoer magazine, he defended those who had relocated to America, arguing that ‘most of the British actors in Hollywood had very little encouragement here.’ Comparing the two industries, he says ‘I have always had such immense admiration for American-made films and in the not so distant past found very few British which aroused a like enthusiasm.’[i]
Reviewing his career for Picture Post in 1947, he described the recent Odd Man Out as ‘the one completely satisfactory film of all the thirty I have been in.’ Among numerous criticisms of others, he finds that They Were Sisters ‘got progressively worse in the course of its making,’ says of Fanny by Gaslight that ‘I can’t say that I liked the finished product very much,’ and calls The Wicked Lady ‘an excellent story which contrived to appear extremely vulgar on the screen.’[ii]
Though more oblique in its message than such articles, Mason’s 1945 piece ‘Glamour’, for the miscellany magazine Summer Pie, proved the most controversial. Ostensibly, the piece is about how theatre and film have lost their magical aura as they have become more familiar to him. Saying that he finds ‘precious little glamour in British pictures,’ he pointedly envisions a ramshackle production in which the director is sacked and his ‘abysmally ignorant’ replacement has to film an actor from the waist up because he has broken his leg in a drunken fall. The piece ends on a rhapsodic mock-credo:
Tell me, if you please, that Hollywood is slipping, that it has made no outstanding films for the past four years, that Denham’s portentous product will presently wipe the floor… I have faith. I have faith in the sacred permanence of an institution which fills my eyes … with such delight and my mind with the glorious company of Carmen Miranda, Lena Horne, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, Jean Gabin.[iii]
James Mason, ‘Glamour’, Summer Pie, 1945, p. 83
Mason’s expansive paean to Hollywood was not widely commented on, but his belittling of British film-making practices brought a flood of condemnation from the industry and was widely reported and debated in the trade press. The actor was reprimanded by his former director Anthony Asquith, then head of the Association of Cinema Technicians, and the union itself threatened him with exclusion from the studios. He retaliated by offering to cancel his film contracts and withdraw from the industry. The issue resurfaced in the mainstream press the following year after an Express article ‘I am sick of films says James Mason,’ in which he claimed to be turning down Hollywood offers but unwilling to work in Britain. ‘When I see a film of my own on the screen, he was reported as saying, ‘I am pleased when I see myself but bored with the rest of it.’[iv]
Daily Express, 4 January, 1946, p. 3
The actor’s departure for America was now almost inevitable. By the time he left in 1947, the British film industry’s sense of anger and betrayal was especially acute because of the economic problems it faced in the post-war climate. J. Arthur Rank’s ambitions to challenge Hollywood had succeeded in an unprecedented US distribution deal for British films with the major studios and, after the great American success of The Seventh Veil, Mason’s name was a prominent part of the Rank portfolio being touted there. The plan collapsed within months, after the British government’s unexpected imposition of a 75% Import Duty on foreign films soured relations between the two industries and the studio refocused attention on domestic production.
Certain themes emerge from Mason’s sustained polemical attacks, most notably about the poverty of creative talent and ambition within an industry which he regarded as parochial and insular. However, some elements of humour and provocation, as well as strategic self-publicity, are also undoubtedly involved. While Mason’s articles and comments represent an unaligned, individualist stance, the critique of the national industry does echo some of the views of the ‘quality’ film critics of the time – who, for example, also found the Gainsborough films absurd – but his evident regard for Hollywood, for genre cinema, and for popular culture in general, also suggests a more nuanced position which was uncommon at the time.
Mason eventually found Hollywood to be an even more frustrating working environment than Britain. A protracted lawsuit with an agent meant that he was unable to work for any studio for the first eighteen months after his arrival in America; by the time that he could, he found that he had already become a less attractive proposition for the industry. His American career, which he later deemed a failure, but which included such films as The Reckless Moment, A Star is Born, Bigger Than Life and North by Northwest, would show him attempting to renegotiate his image as a transnational star.
[i] James Mason, ‘What encouragement is there for British Stars?’, Picturegoer, June 10, 1944, p. 11.
[ii] ‘James Mason Talks About His Films’, Picture Post, 1 February 1947, pp. 14-17.
[iii] James Mason, ‘Glamour’, Summer Pie, 1945, pp. 83-86.
[iv] ‘“I am sick of films” says James Mason’, Daily Express, 4 January, 1946, p. 3.
Dr Adrian Garvey is a Teaching Assistant at Queen Mary University of London, where he completed his PhD, Performance and Stardom in the Transatlantic Career of James Mason, in 2016. Recent publications include ‘Steely Velvet: The Voice of James Mason’, in the Journal of British Cinema and Television (January, 2015), ‘Ageing Masculinity in the Films of James Mason’, in Lucy Bolton and Julie Lobalzo Wright (eds.), Lasting Screen Stars (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), and ‘Stardom in Silent British Cinema’, in Ian Q. Hunter, Laraine Porter and Justin Smith (eds.), The Routledge History of British Cinema, Routledge, 2016).