‘I want to tell the world!’ The Soho Fair, Belinda Lee and Miracle in Soho (Julian Amyes, 1957)

Jingan Young, King’s College London

3 October 2017


Directed by Julian Amyes and released in the summer of 1957, Miracle in Soho was executive produced by Earl St. John for the J. Arthur Rank Organisation and co-produced and written by Emeric Pressburger whose original version of the script was written in 1934 under the title The Miracle in St. Anthony’s Lane. Incidentally, the year before the release of Miracle in Soho Hungarian born Pressburger’s successful working partnership with the director Michael Powell had come to an end. Powell would go on to make Peeping Tom which utilises North Soho (Fitzrovia) for its violent opening sequence.

The “miracle” of the 1957 Miracle in Soho occurs after the whispered prayers of Julia Gozzi (Belinda Lee) within the fictional St. Anthony’s Church located in the fictional St. Anthony’s Lane, Soho. Following her prayer for the return of an Anglo-Irish road driller and “incorrigible breaker of hearts” Michael Morgan (John Gregson), the water mains beneath the Soho lane burst destroying the newly-laid asphalt. Morgan returns to repair the road and ultimately the lovers are reconciled.

A failure critically and at the box office, critics upon release of the film were largely disappointed with this constructed Soho set alongside the morally integrated world of its character-driven plot.

Monthly Film Bulletin declared “This depressing production, with its synthetic Soho setting, has characters conceived strictly within the less happy conventions of British comedy”, Variety called it “A rather slow moving sentimental yarn” and Picturegoer condemned its “wispy plot, set in a studio-built Soho street” though hopeful in its introduction to a “peaceful mixture of people, far removed from the gangsters and floozies that usually people the screen Soho.”[i]

The Soho of the film was designed by Carmen Dillon who won an Academy Award for her work on Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948) St. Anthony’s Lane is a self-contained, mammoth Pinewood Studios set. Alongside the “wispy” plot of the Italian Gozzi family’s planned emigration to Canada and the Irish philanderer Michael Morgan’s redemption – the meteoric rise of television may also be to blame for the film’s poor reception.

Splashed on the front-page of What’s On in London in 1957, the film was described as a sentimental little fairy story which abysmally failed in its representation of Soho:

The ‘miracle’ of the title of Pressburger’s sentimental little fairy story, Miracle in Soho, at the Odeon, Leicester Square, is LOVE. It hits philandering, unpleasantly-cocksure labourer John Gregson while he’s digging up the road and overnight magically makes a new man of him. Equally miraculously it hits Italian Belinda Lee, who gives up going to Canada with her family in order to woo him. Silly girl. Of course, this isn’t really Soho at all, but I don’t suppose that’s going to worry anyone except a few fussy Sohoians.[ii]

But the film’s cross-promotion with the Soho Fair and film impresario J. Arthur Rank’s Euro-centric approach during the mid 1950s (with Miracle, the Italian film market) provides the film with a further complexity in the context of British film history.

In July of 1955 the Mayor of Westminster officially re-launched Cosmopolitan Soho to the world. The fair was co-organised by the Soho Association and the proprietor of the York Minster pub Gaston Berlemont who conveyed to a reporter from The Spectator that he got the idea at the deconsecration service at St. Anne’s, Soho’s parish church until it was bombed. He recalls to the reporter: “Now there was no church […] there should be a fair in her honour.”

Soho’s multifarious reputation in the public sphere as a cosmopolitan space continued to publicly obstruct the new planning philosophy and technique which was transformed during the Second World War. Drawing on Soho’s reputation for cultural and ethnic diversity the fair’s organisers were able to “create an idiosyncratic mood of celebration that could be marketed to local and national audiences via the media and entertainment industries” (Mort, 2010, 198).

The week-long Soho Fair was recorded by Pathé News in the form of short newsreels such as Soho Goes Gay! (British Pathé, 1955) and was screened in British cinemas throughout the summer. “A good place which can do fine things” declared a promotional piece published in The Observer titled “A Fair Week’s Run for the Real Soho.” The same publication would later report: “The idea that Soho is a romantic little ‘Continental Quarter’ in the heart of innocent England – a myth – almost became reality yesterday afternoon.”

The New Statesman was horrified: “There used to be – I daresay there still is – an admirable honesty about Soho. It does not pretend to be something: it just was. But the bell is tolling. Soho is having a Fair […] Someone has had the idea of producing Soho to the world so that it is not only to be Soho, but also to pretend to be.”[iii] In the same hyperbolic vein, The Spectator magazine reported the fair to be filled with absurdities:

There are many absurdities at the Soho Fair…A garish Dutch organ plays in Golden Square, painted with Elizabethan musicians and Victorian odalisques: a band of West Indians pours out Latin-American rhythms…Bohemian young Frenchman…a dark, Celtic Lady plies a spinning-wheel in Shaftesbury Avenue. [iv]

In 1956 J. Arthur Rank “supped with the devil” in extending his efforts in promotion by advertising on new platforms which included purchasing advertising slots in commercial television and popular magazines. Rank produced a 20-min promotional film Full Screen Ahead (1957) to be screened in Rank’s cinemas. The film took the audience on a day out at Pinewood [Studios] with a visit to the set of Miracle in Soho. Fan magazine Picturegoer ran several profiles of the then twenty-one-year-old Belinda Lee in an attempt to reinvent Rank’s star:

Belinda Lee has set the Rank Organisation quite a problem. All because she wants to live down her past. At twenty-one, the nicest, least-spoiled star in Britain really has a past…Miss Lee is making Miracle in London. And the talk around Pinewood is that it gives her the sort of dramatic role that could change her whole career. Belinda Lee sees it that way, too.[v]

Penned by Derek Walker, his series of articles for Picturegoer “Belinda Lee Covers Up Her Past”, “Lee – a Star by Friendly Persuasion and “A Star By Friendly Persuasion – Part II. Why She’s Not a Blonde Bombshell” legitimizes Lee as a serious actor and in Part II accounts for Pressburger’s casting of Lee in the role of Julia Gozzi as merely happenstance.

Pressburger saw her photograph outside of his offices at Pinewood and there and then decided “that, is just what I want for Miracle in Soho.”[vi] Steve Chibnall recounts the Rank Organisation’s big idea of 1955 – 1957 which involved forgoing the American film market for Europe where “British-based actors such as Herbert Lom and Belinda Lee would play sympathetic Italian characters.”

Chibnall says:

When Rank had a star such as Belinda Lee, who they believed would appeal to the Italian market, they used the most talented of Studio Favalli’s illustrators to promote her films. Arnaldo Putzu painted his first British posters for her breakthrough role in the social realist crime film The Secret Place (1957), Cesselon depicted her as an Anglo-Italian girl in Miracle in Soho (1957).[vii] (Steve Chibnall, 2016)

In the year of Miracle in Soho’s release Belinda Lee endorsed cosmetics such as Vitapointe of Paris in The Daily Express. Marketing for the product even managed to incorporate Pressburger’s film for the tagline reads: “I want to tell the world! I’ve found a hair dressing cream that works miracles!”[viii]

Despite the film’s resolution, the redemption of the self-serving, philanderer Michael Morgan through the love-of-a-good-woman manifested through Julia’s prayer, the doubts vehemently expressed by Julia Gozzi’s siblings Mafalda (Rosalie Crutchley) and Fillipo (Ian Bannen) on emigrating to Canada are never fully developed and their initial reservations on leaving Soho and their desires to cultivate new businesses in Soho there are abruptly dropped by the film. The failed redevelopment of the Soho lane is also abandoned in favour of the title love story.

Miracle in Soho may not have achieved Pressburger’s intentions, and one wonders what the final film contained within his earlier scripts set in a Berlin synagogue would have been like, but the film is a welcomed addition to a metropolis massively riven by discord and furthermore contributes to a post-war Soho film canon (and one I have found to be larger than most expect!) that contains an exhaustive array of crime narratives following Spivs and prostitutes.


[i] Films of that year included the Oscar-winning David Lean’s The Bridge on The River Kwai. Clem. “Review: Miracle in Soho.” Variety. Jul 24 (1957): 26. “MIRACLE IN SOHO.” Monthly Film Bulletin 24, no. 276 (1957): 104. “Miracle in Soho”, Picturegoer. London 34.1161 (Aug 3, 1957), 14.

[ii] “Miracle in Soho”. What’s On in London. July 12th, 1957. Courtesy of Steve Crook. The Powell & Pressburger Pages Online.

[iii] Interview with the Soho locals and the Fair’s origins see “A Fair Week’s Run for the Real Soho.” The Observer (1901- 2003); Jul 10 (1955), 10. Edward Hyams laments the old Soho where you could “if you had the odd taste for it, see actors, artists and writers eating.” See his piece “Pretending to be Soho”, The New Statesman and Nation 50, Jul 16 (1955), 65 – 66.

[iv] Part of The Spectator’s Notebook, this amusing short piece gives a first-hand look at the origins of the Soho Fair. See “THERE ARE MANY Absurdities at the Soho Fair.”  The Spectator 195, no. 6629 (Jul 15, 1955): 86.

[v] Derek Walker’s profile is accompanied by several images of Lee as “pin-up” in “Belinda Lee Covers Up Her Past.” Picturegoer. March 16, 1967, 5.

[vi] Ibid., 5.

[vii] Ironically says Chibnall, Rank’s big ideas would be made possible in the 1960s by American investment based on the success of British films in the USA. See Steve Chibnall, “Banging the Gong: The Promotional Strategies of Britain’s J. Arthur Rank Organisation in the 1950s.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (2016), 12.

[viii] The black-and-white advertisement uses a large photograph of Lee to promote Vitapointe of Paris with a tagline below that reads “Just 1 minute brushing – and my hair is shining! By Belinda Lee.”, The Daily Express. September 26, 1957, 13.


Jingan Young is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter. She holds a BA (Hons) in English with Film Studies from King’s College London and a Master of Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford. She is currently reading for a PhD in Film Studies at King’s College London where her thesis examines the cinematic representations of London’s Soho in post-war British cinema. She welcomes anyone who may wish to add to her ever-extending list of Soho films. She also blogs and tweets about her research @sohoonscreen and sohoonscreen.wordpress.com


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.


 

‘I am sick of films’ – James Mason on the British Film Industry of the 1940s

Adrian Garvey, Queen Mary University of London

25 August 2017


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).

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