AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
CANNES – 2012
NORMAN LLOYD – MASTERCLASS
by Harlan Kennedy
We all know what happens at Lloyds of London when a ship founders. The Lutine Bell is struck. The sound bongs out across the world. Underwriters stiffen sinews; claimants seize pens; ruin is rescued. The name ‘Norman Lloyd’ may set fewer bells pealing, but if you want a brilliantly gifted Hollywood veteran, whose panache as a storyteller rescued a fleet of festivalgoers foundering from mid-Cannes movie overload, here is your man. The headline begged to be written: “Lloyd’s assurance underwrites Norman’s wisdom.”
By the end of this 97-year-old British-born actor’s two hour talk the room was ringing with approbation. Lloyd has had quite a life. He acted for Orson Welles, befriended Chaplin, Renoir and Brecht, duelled with the McCarthy witch hunt, and in his screen career – first and famously (at least until his long-running role in TV’s ST ELSEWHERE) – fell off the Statue of Liberty for Alfred Hitchcock.
That was in 1942: the one image of Lloyd every film buff knows. The movie was SABOTEUR; the scene, the few suspense-filled seconds in which Lloyd’s hired hit-man, dangling above Liberty Island attached only by a slowly tearing coat-sleeve to the grasp of hero and former quarry Robert Cummings, waits to fall. With a shrill diminuendo of terror he finally does. The hunter-turned-victim tumbles to his death, becoming a dead version of one of those ‘dots’ Orson Welles later talked about in THE THIRD MAN.
Ah Hitchcock. Ah Welles. Ah Norman Lloyd. Back in the 1930s they practically hunted in a pack. So did playwright-scenarist Ben Hecht of THE FRONT PAGE, who when favoured by Hitch with a private preview of SABOTEUR, commented of Lloyd’s character, “He should have had a better tailor.”
Welles gave Lloyd his first career break. An English actor who today resembles a well-maintained member of the cloth-capped British gentry – tweedy yet modest, and blinking under the lights in the Cannes Salle Bunuel, before opening up his surprisingly resonant voice – Lloyd was once a runaround youngster in the New York theatre world. ‘Go for this’; ‘go for that’; a gopher with ambitions. Then he met Welles and Welles’s producer John Houseman.
“They brought me into the Federal Theatre, part of the WPA.” (The Works Project of America, a jewel in the crown of Roosevelt’s New Deal). “They gave me the part of Cinna the poet in JULIUS CAESAR. Orson elected to do the whole thing as an anti-fascist play. He used the same kind of lights Hitler had had at Nuremberg, pointing straight up. He cut the play so it raced along. When George Colouris (later of CITIZEN KANE) did ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen’, people were planted in the audience to roar or rhubarb at what he was saying, as if they were part of the Roman crowd….”
Lloyd remembers the infamous if productive Welles-Houseman working relationship. “John Houseman had an amazing editorial sense, what to curtail or cut or control, which was wonderful for Orson to work against. They’d scream and yell at each other for half an hour, while we sat around reading newspapers…”
Life was more placid with Alfred Hitchcock. “(On SABOTEUR) I’d ask a lot of questions and he loved talking about cinema. He said, ‘Would you like to see yourself falling off the statue?’ It wasn’t shot yet, but he brought in a scroll and showed me the storyboard. Every angle was there, almost every expression.”
Later Lloyd became Hitchcock’s right-hand person and managerial stand-in on the ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS television series. “We did 39 shows a season. Hitchcock didn’t direct them himself. We’d shoot a story and take the rough cut to him. If he didn’t like it, he’d get up and walk out. But he never said ‘Shoot an additional scene’ – it was his money! A man called Jimmy Allardyce wrote the joke introductions Hitchcock used to speak for the shows. Hitch never changed a syllable. However undignified or comical it was – sometimes dangerous – he just did it. When Jimmy introduced a real lion that rested its head on Hitchcock’s shoulder he just went on and spoke the lines in that slow, deadpan, cockneyish drawl.”
By then Norman Lloyd was used to mixing with movie greats. In the 1940s he enjoyed a friendship with Charlie Chaplin. “I was a tennis player and went to his house to play singles or doubles. I was in awe when I first met the man. One day the phone rang and it was Chaplin’s butler Watson. He had wooden teeth like George Washington, and he was the ultimate snob. Watson said,” – Lloyd does a disdainful butlerish drawl – ‘Would you come and play tennis with Mr Chaplin?’
“I’d go up and play tennis at four in the afternoon and then we’d sit on his sun porch and have Scotch Old-fashioneds. He was a great storyteller, because he’d act the stories. Later on we were going to do a film of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY? together, with me as director. But he got caught in mid-Atlantic and couldn’t get back to America.” (That was when the United States barred Chaplin for his supposed Communist beliefs and sympathies).
Lloyd’s own political views, liberal-to-leftish, no doubt helped his working friendship with Bertolt Brecht. “There was this extraordinary refugee colony in Los Angeles in the 1940s. Schoenberg, Furtwangler, Walter Gropius, Thomas Mann. And Brecht. When no one would stage GALILEO – Orson Welles had turned it down, so had Elia Kazan – I asked him if we could do it in our theatre. Brecht agreed. He did the translation with Charles Laughton, who played Galileo. The anticommunist thing was already gathering force in Los Angeles, that’s why it was so hard to put on.”
One immigrant not chased to Hollywood by Nazism was Jean Renoir, though he too suffered the wariness of the studio establishment. Lloyd acted in the French director’s debut American film THE SOUTHERNER.
“Darryl Zanuck (20th Century Fox chief) said, ‘Jean has a lot of talent, but he’s not one of us.’ Orson and Chaplin, on the other hand, thought he was number one. Orson said, ‘If all the pictures in the world were buried, the one that should remain is LA GRANDE ILLUSION.’ Jean Renoir was badly wounded as a World War 1 pilot, shot down, but his mother refused to let them amputate his leg. He was a ceramicist, he sat with his leg up making pots and vases – this was about 1919 – until movies came along and he said, ‘Oh yes, I’ll do that.’
“Jean said to me, ‘I was determined, with every shot, to be as unlike my father (the Impressionist painter) as possible.’ He put all his films on 16mm and he showed them to a group of us, one at a time, every weekend until the last of the fifty or so. Then he said: ‘Now I realise I’ve spent my whole life imitating my father’! He had a couple of months to live after that.”
Lloyd, we realise, has a couple of minutes to go on after this. Wind-up signs are coming from the wings. He has already gone on for two hours which seem like two seconds; or alternatively like 70 years since we feel borne back, in time and spirit, to the era he worked in.
In those decades Los Angeles enjoyed a golden age and Lloyd collected his golden memories. He was never a star on screen or stage. But he has become a star on the talk circuit. As with the late Spalding Grey – another bridesmaid actor who turned blushing and bounteous bride as a storyteller – Lloyd spins his true yarns with invisible mastery. He’s a tailor of tales. The coat-sleeve of words he creates and we hang by never looks like tearing…
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved