by Bob Baker
Our film programs at the London Embassy drew annually, thousands of university staff, students, BBC writers, journalists, young politicians, labor leaders, etc. Even the often anti-American underground magazine Private Eye, carried notices of our shows. Terry, my young British assistant, initially put up flyers on university bulletin boards for our shows. But after a couple shows, word of mouth drew in packed audiences. Getting students to come to the Embassy without intending to riot against our Vietnam war was a positive achievement. Other audiences soon followed.
American film classics were a major draw. For example, Robin Winks, the Cultural Attaché, had arranged in 1972 a month-long program of lectures on politics and society in the U.S. during the Thirties. An impressive exhibit of 30’s Americana including paintings, books, prints, artifacts, etc. was displayed throughout the Embassy foyers, front and sides. The Embassy then was at the distinguished Grosvenor Square in the heart of London.
I volunteered to arrange films from the period. Digging into the subject, I found three major Hollywood figures living in London and contacted them. They agreed to pick their favorite films and to talk about them at the Embassy after a screening. I hired the BBC’s excellent film critic to interview them on stage after each show.
Donald Ogden Stewart got an Oscar for The Philadelphia Story script. That’s the film he wanted to talk about at the Embassy. He lived in a grand London house with his mentally ill British wife. He had left America because he was blacklisted in Hollywood. Wealthy by birth, he had joined an anti-Nazi group and was falsely accused of being a communist. I picked him up for the wine and cheese reception before the show. We screened his film, as it brilliantly reflected one part of America in the 1930’s, even though it was released in 1940. Staring Cary Grant, James Stewart, and Katherine Hepburn and directed by George Cukor, it was a smash romantic comedy, one of Hollywood’s best and played to a packed house. Mr. Stewart was witty, genial and lively despite his advanced age. He mingled easily at the wine and cheese reception before the show and gave a great performance on stage. He told funny anecdotes about Grant, Stewart, Hepburn, Cukor and lots of others in the Hollywood of the 1930’s.
Another American star from the 1930’s, Ben Lyon, picked Hell’s Angels to screen. He also lived in London and had a huge following in Britain, partly because he and his wife had stayed in London during the WW II Blitz. They continued to broadcast their popular BBC radio breakfast show daily despite Nazi bombs raining down on London. American millionaire Howard Hughes had produced and directed in 1930 Hell’s Angels, a spectacular WW I air battle movie, starring Ben Lyon and Jean Harlow. Ben was genial and funny on stage. He had great stories about Howard Hughes and the travails of switching from silent to sound when the movie was half made. Hughes used his millions to rent dozens of planes. He shot the air battle scenes over and over until he got them right. Only he could afford that.
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., picked The Prisoner of Zenda. It starred Ronald Coleman with Fairbanks in a supporting role. It was a great swashbuckler costume drama with David Niven and other greats. Mr. Fairbanks was as handsome and dashing as his father and a fine actor. He handed a beautiful blonde, much younger than himself, into the Embassy limo when I picked him up before the show at his London home. He turned en route to the Embassy and said to her with boyish delight, “How do you like being picked up in an Embassy car?” He was like his Dad, handsome, funny, smart and full of great stories. Years later he played himself on stage in The Pleasure of His Company.
He was the only actor I met who was so self-assured that he could pick a film in which he was not the star. He charmed the audience with great Hollywood stories. The film programs attracted packed audiences who also wandered around to check out the 1930’s artifacts (e.g., lamps, furniture, a simple plow from the period, old radio receivers, etc.). Films added elements about 1930’s America that lectures, seminars, and the exhibits could not contribute. The film stars, the period settings, even the old fashioned language reflected uniquely the spirit of the times. And they were great fun, a good way to tell Brits about America at a seminal time in our history.