Monday, December 30, 2013



It is always pleasant to recall one of those actors whose presence in a film has the effect of elevating it in the eye of the viewer to something special, and in bringing to it a certain distinction.  Such actors, whether handling substantial roles or mere cameos, could often times make an indifferent film something worth watching or a good film even better.  These types were quite simply incapable of giving a bad performance and could elicit in even some of the more cynical film goers or film makers the very warmest of feelings.  Actors such as these are not mere actors; they are some of our oldest and dearest of friends.

For such as I the Christmas Season brings fond memories of many things not the least of which are kindly thoughts about the former Scottish choir master and church organist turned thespian, Finlay Currie.

As Abel Magwitch in "Great Expectations"

His acting career began when he met and married New York-born stage performer Maude Courtney, with whom he had a successful music hall career in the 1890s singing and playing with her many of the old songs of eras past.  The stage would be their home for decades, yet it was only a matter of time before the fledging British film industry would discover this gigantic personality.  And yet it would be thirty five years before Currie would act in a motion picture.

Most of those who cherish classic films or simply the art of picture-making remember him best in David Lean's superb version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS, most particularly in the striking opening sequence.

"Great Expectations": Magwitch confronts the boy

No one-dimensional performance here.  As Abel Magwitch, the escaped convict who befriends young "Pip", Currie paints a thoroughly convincing portrait of a man who led a life of evil that ended in redemption.  He terrifies us at first but over the course of the movie our initial fear undergoes significant changes.  Currie makes it all believable.  And in the end, when Currie's Magwitch has completed his life's work, there is nothing left but deep-down human warmth.  It is one of the great moments in cinema found in a motion picture filled with great moments. His role became the cement that held the story and the film together.  Dickens would have been delighted with him.

[If this magnificent film is not in your personal collection you owe it to yourself to add it.]

Currie's imposing frame and presence were well used by numerous film impresarios.  He could really play almost any part, be it serious or humorous, and inject it with life.  One cherishes Mr Currie's contribution to films such as TRIO, SLEEPING CAR TO TRIESTE, I KNOW WHERE I AM GOING, TREASURE ISLAND(1950) and IVANHOE (1952) to skim only the surface.  When his name comes up in the credits I smile, knowing that the ensuing film will be something worthwhile or, at any rate, all the better for his participation in it.  All of these films just mentioned are available on video or dvd. 

The British cinema of the 1930s through the 1960s had the great fortune of having at its command some of the greatest acting talents of both stage and screen.  There was richness in abundance.  The calibre of people available then was just simply incredible.  It is impossible to view an English film from that era and not find brilliant, professional, wonderful acting.  And of such individuality...unlike today when one cannot distinguish the difference between a Depp or a deCaprio.

Currie's craggy features turned up with regularity throughout the golden years of English cinema  wherein it seemed audiences could not get enough of him.  As the 1950s approached and as the man's advanced years approached as well one would expect a slowing down of pace, even retirement.  Not so.  Mr Currie became, in his 70s, a very busy actor in international films, busier than he had been in the previous two decades. Giving up the profession he loved was impossible for this man.  When MGM made their epic version of QUO VADIS in 1950 their choice of Currie to play St Peter the Apostle was for that cautious studio a bit of a gamble but one that paid dividends and then some.  The choice was particularly inspired.

Currie as St Peter in "Quo Vadis"
With those strong and noble features and his larger-than-life presence he brought strength to a very difficult role, one which would have been a mere throw away in any other production on the same theme.  The actors who have portrayed the part since have been varied and most of them were younger so as to conform to the depiction of Christ's life on earth.  Noteworthy among these actors would be Gary Raymond in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD.  But in QUO VADIS we have a Peter living in the year 64 A.D. and as such a mature man was required, a man with a face careworn.  Mr Currie brings it off with his usual towering conviction.

With QUO VADIS Finlay Currie now found himself in demand for big epics.  Capitalizing on his role as St Peter producer Sam Zimbalist called on him once more for his next Biblical epic, BEN HUR.  In that film Currie finds himself playing one of the Three Wise Men, Balthasar, whom the screen writers find ways to include into the story at various points throughout the picture.  It is Currie's voice which also supplies the opening narration for the Nativity sequence.

As Balthasar in "Ben Hur"
More epics followed: THE BLACK ROSE, ROB ROY, ST JOAN, SOLOMON AND SHEBA (as King David) and THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.  By this time in his career even cameramen were calling him "dear, old Finlay Currie" when called upon to photograph a picture he was in.  He could be a fiery Scot but that was part bluster on his part according to those who worked with him  And how game he was!  Cinematographer Wilkie Cooper related to this writer his admiration for a man who when playing the survivor of a sinking ocean liner in the 1957 movie SEVEN WAVES AWAY was, at nearly 80, willing and able to jump right in to the cold water with the other younger actors playing the stranded passengers.

His sense of humor was always with him even if under the surface.  When invited to big movie premieres he would arrive in his full kilt, accompanied by his wife to the delight of everyone present.

He was a dedicated teacher of the arts of acting to the young who would come to him for advice.  He was never too proud to accept small roles, even brief bit parts, because he acted only for the sheer joy of acting.

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"

I loved him as the old steamboat Captain in the beautifully done 1960 version of HUCKLEBERRY FINN and I have the softest of spots in my heart for his lovely portrayal of Pope Innocent III in the 1962 FRANCIS OF ASSISI.  He brought an immense power and yet gentleness to that portrayal of one of Catholicism's great Pontiffs (Indeed I think he would have made a better Pope than some we've had!  Pope Finlay I has a nice ring to it.).  His career of 70-odd years ended with his death at age 90 on May 9, 1968.

This fiery, old Scot Protestant was a man who was always dear to this writer's heart and I had always wondered and hoped if he would ever have been granted the grace of Faith. 

It was therefore a moment of deep emotion and great joy when I discovered via the internet that God did grant him that grace.  This good man and great actor converted to the Catholic faith in his lifetime and died in the bosom of the Church.

RIP, dear, old Finlay Currie.

I believe it is time to sit down and enjoy one of his grand films.


aly said...

Life is good after all. Innit?

gracem said...

he was so wonderful in great expectations!!!!!!

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