Rollerball Revisited

I first watched Rollerball (Jewison, 1975) on VHS at a friend’s house in the early 1980s and naturally, at that age, was struck most by the spectacular gladiatorial game sequences. Although I have seen a few snippets here and there over the years, for various reasons I never managed to find an opportunity to sit down and watch the film again in its entirety. Last year would have been ideal, given that the film is set in 2018, but ideals are rarely realised and it was only a few weeks ago when I succeeded in returning to Rollerball, this time on the Blu-Ray released in 2014 by Twilight Time.

A quick summary of the plot may be in order for those unfamiliar with the film. The screenplay was written by William Harrison – adapted from his own short story, ‘Roller Ball Murder’, published in Esquire magazine in September 1973 – and a portrays a futuristic world in which nation-states have been replaced by six global corporations: Energy, Food, Transport, Communications, Housing and Luxury. The world has been transformed in the wake of what is referred to as ‘the corporate wars’, although no-one seems able to recall precise details. There are no more conflicts being fought in the world – except for Rollerball, a violent sport in which two teams on roller skates and motorbikes battle it out in vast circular arenas. The game is filmed and broadcast weekly, providing a distraction for the masses as well as a vicarious means by which social tensions, aggression and potential protests are safely channelled away from the corporations.

The futuristic ‘computer centre’ where Jonathan goes to seek information about the history of the Corporate wars is actually one of the BMW buildings in Munich built for the 1972 Olympics.

There are many echoes here – the cynical ‘bread-and-circuses’ of the Roman elite, the use of recreational drugs to control the populace in Brave New World, the anti-capitalist critiques of Marx and others, although the actual details of how this all came about, and how it functions, are (perhaps wisely) left vague and unclear.

Returning to the film after some thirty five years – a period in which my own world has been transformed considerably – it was only natural that this historic sense of world-building would draw my interest. Although the film’s reputation has been built upon the violent action of the game sections, these only comprise a small proportion of the film’s running time, and what really struck me on rewatching Rollerball is how much of it is subdued and restrained. Take the opening shots: instead of jumping headlong into the action, the film begins with scenes of preparation in the stadium as engineers and technicians prepare the stage. Then we see the bikes, but they are almost totally hidden in shadow as they run through the tunnel. A great deal of the film is dialogue, and in between the game sequences the pacing is slow – almost too slow at times, it must be said.

The narrative follows Jonathan (James Caan) the leading Rollerball player, whose skill in the game has made him a fan favourite, earning the disapproval of the head of the energy corporation, Mr Bartholomew (John Houseman). Pressure is put on Jonathan to retire, but his refusal leads to the Rollerball games becoming more dangerous as the rules are adjusted to make death or serious injury inevitable. Jonathan’s increasing unease with the situation leads to him carrying out his own investigations into the history of the ‘corporate wars’ as well as some of the circumstances surrounding the departure of his ex-wife.

Following his role as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974), Caan was a major star, but his break-out came playing Randall O’Connell in Lady in a Cage. According to Hedda Hopper in the Los Angeles Times (25 March 1963), Olivia de Havilland admired Caan’s performance and sought to get him the leading role in Youngblood Hawke after Warren Beatty dropped out – although it was in fact James Franciscus who got the part. Caan’s skill at playing volatile mavericks fitted well with the role of Jonathan in Rollerball, although the film’s air of restraint meant that the actor rarely found opportunity to show much in the way of real emotional depth or range in his character.

And perhaps it’s that aura of quietness and uneasy languor that made the most impression on me this time round. When I first watched Rollerball I was barely in my teens and, naturally, my attention was drawn chiefly to the exciting game sequences. While these attracted controversy at the time and produced the film’s most famous and abiding images, they comprise only a tiny proportion of its content: less than xx minutes out of a total running time of xx. As one grows older

My enjoyment of the film was much enhanced by reading Andrew Nette’s excellent study of Rollerball, written for the Constellation series. As well as providing an excellent guide to the film’s production, structure and narrative, the book places the story within the wider context of contemporary science fiction cinema and political anxieties, draws fascinating parallels with contemporary issues over ‘fake news’ and reality TV, and – especially welcome – includes an interview with Norman Jewison as well as many insights drawn from the William Harrison archive.

Janus: looking forward, looking back

AW was born in Vienna on this day 123 years ago. It is my sincere hope that by the time this anniversary comes around again next year, his biography Anton Walbrook: a life of masks and mirrors – will have been published. As this decade-long project nears its end, there is a sense of impending closure: there will come a point when the draft chapters and back-up files can be discarded, when the envelopes stuffed full of handwritten notes can be sealed up and sent for recycling, and the computer files of drafts, plans and synopses can safely be deleted. Perhaps this is why I have chosen to illustrate this post with the latest photograph of AW that I have in my collection. This was taken in 1967, during the production of A Song at Twilight, and therefore just a few weeks or months before his death.

Nonetheless, the appearance of the biography should not mean the end of my blogging about AW, his life and films – quite the reverse in fact: few biographers would consider their work to be the final word on their subject, and I see A LIfe of Masks and Mirrors as the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one. There will no doubt be feedback, amendments, revisions and corrections, and hopefully the publication of the biography will encourage others to start talking about, and looking into, those areas in AW’s story that need to be further explored. A new phase of my Walbrook research will start, so this year marks a beginning as well as an end, a time for looking forward as much as looking back.

As part of this process of retrospective reflection, I will be giving a talk at the University of Exeter next February entitled Paper trails, masks and mirrors: the archival quest for an elusive biographical subject – Anton Walbrook which will look at the role played by archives in my research: from the first archival encounter that started me off on AW’s trail, through the time spent searching through various archives while writing the biography, to the cumulative creation of my own personal archive of AW papers and memorabilia. This talk will be part of the Stardom on the Archive symposium, being held to mark the end of the 20-month Reframing Vivien Leigh project that has been exploring how how the legacies of Vivien Leigh are archived and curated by different archival institutions. Readers of this blog may remember that AW and Leigh met on many occasions, both at theatrical events and at the actor’s home in Hampstead. Those familiar with Leigh will know that she was more widely known for her screen roles but really saw herself primarily as a stage actress. One of the topics I look at in the biography is the relationship between AW’s stage and screen work, tracing his approach to acting back to his childhood and the significance of his theatrical ancestry – and of course the importance of Vienna, where he was born on 19 November 1896: and not 1900, which was the year erroneously circulated by the media for much of his career – although that’s a story for another day….

‘The last of the romantics’?

Over fifty years have elapsed since the death of Anton Walbrook, which took place on this day in 1967, and sometimes it feels like I have been researching and writing his biography for almost half that period. This project is nearing its end, which has often given me cause to reflect upon what it means to complete a lifetime’s work – or more specifically, the nature of the legacy left by AW in his career.

What initially intrigued me about his life was the relationship between the different eras of his life – the prominent stardom of his film and stage career in Germany (which is still under-appreciated in Britain), his contributions to British stage and screen as a wartime exile, and his latter years finding work in a world that had been dramatically changed in terms of the cultural and political landscape, social expectations and technical media. His acting career spanned several different ‘worlds’ – cultural, geographical, chronological – and the decision to migrate between these was not always a free one. Like many great performers, AW was forced to adapt to successively changing circumstances and the creative choices he made reflect this – in such instances, it is not always clear how much is innovation and how much is reaction. Was his acting career moulded by his environment, or can it be argued that he played an overlooked role in the transition between the performance styles of one generation of British actors and the next?

After his death, one British newspaper hailed Walbrook as ‘one of the last of the romantics’ and there is no doubt that he represented the end of a noble tradition that stretched back to the previous century. Notices continued to be placed in newspapers for many years after his death, on either his birthday or the anniversary of his passing, with variations of the same message: ‘His bright and unique talent gave ever-recalled pleasure… Fond and treasured memories of him and his bright talents undimmed’ and expressing ‘much gratitude and happiness for his brilliant work on stage and screen.’ I can do no better today than to echo those sentiments.

Anton Walbrook and the Courtney Affair

Birdie Courtney, the mother of AW’s fiancee, in 1915

On Sunday 23 October 1938 an ‘eighteen-year-old girl’ named Maude Courtney announced to the press that she and Walbrook – whom she had known for three months – were engaged to be married. She then withdrew the statement, issuing a denial of their engagement, before announcing it again a few hours later. It was stated that official notice of their intention to marry had been submitted to St Pancras Registry Office, but within 48 hours the engagement was called off again, this time for good. What on earth was going on? And why did Maude’s mother take such a prominent role in the story? As both mother and daughter belonged to Charles B Cochran’s famous company of ‘Young Ladies’, some background may help.

Fannie Barbara Birdie Coplans was born in Canterbury in 1891, the daughter of Russian emigres from Poland named Koplanski. No occupation was given in the 1911 census and she seems to have made her debut under the stage name of Birdie Courtney in Charles B. Cochran’s revue More at the Ambassadors Theatre in June 1915, from which the photograph at the top was taken. She caught the eye of both critics and audiences, and was soon featuring prominently in the press, as well as having her portrait taken by notable society photographers such as E.O. Hoppé

Photograph of ‘Birdie Courtney’ by E.O. Hoppé from The Tatler (16 February 1916), taken while she was performing in More.
Another photograph of Birdie, this time by Bertrand Park, from The Tatler (19 April 1916)

Having been singled out from a large line-up of chorus girls for attention, it was natural that Birdie would be offered a more prominent role, and she moved from the Ambassador to the Comedy Theatre to play a number of colourful parts in Half Past Eight.

Photograph of ‘Birdie Courtney’ by E.O. Hoppé from The Sketch (31 May 1916), showing her in the butterfly costume worn in Half Past Eight.

Evidently the press were interested in Birdie in more ways than one, for on 22 July 1916 she married Mr Randal Charlton, a novelist member of the Daily Mirror‘s editorial staff, at the church of Our Lady and St Edward, Chiswick. His best man was Horatio Bottomley MP and it was quite a society wedding, with MPs and show-business personalities among the guests. Charlton (whose real name was Lister) was the author of novels such as Mave (1906) and The Virgin Widow (1908) and had been a devoted fan of music hall star Marie Lloyd. Their daughter Maude was born eight months later, on 24 March 1917. Two sons followed, Warwick in 1918 and Frederick in 1928. The latter was only three years old when Randal Charlton died in 1931, by which time Birdie had established a reputation as a writer of short stories.

Birdie in 1920, photographed by Malcolm Arbuthnot, from The Bystander (5 May 1920)

At some point Maude followed her mother onto the stage: although newspapers described her as a ‘London dancer’ and ‘one of Charles B. Cochran’s “Young Ladies”’, she seems to have worked under a stage name, doubtless to avoid confusion with the well-known American vaudeville performer Maude Courtney (1884-1959), who was a regular feature in London music halls during this period, often appearing alongside her husband ‘Mr. C’ – Finlay Currie, who later co-starred with AW in 49th Parallel and Saint Joan. It is therefore not easy to trace details of any of her stage appearance, or work out where she might have met AW. He was, however, just about to launch his theatrical career in Britain with Design for Living and had been meeting with actors, producers, theatre managers and performers since his arrival in the UK the previous January. Although Cochran’s association with dancing girls and variety shows might be taken as implying a certain frivolity, he was a brilliant showman and took his work seriously. He had gone to see Max Reinhardt’s Oedipus Rex at the Circus Schumann in Berlin, and – impressed by his imaginative use of the vast space – persuaded Reinhardt to collaborate in a staging of The Miracle in London in 1912, at which the huge Olympia hall was transformed into a medieval cathedral. Cochran had a shrewd eye for picking out stars, and worked with the likes of Evelyn Laye, Jessie Matthews, Diana Manners, Gertrude Lawrence, Noel Coward and Leonard Massine during the interwar period, as well as collaborating with Diaghilev and Oliver Messel while producing the Ballet Russes. Making no distinction between high culture and popular entertainment, Cochran staged everything from Faust to Houdini, wild west rodeos to Eugene O’Neill.

Looking rather un-Victorian, Anna Neagle wearing a striking dress by Doris Zinkeisen in The Little Damozel (Wilcox, 1933) – a film that is now sadly lost

Anna Neagle, with whom AW had co-starred in Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938), started her theatrical career as one of Cochran’s chorus girls. Known then as Marjorie Robertson, she had worked her way up from being a dancer and understudy for Jessie Matthews to a leading role in Stand Up and Sing (1931). Perhaps AW’s meeting with Cochran’s company came through Neagle?

Reporters seeking a statement from Walbrook about the surprise engagement were to be disappointed, as inquirers who called at his house in Holne Chase were turned away at the door by one of the servants, who told them he was ‘out of town’. Another member of the Courtney family was willing to talk, however, and told reporters that the couple were going into the country until their marriage, later this month, after which a friend was lending them a yacht on which to take a four-week honeymoon. Maude regarded Walbrook as ‘quite the most romantic person in the world and quite the shyest.’

AW in 1938. Promotional postcard around the time of ‘Design for Living’

Walbrook: ‘A Man without a Country’

Two days later, the story had taken a dramatic twist, as a large article appeared in the same newspaper headed ‘Film Star’s Wedding Vetoed. Girl’s Mother Objects. Miss Maude Courtney as ‘subject of Hitler.’ Nationality bar. Mr Anton Walbrook ‘a man without a country.’ The story went on to explain that as of yesterday, (Wednesday 26 October) the wedding was officially ‘off’. Legal advice had been taken and a formal statement issued by Messrs Henry Solomon & Co., solicitors, dated Tuesday, following a meeting between Walbrook and Maude’s family. Although aware of their close relationship, Mrs Charlton had been ignorant of their intent to marry, and made her views clear: ‘In the present state of European turmoil, I dare not think of my daughter becoming an alien, being married to a man without a country, and a subject of Herr Hitler. Maudie is of course terribly disappointed – broken-hearted. They are still friends, and if there is anyway of surmounting the barrier, the wedding will take place as soon as ever the difficulties can be straightened out. Mr Walbrook is a refugee – he had a Jewish grandmother – and Maudie is a Catholic. Her family is descended from the Plantagenets and is mentioned in the Domesday Book. It is one of the oldest families in England. How could she sacrifice this heritage to become an outcast?’ Mrs Charlton made it clear that Walbrook’s nationality was her sole objection to his marriage to her daughter, and told reporters ‘Personally, I think he is a very charming man.’

Much of this whole affair makes little sense, and carries with it more than a hint of a publicity stunt. Many of Birdie Courtney’s statements about Maude’s age and ancestry do not tally with public records: Maude’s birth certificate makes clear that she was already twenty one – not eighteen – at the time of the engagement, rendering the entire legal issue about consent a nonsense. Were the solicitors really unaware of her real age? However, given Walbrook’s longstanding dislike of media attention, the idea of a fake publicity stunt sounds almost as implausible as that of an engagement to a young chorus girl whom he had only just met. Little did he know that within a matter of days he would begin a relationship that – in contrast to the Cochran affair – would last for almost a decade. Maude eventually found a husband in 1948, while her mother remarried in 1941, but neither mother or daughter seem to have made further progress with their theatrical careers. One wonders if they retained an interest in Walbrook: did Maude ever go to see the actor on stage and feel tempted to nudge her neighbour and whisper, ‘We were once engaged to be married?’


Anton Artefact #7

Part of the value of looking at historical artefacts is that they often reveal things about how an artwork or event fitted into its contemporary surroundings. The cutting below was snipped out of a British newspaper in 1940 – the rest of the paper has gone, so I don’t have a precise date, but we know that Gaslight received its general release on 31 August 1940, following the trade and press shows at the end of May and beginning of June.

‘Gaslight’ advert, cut out of a British newspaper from 1940

As many of you will be aware, cinema-going habits in the 1930s and 1940s were very different from ours. Cinema tickets cost only a shilling or two at most, often less, and it was quite common to go to the movies two or three times a week. Films were shown several times a day, but not in isolation as is the case now – they were part of a longer and varied programme which ran almost continuously throughout the day, and would include newsreels, short films, serial episodes, documentary features and cartoons.

It can be seen here that there were four daily screenings – Midday, 2.55, 6.00 and 9.15 pm. Showing alongside Gaslight were two other films – Memories of Poland, which was presumably a short documentary relating to the country’s past prior to the Nazi invasion the previous year, and Alias the Deacon (Cabanne, 1940), a wild west comedy about a card sharp named Deke Caswell who is mistaken for a clergyman. The lead role was played by Bob Burns, a musical comedian famed for playing a home-made instrument which he called his ‘Bazooka’ – a name that was later applied by American soldiers to their anti-tank weapon, due to its similar shape.

For those of us who have only watched old AW films in the comfort of our homes on DVD or video, or at special screenings attended largely by nostalgic fans, film historians and others who may have travelled large distances at some expense to attend these rare events, it is worth thinking about the differences in our cinema-going experience. How would it feel watching Gaslight straight after a cowboy film with a comedian playing his bazooka? Would the contrast make the film seem darker, or would there be a light-hearted atmosphere in the auditorium that might mitigate its sinister psychological undercurrents? What if the audience contained large numbers of casual viewers who had just popped in for something to do, to watch the latest newsreels or catch some cartoons while avoiding the rain? Admission times were not enforced in the same way, and it was not unusual for people to wander in halfway through a film and continue to watch through the entire programme until the first half of the film came round again. There may well have been differences between smaller provincial cinemas and more prestigious venues like the Leicester Square Odeon, to which this advert refers.

Another interesting feature of the advert is he reference to Lady Anne Henrietta Yule (1874-1950), a wealthy widow who became involved in the British film industry following the death of her husband, businessman Sir Andrew Yule. She cofounded the British National film company with Gaslight producer John Corfield and J. Arthur Rank, with whom she shared strong religious views, and went on to invest in the company’s acquisition of Pinewood Studios. She also helped finance The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Eccentric and patriotic, she was a keen supporter of various charitable and wartime causes, such as the Allied Services Club for which the day’s cinema takings were being collected. How might awareness of this collection have influenced cinemagoers’ attendance?