SIMON MATTHEWS on Curtis Bernhardt’s 1954 film Beau Brummell.
If you’re reading this column and saw Beau Brummell on general release, you must be at least 80 years old. If you did, it’d have been in the winter of 1954. Queuing in a foggy town-centre for 30 minutes, outside a Locarno, Gaumont or ABC until a uniformed commissionaire swung open the entrance doors, and you filed in, paying 1s 8d (8p), children half-price, for an evening’s entertainment of cartoons, newsreels, advertisements, a second feature (‘short’) and finally, after refreshments, the main feature, which was, after all, what you wanted to see. And when that came to an end, standing to attention as the national anthem was played, after which you queued again, for the last bus home.
It would have been quite a decent night out too. The film had a couple of big stars, Stewart Granger and Elizabeth Taylor. It was in colour, and, supposedly, about a period in British history. The Royal Philharmonic were on the soundtrack and Elizabeth Haffenden did the costumes. The more erudite in the audience would have noticed the lush opening titles proclaiming it was based ‘on the play written for Richard Mansfield by Clyde Fitch’. Which was slightly odd, even then. Both were really big pre-1914, but long gone by 1954. Fitch, an American, actually wrote this in 1890, at the age of 25, after seeing Mansfield in the 1887 New York run of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. (He was so convincing in the role that a year later in London he was briefly a suspect in the Jack the Ripper killings.)
A very popular play, Beau Brummell produced silent film adaptations in 1913 and 1924, the second of which starred John Barrymore. By the ’30s two Hollywood studios were pitching for a sound remake with either Leslie Howard (Warner Brothers) or Robert Donat (MGM).
As written for US audiences, Fitch’s play includes a lengthy section with mad King George III, and an abundance of dialogue from the Prince Regent about his only wanting to marry the woman he loves. Both survive into the 1954 film, though whether the latter dates from 1890, when it would have titillated audiences about Bertie, Prince of Wales and his many mistresses, or was inserted during the ’30s rewrites as a cash-in about Wallis and the abdication, is hard to tell. In the end Donat made Goodbye Mr Chips instead. Perhaps phone calls were made expressing the displeasure of the Palace, and MGM backed off.
But, as is still true now, US fascination with UK royals is a constant. Having optioned the film rights, MGM returned to the fray in the early ’50s in very different international circumstances. With the UK now dependent on the ‘special relationship’, it was game on, and despite anxious mutterings about HRH having the madness and adultery of her ancestors made clear to the public, access was given to the throne room at Windsor and Horse Guards Parade. The end result was selected for the Royal Command Film Performance in November 1954.
It goes without saying that Beau Brummell is a highly fictionalised account, and that the film’s sense of chronology (i.e. the dates when events actually happened) is often awry. But, with audiences agog for spectacle and still replete with the patriotism of the previous years’ pageantry, this was a big night out. We also get another coronation (that of 1820) thrown in too. Not a Rattigan or Shaw is in sight, let alone any angry young men. Everything is geared to the expectations and outlooks of lower-class, middle England.
Who, in exchange for their 1s 8d, got a series of elegant tableaux, much in the style of H.E. Marshall’s Our Island Story. The script has Granger playing Brummell as some sort of radical who makes a detour into politics. There is no evidence that he had any role of that type. Rather, he seems to have been a useless Eton- and Oxford-educated hanger-on, who died of syphilis whilst deeply in debt. Which was probably a bit too much for a royal premiere. Elizabeth Taylor, playing Elizabeth Taylor as she always does, represents a combination of his various mistresses. Given the dialogue, costumes and settings on show it all comes across like one of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, which of course were hugely successful then, with no fewer than 26 published between 1935 and 1972.
The supporting cast salvage what they can. Peter Ustinov, as the Prince Regent/George IV is excellent. Robert Morley does an effective turn as Mad King George. Both were leading UK actor-managers in the ’50s and there’s a lot of home-grown thespian talent on show here, including Paul Rogers (Royal Shakespeare Co) as Pitt, Noel Willman (Old Vic) as Byron, and James Hayter as Brummell’s faithful man-servant. Hayter had a big hit prior to this as the star of The Pickwick Papers, another popular period film, alongside a huge range of co-stars including an octogenarian Sir George Robey.
Whichever way one cuts it, though, many today would think Brummell very dated and barely watchable. But was this so, then? And just how much is that the case now?
Presenting the past as a series of simple, broad brush mini-dramas certainly wasn’t seen as old-fashioned in 1954. The Ladybird History series, for instance, began with King Alfred the Great in 1956, two years after this, and proved enduringly popular. Filming a 60-year-old play in the ’50s about events that occurred 80 years prior to the play being written would only be the same now as watching something adapted from a ’60s book about events that happened circa 1875. Or to put it another way, would we think it unusual in 2023 if there were a mini-series based on Jan Morris’s Pax Brittanica, focused on Disraeli making Queen Victoria Empress of India whilst simultaneously promoting international trade via the Suez Canal?
It would play well with more than a few people in the UK today. In 2014 David Cameron cited Our Island Story as his childhood favourite book, whilst urging Scottish voters to reject independence. A decade later, watching Beau Brummell makes one consider public attitudes to the past, and how much, if at all, they have changed during our lifetime. Exactly how dated is it?