Friday, 15 June 2018

Star Wars debuts: The first work of the people behind the film

Gilbert Taylor, director of photography on Star Wars

Star Wars owed its huge success largely to the young people who came out to see it, but many of the those who made it were industry veterans. Some had been working for almost half a century.

Today, Episode Nothing looks back at the debuts of some of the key talents involved in the original 1977 film.

Rookery Nook, 1930
I love to look at the older movies that share key personnel with Star Wars. Recently, I found myself wondering what was the earliest film that has a direct Star Wars connection.

As far as I can tell  and I'm happy to be corrected  that film is Rookery Nook, released in 1930. 

Britain had only made its first talking picture the year before. And Gilbert Taylor, the 16-year-old lad who was assistant cameraman on Rookery Nook, was an amazing 47 years away from making his biggest movie, Star Wars.

In 1932, he became a clapper-loader on an Alfred Hitchcock film, Number Seventeen. George Lucas wouldn't even be born for another 12 years.

In 1948, at the age of 34, Taylor would earn his first credit as a cinematographer, on The Guinea Pig, and would go on to work on a succession of big British movies including Front Page Story (1954), Yield to the Night (1956) and Ice Cold in Alex (1958).  Then came  such pioneering movies as Dr Strangelove and A Hard Day's Night (both 1964) and Repulsion (1965). He wold work for Hitchcock again on Frenzy (1972) before being hired for the horror blockbuster The Omen (1976).

In 1976, at the age of 62, Taylor would have a sometimes fractious relationship with George Lucas on the biggest movie of his career.

Here are some other Star Wars debuts, starting form the earliest.

Alex McCrindle (General Dodonna). Debut: The 39 Steps, 1935

The 39 Steps, 1935

This one has to count as unconfirmed, because it's not listed on IMDB or other sites. But according to some obituaries, Alex McCrindle appears as a newspaper reporter in Alfred Hitchcock's classic The 39 Steps, aged 24, a full 41 years before he would film his part as General Dodonna, briefing the Rebel pilots in Star Wars.

Alex McCrindle 
A couple of years after the Hitchcock film, he would appear in some of the earliest British TV productions, before transmission was suspended for the duration of the Second World War. From 1946-51, he played the role of Jock in the hugely popular radio serial Dick Barton  Special Agent.

A member of the UK Communist Party in the 1950s and the founder of Equity in Scotland, McCrindle was 65 when he was one of only two actors in the original Star Wars to intone its catchphrase: "May the Force be with you."

Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin). Debut: The Man in the Iron Mask, 1939

Peter Cushing working as Louis Hayward's
stand-in in The Man in the Iron Mask

The 26-year-old Peter Cushing had just a bit part in James Whale's adventure movie, being cut down by Warren William. His main role on the film had been to stand in for star Louis Hayward in the split-screen sequences where Hayward interacted with his own twin. Star Wars was 37 years away.

The young British actor had saved for a one-way ticket to Hollywood, and would appear with Laurel and Hardy the following year, in A Chump at Oxford. But his greatest successes would be back at home: In Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948), as an early television star in the 1950s, and as a movie star in a cycle of horror films starting with Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein, 19 years before his work on Star Wars.

Phil Brown (Uncle Owen). Debut: I Wanted Wings, 1941

I Wanted Wings, 1941

Phil Brown in Star Wars
Phil Brown was a 25-year-old actor with New York stage experience when he appeared in the air force drama I Wanted Wings. Five years after that, he would appear in a bigger film, The Killers. But in the 1950s, his Hollywood career was cut short by blacklisting, and he relocated to Britain. At the age of 60, he was Luke's uncle in Star Wars

Shelagh Fraser (Aunt Beru). Debut: Welcome, Mr Washington, 1944

A shot from the rarely seen Welcome,
Mr Washington
, with Peggy Cummins

Shelagh Fraser on the
set of Star Wars
Scots actress Shelagh Fraser was 24 when she made her film debut in this British drama film. She would become a familiar face on UK television series such as Z Cars, A Family at War and The Professionals, and in generally small-scale movies. At the age of 56, she appeared in Star Wars, but her voice was replaced in post-production.

Welcome, Mr Washington, was thought lost for many years, but was rediscovered and stored in the British Film Institute's archive in 2016.

Its original release date was May 18, 1944  four days after a boy named George Walton Lucas was born in Modesto, California.

Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi). Debut: Great Expectations, 1946

Alec Guinness, left, in Great Expectations

Alec Guinness was on stage from the age of 20, but he did not appear in a movie until the age of 32, when he played Herbert Pocket in David Lean's Great Expectations.

A long and successful film career followed, including Ealing Studios comedies such as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955). He would win an Oscar for his role in The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957), filmed two decades before he played Obi-Wan Kenobi at the age of 62.

Eddie Byrne (General Willard): I See a Dark Stranger, 1946

I See a Dark Stranger, 1946
Eddie Byrne in Star Wars
The Irish actor Eddie Byrne was 25 when he made an uncredited appearance in this British spy movie. He would make three films the following year, including the James Mason thriller Odd Man Out, and became a busy supporting actor. Star Wars was his last appearance on screen, aged 65. 

John Williams (composer). Debut: Daddy-O, 1958.

A young John Williams (Classic FM)

Johnny Williams was already an accomplished jazz pianist, band leader, arranger and composer for television by the time he scored his first movie, Daddy-O, at the age of 26. 

He scored small-scale comedies and dramas for much of the 1960s before his career started to really flourish at the end of that decade. Swapping the name Johnny for John T. and then John, he would already be an Oscar-winning composer by the time he took up his baton in March 1977 to conduct the score to Star Wars at the age of 45. 

Next time: We move on to the 1960s and 70s, and see the debuts of the Star Wars principal cast.


Rory Cobb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rory Cobb said...

Very interesting information!

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