Alec Guinness is Turner Classic Movies' "Summer Under the Stars" star on Saturday, August 3, 2013. The bad news: No Alec Guinness TCM premieres or lesser-known Guinness movies, e.g., A Run for Your Money, Last Holiday, Malta Story, The Prisoner, Star Wars (kidding). The good news: Alec Guinness movies are always welcome, even when the movies themselves are unworthy of his talents – and there were quite a few of those – or when Guinness forces his characters to fit his persona (instead of the other way around), so that we're watching Alec Guinness play Alec Guinness playing some role or other, instead of, for instance, a Japanese businessman who happens to be both Star Trek's George Takei's father and Rosalind Russell's platonic paramour. (TCM schedule: Alec Guiness movies.) (Photo: Alec Guinness ca. 1955.)
Say what? Yeah, that's Mervyn LeRoy's drab – and quite successful – comedy A Majority of One (1961), written by Leonard Spigelgass from his own play, and with four-time Oscar nominee Rosalind Russell as a Jewish widow and Guinness, by then a Best Actor Oscar winner (The Bridge on the River Kwai), playing Japanese – but looking like a humanoid creature from some other planet or dimension. Now, Guinness' Japanese businessman Koichi Asano isn't an offensive portrayal; it's just a bad one. Russell's Bertha Jacoby is just as inoffensive and just as bad, though Bertha at least has one good line: "Don't touch my mustache." If you watch the movie, you'll know what I'm talking about.
Versatile Alec Guinness: Jewish, Arab, Russian, and even English characters
Alec Guinness' Fagin in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948) was considered so offensive – three years after the end of World War II – that three more years would pass before the film found American distribution, even then only after Guinness' screen time was shortened to appease pressure groups. According to the New York Times' Bosley Crowther, "some considerable footage in which the character appeared in the original has been dropped and particularly a section demonstrating his instruction of young thieves has been telescoped." Crowther, however, then proceeds to reassure his readers that neither Oliver Twist nor Fagin suffers as a result of the censors' scissors.
But is Guinness' Fagin truly offensive? Granted, it's an over-the-top performance, but hardly offensive. Just as inoffensive – and way more subdued – is Guinness' Prince Faisal in another David Lean film, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), considered by many one of the greatest movies ever made.
Needless to say, Mr. Contrarian here disagrees, as I much prefer David Lean's "small" movies, e.g., This Happy Breed, Brief Encounter, The Passionate Friends, Madeleine, Hobson's Choice. For although I find much to admire in Lawrence of Arabia – Lean's multiple Oscar-winning follow-up to his multiple Oscar-winning war drama The Bridge on the River Kwai – this psychological-political epic feels overblown and, worse yet, falls short in character development and thematic complexity.
For instance, the notorious gay rape scene – when Peter O'Toole's T.E. Lawrence discovers he's into kinky sex – shouldn't have been mirth-inducing. Unfortunately, Lawrence's rape (and its aftermath) is both risible and cringeworthy; hardly a good combo for one of Lawrence of Arabia's key dramatic moments. Guinness, on the other hand, delivers one of the better performances in the film, along with veteran Claude Rains, almost invariably brilliant no matter the role.
["From Charles Dickens to Rosalind Russell: pre-Star Wars Alec Guinness" continues on the next page. See link below.]
Alec Guinness photo via Doctor Macro.