Alec Guinness movies: Pre-‘Star Wars’ Guinness runs the gamut from Dickens’ Fagin to Japanese businessman romancing Rosalind Russell
Alec Guinness is Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” star on Saturday, Aug. 3. 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.
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.
Alec Guinness before Obi-Wan Kenobi: The doomed D’Ascoynes
TCM won’t be showing The Bridge on the River Kwai on Alec Guinness day, though obviously not because the cable network programmers believe that one four-hour David Lean epic per day should be enough. After all, prior to Lawrence of Arabia TCM will be presenting the three-and-a-half-hour-long Doctor Zhivago (1965), a great-looking but never-ending romantic drama in which Guinness – quite poorly – plays a KGB official. He’s slightly less miscast as a mere Englishman – one much too young for the then 32-year-old actor – in Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), a movie that fully belongs to boy-loving (in a chaste, fatherly manner) fugitive Finlay Currie.
And finally, make sure to watch Robert Hamer’s dark comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which Alec Guinness – at his very best – beautifully plays eight characters of various ages, genders, and inclinations. Dennis Price is the film’s conniving lead; the leading ladies are Great Expectations’ Valerie Hobson (the actual Bride of Frankenstein in the 1935 movie) and the delightful, husky-voiced Joan Greenwood. And make sure to look for Audrey Hepburn in a bit part in Charles Crichton’s The Lavender Hill Mob (1951).
Alec Guinness Academy Award nominations
Besides winning the Best Actor Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai, Alec Guinness was nominated for three other Academy Awards: Best Actor for The Lavender Hill Mob (released in 1952 in the Los Angeles area), and, as Best Supporting Actor, for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) and for Christine Edzard’s two-part 1988 release Little Dorritt. Additionally, Guinness received an Honorary Oscar at the 1980 ceremony. It’s a crime he wasn’t at least nominated for Robert Moore’s 1976 spoof Murder by Death.
A curiosity: After being invited to play Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Alec Guinness wrote to a friend about it, referring to George Lucas’ space opera as “fairy-tale rubbish but could be interesting perhaps.”
Alec Guinness movies: TCM schedule (PT) on August 3, 2013
3:00 AM GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946). Director: David Lean. Cast: John Mills, Valerie Hobson, Alec Guinness, Bernard Miles, Jean Simmons, Anthony Wager a.k.a. Tony Wager, Martita Hunt, Finlay Currie, Francis L. Sullivan, Ivor Barnard, Freda Jackson, Eileen Erskine, George Hayes, Torin Thatcher, O.B. Clarence, BW-118 min.
5:15 AM OLIVER TWIST (1948). Director: David Lean. Cast: Robert Newton, Alec Guinness, Kay Walsh, John Howard Davies, Francis L. Sullivan, Henry Stephenson, Mary Clare, Anthony Newley, Josephine Stuart, Ralph Truman, Gibb McLaughlin, Kathleen Harrison, Amy Veness, Frederick Lloyd, Henry Edwards, Ivor Barnard, Maurice Denham, Michael Ripper, Peter Bull, Diana Dors, Fay Middleton, Hattie Jacques, Betty Paul. Black and white. 116 min.
7:15 AM THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951). Director: Charles Crichton. Cast: Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sidney James, Audrey Hepburn. Black and white. 81 min.
9:00 AM THE LADYKILLERS (1955). Director: Alexander Mackendrick. Cast: Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Danny Green, Jack Warner, Katie Johnson, Philip Stainton, Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Connor, Michael Corcoran, Harold Goodwin, Robert Moore. Color. 91 mins. Letterbox Format.
10:45 AM A MAJORITY OF ONE (1961). Director: Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Rosalind Russell, Alec Guinness, Ray Danton, Madlyn Rhue, Mae Questel, Marc Marno, Gary Vinson, Sharon Hugueny, Frank Wilcox, Alan Mowbray, Sam Harris, George Takei. Color. 149 mins. Letterbox Format.
1:30 PM DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965). Director: David Lean. Cast: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine Chaplin, Alec Guinness, Rita Tushingham, Rod Steiger, Siobhan McKenna, Ralph Richardson, Jeffrey Rockland, Tarek Sharif, Bernard Kay, Klaus Kinski, Geoffrey Keen, Adrienne Corri, Jack MacGowran, Roger Maxwell, Peter Madden, Mark Eden, Ingrid Pitt. Color. 200 mins. Letterbox Format.
5:00 PM LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962). Director: David Lean. Cast: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains, Anthony Quayle, Jack Hawkins, José Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Wolfit, John Dimech, Zia Mohyeddin, I.S. Johar, Gamil Ratib, Howard Marion-Crawford, John Barry, Robert Bolt, Barbara Cole, Harry Fowler, Ian MacNaughton, Clive Morton, Daniel Moynihan, George Plimpton. Color. 227 mins. Letterbox Format.
9:00 PM KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949). Director: Robert Hamer. Cast: Dennis Price, Joan Greenwood, Valerie Hobson, Alec Guinness, Miles Malleson, Audrey Fildes, Clive Morton, John Penrose, Cecil Ramage, Hugh Griffith, Eric Messiter, John Salew, Lyn Evans, Barbara Leake, Peggy Ann Clifford, Arthur Lowe, Laurence Naismith, Jeremy Spenser, Richard Wattis, Carol White, Harold Young. Black and white. 106 min.
11:00 PM THE SCAPEGOAT (1959). Director: Robert Hamer. Cast: Alec Guinness, Bette Davis, Nicole Maurey. Black and white. 92 mins. Letterbox Format.
1:00 AM HOTEL PARADISO (1966). Director: Peter Glenville. Cast: Gina Lollobrigida, Alec Guinness, Robert Morley. Color. 95 mins. Letterbox Format.