Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Mind Behind Precode: My Celebration of Noel Coward

Although Noel was responsible for only five Precode films, his racy and outspoken look at relationships, sex and morality shaped the mood for the era. His plays remain firm favourites of mine because they are as relevant now as they were when they were first written. Here’s my small celebration of the legend Noel Coward.

The Man

The playwright John Osborne said of Coward, “Mr Coward is his own invention and contribution to this century. Anyone who cannot see that should keep well away from the theatre.” Coward was a man of the theatre if not the entertainment industry as a whole. In his career spanning over fifty years he was employed as everything from a playwright, composer, director, actor and singer. Born in 1899, the same year as screen legends Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Alfred Hitchcock, in Teddington London, Noel began performing at a young age by getting small roles in London productions. He used this experience and exposure to ‘high society’ to mold his portrayals of wealthy society dames and sophisticated playboys that were often the centerpiece of his future plays. At age 20, Coward took on a greater role in the theatre both writing and starring in his first piece, ‘I’ll Leave it to You’ (1920) which, although it opened to little acclaim, slowly built his reputation up as the creator of both witty and entertaining plays. He continued at a dizzying pace writing play after play, overseeing the creation of film adaptations all while still acting in the occasion production.

Noel was also an accomplished singer appearing in his first operetta in 1933 ‘Conversation Piece’ which he also wrote and directed. This began a successful music career with Coward writing and releasing over 300 songs during his career including, ‘I’ll See You Again’ and ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’. Below is a live recording of Coward singing 'Mad Dogs and Englishmen', I admit its not for everyone, but I find it adorable!!

From World War II onwards, Coward enjoyed a steady career focused more on first entertaining the troops and promoting the cause and secondly writing pieces mostly for film productions. In 1955, with this impact of his racy ideas and storylines dwindling, he had a stint on cabaret performing in Las Vegas which was quickly turned into a series of 90-minute television specials.  Over his career Coward’s popularity never seemed to waver and he was still at the peak of his fame when he died March 26, 1973 from heart failure aged 74.          

The Movies

Here is my top 5 Noel Coward films and I apologize if my choices are a little Precode-centric; although Noel contributed to several great 1940’s films, his early 1930’s ones are my all-time favorites.

1) Design for Living (1933)


Probably the most controversial movie ever to come out of the Precode era. A risqué tale of a woman in a ménage-a-trios agreement with two men. It is especially interesting because her beaus are played by the handsome Gary Cooper and the dashing Fredric March. Who will Miriam Hopkins choose or does she keep them both? 

2) Private Lives (1931)

This film is another in a line of Norma Shearer racy relationship dramas. It is a hilarious story of divorced couple Amanda Prynne (Norma Shearer) and Elyot Chase (Robert Montgomery) who meet while on their respective honeymoons to their second spouses. Soon they realize that they are still in love with each other and create a scheme to elope together.  Although this film tends to be a lot of Norma and Robert arguing, it’s still extremely entertaining.

3) Easy Virtue (2008)

Yes I know, a non-classic recommendation. It is, however, a remake of a silent production of the same name, directed strangely by Alfred Hitchcock. It stars Jessica Biel as an American widow who impulsively marries handsome Englishman, John Whittaker. But she finds that her behaviours and customs are too risqué for John’s stuffy family who attempt to break the pair up. It’s a funny, lighthearted romantic comedy with wonderful 1930’s touches and music. Also, watch out for the twist ending which may or may not include Colin Firth’s character.

4) Cavalcade (1933)


I have heard some horrible reviews of this film lately and not having watched it in ages; I can only give a half-hearted recommendation of this movie. The film is a historical epic (not usual for a Coward film) showing the period from New Years Eve 1899 to New Years Day 1933. Starring Diana Wynyard, Clive Brook and Una O’Connor, it centers upon the life of a wealthy English family coping with a number of significant historical events, such as, World War 1, the sinking of the Titanic and the death of Queen Victoria. Also, it did win the Best Picture Academy Award for 1933 will is a plus.  

5) Paris When it Sizzles (1964)

I’m sure every classic film fan and, not to mention, Audrey Hepburn lover has seen this one. It is a romantic comedy of an unpredictable screenwriter Richard Benson (William Holden) and his suffering temp secretary Gabrielle Simpson (Audrey Hepburn). The movie is a series of scenarios or skits that each imagines for Benson’s play ‘The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower’.  I would recommend this simply for the landscapes, the pair go to beautiful French locations and always seem to have breathtaking views in the background; I have to congratulate the cinematographers. However, I did have problems with the acting of both Audrey and William; although, Audrey is simply lovely, at some points it seems she is uncomfortable working alongside the often tired-looking Holden who I have read was suffering bouts of alcoholism during the filming. Also, watch out for a cameo from Noel who plays Benson’s boss, Alexander Myerheim, and appearances from Tony Curtis. 

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