Toronto Film Society presented The Holly and the Ivy (1952) on Monday, December 2, 2019 in a double bill with Come to the Stable as part of the Season 72 Monday Evening Film Buffs Series, Programme 3.
Production Company: London Film Productions/De Grunwald Productions. Director: George More O’Ferrall. Screenplay: Anatole de Grunwald, based on the play by Wynyard Browne. Cinematography: Edward Scaife. Music: Malcolm Arnold. Editor: Bert Bates. Release Date: February 4, 1954.
Cast: Ralph Richardson (Rev. Martin Gregory), Celia Johnson (Jenny Gregory), Margaret Leighton (Margaret Gregory), Denholm Elliott (Michael Gregory), Hugh Williams (Richard Wyndham), John Gregson (David Paterson), Margaret Halstan (Aunt Lydia), Maureen Delaney (Aunt Bridget), William Hartnell (Company Sergeant Major).
Plot: Faithfully adapted from a popular holiday play by Wynyard Browne, the drama centres on a recently widowed, aging country vicar who hosts a family Christmas and learns a valuable lesson about keeping his own home fires alight before spending too much time tending to the fires of others. The guests include his sister, his late wife’s sister, and her cousin. The vicar’s free-spirited, youngest daughter and his son, a soldier on furlough, also show up. All three siblings view their father as a religious maniac who will not understand or approve of any unconventional behaviour in their lives.
Critical Reception: A recent (2009) commentary on the film states: “Russian screen writer Anatole de Grunwald imbues this poignant adaptation of Wynyard Browne’s West End stage hit with Chekhov’s spirit and relocates the Russian’s genius for deftly drawn characters to a rambling Norfolk parsonage on Christmas Eve….” While The Holly and the Ivy now radiates a nostalgic glow, it is actually a revealing record of a country on the cusp of the dramatic social, economic, and cultural change that has, sadly, made faith, fidelity, and family feel like relics of a distant past.” A review (also from 2009) by Philip French of The Guardian calls it “Closely adapted from a well-made West End play by the largely forgotten playwright and novelist Wynyard Browne, this is a lovable, life-enhancing, seasonal movie. Set at Christmas and about the meaning of Christmas, it preserves in amber the austere atmosphere of postwar Britain. Ralph Richardson at his most charismatic stars as a recently widowed country parson confronting familial and spiritual truths at his rural Norfolk vicarage and achieving some sort of reconciliation over Christmas 1948 with his three children and other members of his family…. The film is sensitively photographed in black and white by the skilled Ted Scaife (camera operator on Black Narcissus and The Third Man). The director, George More O’Ferrall, worked largely in TV and made only six feature films, most famously The Heart of the Matter (1953).”
Ralph Richardson (1902-1983): Knighted in 1947, he was one of the greatest English stage and film actors of the 20th century, along with John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and Alec Guinness. He began his stage career in the 1920s and joined the Old Vic company in 1931, thereafter working regularly in London’s West theatres and Broadway in a variety of classic and modern roles. His film career began in 1933 with The Return of Bulldog Drummond where, as a review in The New York Times commented, he “makes Drummond as brave and stupid on the screen as he is in print.” From then onwards, he regularly alternated work on the stage and on film, treating both with equal seriousness and conviction. Films of this period included Things to Come (1936) and, after war service in World War II, one of his finest roles, in Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol (1948). Other major films of this period were The Heiress (1949); An Outcast of the Islands (1951); The Sound Barrier (1952); and Laurence Olivier’s Richard III (1956), in which he played the Duke of Buckingham. These were followed, along with several stage roles, by Our Man in Havana (1959) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962). He made 13 films in all during the 1960s, including Khartoum and Doctor Zhivago, as well as starring on television in a series based on P.G. Wodehouse’s “Blandings Castle” stories. In the 1970s and ’80s, he worked frequently on stage for the newly formed National Theatre, as well as in commercial West End productions and such films as Time Bandits and Greystoke, the latter released after his death in 1983. Stage and film director Peter Hall called Sir Richardson “the greatest actor I have ever worked with” and he was much admired by the younger generation of actors, such as Albert Finney.
Celia Elizabeth Johnson, DBE (1908-1982): She was an English actress known for her roles in the films In Which We Serve (1942); This Happy Breed (1944); Brief Encounter (1945); and The Captain’s Paradise (1953). For Brief Encounter, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. A six-time British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award nominee, she won the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). She began her stage acting career in 1928, and subsequently achieved success in West End and Broadway productions. Dame Johnson continued performing in theatre for the rest of her life, and much of her later work was in television, including winning the BAFTA TV Award for Best Actress for the BBC Play for Today: Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (1973). She suffered a stroke and died soon after, at the age of 73.
Margaret Leighton (1922-1973): Born in Barnt Green, Worcestershire, Leighton made her stage debut as Dorothy in Laugh with Me (1938), which also was performed that year for BBC Television. She became a star of the Old Vic. Her Broadway debut was as the Queen in Henry IV (1946), starring Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, during a visit of the Old Vic to the US, and the company performed a total of five plays from its repertoire before returning to London. After appearing in two British films, including the starring role of Flora MacDonald opposite David Niven in Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948) and in the popular The Winslow Boy (also 1948), she acted in Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (1949) and the crime/mystery Calling Bulldog Drummond (1951). She won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her performance in Separate Tables (1956) and won another Tony in that category for The Night of the Iguana (1962), playing Hannah Jelkes (a role played by Deborah Kerr in the film version) opposite Bette Davis as Maxine Faulk. Leighton was nominated for Best Actress in a Play for Much Ado About Nothing (1959) and Tchin-Tchin (1962). She portrayed the wife of an American presidential candidate in the 1964 film The Best Man. Her last appearance on Broadway was as Birdie Hubbard in a revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1967). She later had a noteworthy list of TV appearances, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Ben Casey, and Burke’s Law. For her film role as Mrs. Maudsley in The Go-Between (1970), Leighton won the British BAFTA Film Award for Best Supporting Actress and received a BAFTA nomination for Best British Actress for her role as Valerie Carrington in Carrington V.C. (1955). She received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for The Go-Between.
Denholm Elliott, CBE (1922-1992): The much-loved character actor specialised in playing slightly sleazy, slightly eccentric, and often flawed upper-middle class English gentlemen in more than 120 films and TV shows. His career spanned nearly 40 years, and he became a well-known face both in Britain and in the United States. Some of his well-known roles include: the abortionist in Alfie (1966); Marcus Brody in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); Coleman in Trading Places (1983); and Mr. Emerson in A Room with a View (1985). Elliott earned critical acclaim in his later career. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in A Room with a View, and won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in three consecutive years in the 1980s, becoming the only actor ever to have achieved this. The American film critic Roger Ebert described him as “the most dependable of all British character actors.” The New York Times called him “a star among supporting players” and “an accomplished scene-stealer.” He was born in London, attended Malvern College, and trained at the
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He was asked to leave the academy after one term. As Elliott later recalled, “They wrote to my mother and said, ‘Much as we like the little fellow, he’s wasting your money and our time. Take him away!’”
In the Second World War, he joined the Royal Air Force, training as a wireless operator/air gunner and serving with No. 76 Squadron RAF under the command of Leonard Cheshire. On the night of September 23/24, 1942, his Handley Page Halifax DT508 bomber took part in an air raid on the U-boat pens at Flensburg, Germany. The aircraft was hit by flak and subsequently ditched in the North Sea near Sylt, Germany. Only Elliott and two crewmen survived, and he spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp in Silesia. While imprisoned, he became involved in amateur dramatics.
After making his film debut in Dear Mr. Prohack (1949), he went on to play a wide range of parts; often ineffectual and occasionally seedy characters, such as the drunken journalist Bayliss in Defence of the Realm, the criminal abortionist in Alfie, and the washed-up film director in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Elliott and Natasha Parry played the main roles in the 1955 television play The Apollo of Bellac. He took over for an ill Michael Aldridge for one season of The Man in Room 17 (1966). Elliott made many television appearances, which included plays by Dennis Potter, such as Follow the Yellow Brick Road (1972); Brimstone and Treacle (1976); and Blade on the Feather (1980). He starred in the BBC’s adaptation of the Charles Dickens short story The Signalman (1976). In the 1980s, he won three consecutive BAFTA Awards—Best Supporting Actor for Trading Places as Dan Aykroyd’s kindly butler; A Private Function; and Defence of the Realm—as well as receiving an Academy Award nomination for A Room with a View. Having filmed Michael Winner’s The Wicked Lady (1983), Elliott was quoted in a BBC Radio interview as saying that Marc Sinden and he “are the only two British actors I am aware of who have ever worked with Winner more than once, and it certainly wasn’t for love. But curiously, I never, ever saw any of the same crew trice.” Elliott had worked with Sinden’s father, Sir Donald Sinden, in the film The Cruel Sea (1953). He co-starred with Katharine Hepburn and Harold Gould in the television film Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry (1986) and with Nicole Kidman in Bangkok Hilton (1989).
In 1988 Elliott was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his services to acting. His career included many stage performances, including with the Royal Shakespeare Company and a well-acclaimed turn as the twin brothers in Jean Anouilh’s Ring Round the Moon. His scene-stealing abilities led Gabriel Byrne, his co-star in Defence of the Realm, to say: “Never act with children, dogs, or Denholm Elliott.” Despite being described by British Film Institute’s Screenonline as an actor of “versatile understanding and immaculate technique,” Elliott described himself as an instinctive actor and was a critic of Stanislavski’s system of acting, saying, “I mistrust and am rather bored with actors who are of the Stanislavski school and who think about detail.”
Privately bisexual, Elliott was married twice: first to actress Virginia McKenna for a few months in 1954, and from 1962-1992, in an open marriage, to American actress Susan Robinson (1942-2007), with whom he had two children, Mark and Jennifer, the latter of whom died by suicide in 2003. Elliott was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 and died of AIDS-related tuberculosis at his home in Santa Eulària des Riu on Ibiza, Spain on October 6, 1992, at the age of 70. Tributes were paid by actors Sir Donald Sinden and Sir Peter Ustinov, playwright Dennis Potter, and former wife Virginia McKenna. Sinden said, “He was one of the finest screen actors and a very special actor at that. He was one of the last stars who was a real gentleman. It is a very sad loss.” Ustinov said, “He was a wonderful actor and a very good friend on the occasions that life brought us together.” Potter commented: “He was a complicated, sensitive, and slightly disturbing actor. Not only was he a very accomplished actor, he was a dry, witty, and slightly menacing individual. As a man, I always found him very open, very straightforward, and very much to the point.” Ismail Merchant described Elliott as “an all-giving person, full of life…. He had an affection and feeling for other actors, which is very unusual in our business.”
John Gregson (1919-1975): Born of Irish descent, Gregson grew up in Wavertree in Liverpool, where he was educated at Greenbank Road Primary School and later at St. Francis Xavier’s College. He left school at 16 and worked for a telephone company before the Second World War. During this time he became interested in amateur dramatics. When war broke out, Gregson was called up and joined the Royal Navy as a sailor on minesweepers. At one point, his minesweeper was torpedoed and he was rescued from the sea with a knee injury. After being demobilised in 1945, he joined the Liverpool Playhouse for a year before going on to Perth Theatre in Scotland. One of his first appearances in film was in Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), a tearjerking romance starring Joan Greenwood and Stewart Granger. In the popular Scott of the Antarctic (also 1948), he played Tom Crean.
Gregson could also be seen in Ealing’s Whisky Galore! (1949) and Train of Events (1949), as well as The Hasty Heart (1949), Cairo Road (1950), Treasure Island (1950), and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). He had a lead role in Angels One Five (1951), a war film, and was promoted to leading man for The Brave Don’t Cry (1952), about a mining disaster. He had the second lead in Rank’s Venetian Bird and supported in The Holly and the Ivy (both 1952). He also had a leading role in another Ealing comedy, The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). He became a star when cast in the comedy Genevieve (1953), also starring Kenneth More, Dinah Sheridan, and Kay Kendall. It was the second-most popular film of the year in Britain. He had a big hit with the war film Above Us the Waves (1956) and another war movie based on a true story, The Battle of the River Plate (1956). That year he was the fourth-biggest British star. The following year he was eighth, his last year in the top ten. His final film roles of note were Live Now, Pay Later (1962) and Tomorrow at Ten (1962). His career faded after ten good years (1952-1962) and he was one of many leading men and women of the 1950s (the others including Kenneth More, Richard Todd, Patrick Holt, Michael Craig, Sylvia Syms, and Muriel Pavlow) who struggled to maintain their status as leads beyond the early-1960s. From 1963 onwards, Gregson never played another leading film role, and TV work became increasingly important to him from the mid-’60s, as well as the occasional stage appearance. He died suddenly from a heart attack near Portlock Weir, Somerset, aged 55, whilst on holiday, walking on the path to St. Beuno’s Church, Culbone, and left a widow, Thea Gregory, and six children.
Notes by Graham Petrie
October 2022 – April 2023