|Back to: 1925 - 1930 The Lure of the Stage|
|Breaking Into Films|
Having tried all kinds of ways in the late 1920s to find work in to the British cinema, Esmond’s modest break eventually came when he was asked to appear as a radio operator in a 1929 film called The Blue Peter. He prepared for the part by studying morse code and reading up on radio techniques, but when he turned up at the ship in Tilbury docks where filming was talking place, he found that as breaks go it was a very modest one indeed and all his preparation had been unnecessary. He was merely required to walk out of one cabin into another and hand a radio message to another actor, Matheson Lang. For Esmond it was a milestone but a bit of an anticlimax for his family and servants who went along en masse to their local cinema in Putney to see "Mr Esmond" in his first picture.
Fortunately his second film, this time in a talking picture, was more substantial, a leading role in fact. In Romany Love (1931) he played Davy Summers, "a swaggering gypsy who never stopped singing." Esmond saw this as his opportunity to shine and in the final scene, a pub brawl, he used his athletic prowess to good effect by swinging on a chandelier and landing on a balcony. All went well on the first take, but second time round Esmond fell and broke his ankle and had to finish the filming on crutches!
Later the same
year Esmond found himself at Nettlefold Studios in Walton-On-Thames,
working alongside his boating friend, Vernon Sewell, on another film -
77 Park Lane (1931) - scripted by an ambitious young man
called Michael Powell. This was the second film Powell had worked on at
Nettlefold and followed close on the heels of a production called
Caste which starred Nora Swinburne, though not close enough that she
and Esmond met - another six years would pass before their paths
77 Park Lane was directed by Albert de Courville, the man who had cast Esmond in the play The Man I Killed in Paris two years earlier, and who now invited him to play the brother of the leading lady, Betty Stockfield. The film was ambitiously filmed in three versions simultaneously, in three different languages and with three different casts. Again there was a fight sequence which involved hurling soda syphons around the set, and this time Esmond managed to cut his hand to the bone.
Michael Powell clearly felt that he could have done a better job as the director of 77 Park Lane and involved himself as much as possible in every aspect of production. In the process he was getting to know artists and technicians with whom he would work time and again, developing a pool of talent on which he could, and would, call upon for future production, most notably his collaborations with Emeric Pressburger as 'The Archers'. One of these was Vernon Sewell. Another was Esmond Knight.
In the first part of his autobiography, A Life In Movies, Powell, referring to 77 Park Lane, wrote: "The young man who played her (Betty Stockfield's) brother in the film was a real find. He was a sulky, handsome young man with a mane of black hair and magnetic eyes. He was almost too romantically handsome to be true. Then one day I saw him giggling with one of the sound engineers and I realised that it was all a pose and he had a sense of humour. He was not tall but I felt he had star potential. His name was Esmond Knight."
In Esmond's autobiography, Seeking The Bubble, he wrote: "Michael Powell was an assistant director on the film and even in those early days one felt that he would go far. He looked exactly as I have always imagined Shakespeare, for he was the spit of the Martin Droeshout portrait." The mutual admiration and respect grew and develop, and over the next 40 years Esmond appeared in more Powell productions than any other actor, a total of 11 films.
p Michael Powell, who first met Esmond
on the set of the film 77 Park Lane,
for which Powell wrote the screenplay.
Esmond's initial impression of the man
who would become one Britain's most
highly regarded film directors was that
he bore a strong resemblance to the
Martin Droeshout portrait of
Back on stage in early 1931 Esmond appeared in Rahere, a play about the man who founded St Bartholomew's Hospital in London and built the great church in Smithfield where the production was staged. At about this time he also returned to his old school, Westminster, to appear in Masque of Comus with Fran. Then he found himself out of work again. During these periods of unemployment, it was his habit to escape to the country, usually to see his Uncle Chas. This time he helped Chas make a film about rare birds and animals which was often slow work and resulted in barely a few feet of film after a long arduous day. After one such a day, Esmond arrived back at Charles’s cottage in Sevenoaks to find a telephone message from Peter Godfrey with whom he had worked at the Gate and spent some time earlier that summer on his motor boat. Peter invited Esmond back to the Gate to join the cast in a new production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. As the Young Syrian, Esmond had to kill himself early on in the play but his body stayed on stage for some time. Fortunately he managed to arrange his death so that only his bottom half remained visible to the audience while his top half enjoyed a cigarette and a chat with the stage manager!
July Esmond was once more out of work. But his luck was about to
change. Quite by chance he bumped in to an actor friend in the street
who told him about auditions that were taking place that same day for a
new musical play about the Strauss family called Waltzes From Vienna.
Esmond hurried along to the theatre where the auditions were being held,
managed to bluff his way on stage, and the next day “was engaged to
play a small part and understudy Denis Noble at the enormous salary of
£15 a week.”
Waltzes From Vienna was a great success and ran for a year. At first he only played the matinees, sharing the role with Robert Halliday, but when it became his entirely the management increased his salary to the dizzy heights of £40 a week “…. and at last I was able to have some of the things which for years I had craved.” He bought some badly needed new clothes and also able to save a good deal of money for the first time in his life. Nevertheless a year is a long time to continue playing the same part and by the end of the run Esmond was ready to move on to pastures new. After a somewhat disastrous special performance in Love for Love with Fran at the Faculty of Arts (in which he found himself singing a different version of a song from his accompanist on the harpsichord!) he found himself involved in another musical play, this time Wild Violets at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. After a poor first night and a lukewarm beginning, followed by pay cuts for all the cast, the production gradually picked up and ran for nine months. Esmond was very fond of the show and regarded the musical score by Robert Stolz as one of the finest ever written for a show.
As Eddie Martin in The Bermondsey Kid (1933) u
(click on picture to enlarge)
Picture courtesy of The British Film Institute
As the run of Wild Violets came to an end Esmond was cast by Warner Brothers as a boxer in a film called The Bermondsey Kid. It turned out to be a bruising experience as most of his opponents in the ring were genuine boxers, including the middleweight champion of England, Henry Mason, who knocked him out twice for real as they shot the final fight sequence. Esmond attended the opening night with eyes half closed, swollen lips and a flattened nose. Warner Brothers then put him under contract and their managing director of British projects, Irving Asher, promoted him as a British James Cagney, although ironically his second film for them was as a dashing Italian pilot in The Blue Squadron.
Meanwhile Esmond's Uncle Chas had been approached by Alexander Korda's company, London Film Productions, to provide some hawks for a falconry sequence in their new film, The Private Life of Henry VIII, starring Charles Laughton (as Henry), Merle Oberon, Elsa Manchester and Robert Donat. After initially refusing because he felt it would be impossible to produce the authentic number of hawks with which Henry VIII would have gone hunting, Chas Knight then enlisted his nephew to help train a number of different types of birds (falcons, tiercels and merlins) for the scene, and after much hard work they did so very successfully. They aimed for authenticity as much as possible with the hawks wearing period hoods, jesses, bells and leashes and perched on an authentic frame (a "cadge") on which they would have been carried in Tudor times.
Esmond in traditional falconer's dress, from a painting by Alexander Christie p
(Click on picture to enlarge)
Both Charles and Esmond acted as falconers during the filming, which Alexander Korda directed himself. In the final edited film the falconry sequence was not very prominent, providing merely an element of Tudor colour, and the work of the Knights went uncredited. Nevertheless it gave Esmond an opportunity to indulge in one of his great passions at a professional level, and it was gratifying for him that the film was an enormous success, especially in the USA.
p A signed "camera study" of Esmond with falcon