1930 - 1933 Breaking into Films
Having tried all kinds of ways during the late 1920s to find work in the 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 taking place, he found that as breaks go it was a very modest one indeed. 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. But for Esmond it was a milestone, though a bit of an anticlimax for his family's servants and friends 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 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 he fell and broke his ankle and had to finish filming on crutches.
The cover of a booklet supplied to cinema owners to help promote their latest film release, 77 Park Lane (1931), in which Esmond played Philip Connor, a young man who falls foul of rogues in an illegal gambling den.
Later the same year, Esmond found himself at Nettlefold Studios in Walton-On-Thames, working alongside his boating friend, Vernon Sewell, on a film called 77 Park Lane - 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 Caste, which starred Nora Swinburne, though not close enough that she and Esmond met. Six more years would pass before their paths crossed again.
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 leading lady Betty Stockfield. The project 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. 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 productions - 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."
Michael Powell, who first met Esmond on the set of 77 Park Lane, for which Powell wrote the screenplay. Esmond's initial impression of the man who would become one of Britain's most revered film directors was that he bore a strong resemblance to the Martin Droeshout portrait of William Shakespeare.
In his 1942 autobiography, Seeking The Bubble, Esmond 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 had always imagined Shakespeare, for he was the spit of the Martin Droeshout portrait." The mutual admiration and respect grew and developed, and over the next forty years Esmond appeared in a total of eleven Powell productions - more than any other actor.
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 with Fran in Masque of Camus. 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 at the end of a long, arduous day. After one such day, Esmond arrived back at Chas's cottage in Sevenoaks to find a telephone message from Peter Godfrey, with whom he had worked at the Gate Theatre and spent some time with 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 quiet chat with the stage manager.
A publicity shot of Esmond taken in 1935.
By July Esmond was out of work yet again. Then, quite by chance, he bumped in to an actor friend who told him about auditions taking place that very 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. Six days before they opened, a second piece of luck came his way. The actor booked to play the leading role of Johann Strauss Junior withdrew, and to his delight Esmond was offered the part. It was the break in a large mainstream West End production he had been hoping for for a long time and he could hardly believe his good fortune. This was of course a musical, and the part of Johann Strauss Junior required him to sing as well as conduct a large orchestra on stage. He worked hard to make sure his musicianship was up to scratch and he did not let the producers down. Unbeknown to them, he'd been secretly learning the role in the hope that a chance such as this might occur.
Waltzes From Vienna was a huge 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 per 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 was able to save a good deal of money for the first time in his life. On the other hand, a year is a long time to continue playing the same part and by the end of the run Esmond was very ready to move on to pastures new. After a somewhat disastrous special performance 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 the whole 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 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, quite literally, a bruising experience as most of his opponents in the ring were genuine boxers, including the middleweight champion of England, Henry Mason, who knocked Esmond 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, Irving Asher, decided to promote him as a British James Cagney, although ironically his second film for them was as a dashing Italian pilot in The Blue Squadron.
As Eddie Martin in The Bermondsey Kid (1933), the film that won him a contract with Warner Brothers.
Picture courtesy of The British Institute
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 Lanchester 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, 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") upon which they would have been carried in Tudor times.
Charles Laughton and Merle Oberon in The Private life of Henry VIII for which Esmond and Chas trained birds - and also appeared as falconers.
Esmond in traditional falconer's dress, from a painting by Alexander Christie.
This picture appears as the Frontispiece in Esmond's autobiography,
Seeking The Bubble, published in 1943 by Hutchinson & Co.
A signed "camera study" of Esmond with a falcon.