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Ingrid's Obituary


The Hammer Films Story - Part Two

Takes the story from the days of films based on radio series such as PC 49 and the mould breaking Quatermass Xperiment, right up to the start of the Horror dominated period of Dracula, and Frankenstein etc.
The Hammer Zombies Are Coming!

The Hammer Zombies Are Coming!

By the early 'fifties, Hammer had secured its place in the film market by converting well-known radio and stage plays to the big screen. Its productions were still very much 'second feature' but they were now ready to expand. Through a series of clever deals Jimmy Carreras began to open up the lucrative market in America.

After meeting Hammer supremo Jimmy Carreras at the post premiere party for ALFRED THE GREAT and being invited to his office if I was interested in 'three parts', things happened very rapidly. In spite of my initial trepidation I braved the wind and slush of a November morn in 1969 to audition for the part. I decked myself out in the shortest micro skirt, little more than a wide belt, thigh length boots, a flowing maxi-coat and topped it off with a wide brimmed Fedora. Jimmy sat down behind his desk. I waited until I had his full attention then shrugged off the coat to reveal the skirt and breath restricting sweater. I let the coat fall onto the settee and whipped off the hat and let my golden tresses speak for themselves. I perched a buttock on the arm of the sofa, smiled brightly and said something cringe-making like "Private Pitt reporting for duty, Colonel." I'll give him his due, he didn't laugh. Just nodded politely. "I've got a film called VAMPIRE LOVERS starting in January. I think you'd be just right for the lead," he said in an offhand manner.

It was typical of Jimmy Carreras. Business seemed to be a game to him. A game at which he was very good. He hated protracted deals with a lot of 'ifs'. Once he had made up his mind he went for it. The first thing he would do was whistle up an artist, tell him briefly what he wanted and then leave him to come up with a suitably exciting poster. With this he went to the men with a tight hold on the money bags and proposed that they backed his film. So far it had been a case of SPQR. CLOUDBURST in 1951 was the breakthrough that Carreras was looking for. Firstly, Down Place, now renamed Bray Studios, although small, was compact and the rooms of the house large. Secondly, Jimmy had done a deal with Hungarian producer Alexander Paal and was able to announce that ten films, plus a number of 'shorts', were about to be produced in 1951. It was also the first time an American leading man, Robert Preston was contracted for the lead (Lugosi was Hungarian - Transylvanian if you like.) The story was gruesome. Avenging the death of his wife Preston seeks out the killers and runs them over with his car- repeatedly. It wasn't particularly good and had a bit of a problem with the censors who didn't like the idea of the hero committing multiple and appalling murders but it did leave a mark. It brought Jimmy Sangster back as Assistant and Michael Carreras filled in as Casting Director.

A CASE FOR P.C. 49 was Michael Ripper's first speaking and perhaps his best role for the studio. Hugh Latimer who had starred in the first PC 49 adventure was replaced by the radio actor of the piece, Brian Reece, and co-starred Joy Shelton and Christine Norden. Cross and Double cross was the main plot-line and the vacuous story received better reviews than perhaps it merited.

The Hammer team had high hopes but the sudden expansion of owning a studio and promising multiple productions to meet the needs of the American benefactors led them to take their corporate eye off the ball. DEATH OF AN ANGEL (1951) was in many ways a step back. It had no well known stars and an iffy plot. WHISPERING SMITH HITS LONDON in comparison had a starry plot and welcomed yet another American interest on board. Richard Carlson plays Yankee detective Smith on holiday in London. Naturally when he is propositioned by Rona Anderson to find the murderer of her friend Sylvia he realises that it is a chance to succeed where Scotland Yards has failed. He takes the job and untangles the web of murder and deceit. He had a great backing cast. Greta Gynt, the perennial bad girl, Herbert Lom the perennial bad boy and Dora Bryan the perennial.

Christopher Lee

Christopher Lee

Some films, particularly in the case of Hammer, are remarkable for the collection of technicians and actors who return again and again. MAN BAIT, (aka The Last Page in this country but I prefer the US title.) was one of these films. From America it had George Brent, a stolid but competent actor. Our own Diana Dors was the Man Bait. Raymond Huntley, who is credited with perfecting the outfit of cape and boiled shirt front obligatory in Dracula Films, is ably supported by Eleanor Summerfield. Terence Fisher directed. It was the beginning of a love match between Hammer and US company Robert Lippert Productions which was to last for a long time. The poster for Man Bait, double billed with BAD GIRL, is highly sought after by collectors. It marks the consecration of DD as an International sex symbol.

WINGS OF DANGER had American Zachary Scott, Canadian Robert Beatty, the very English Kay Kendall and appearing in her first British film, Australian Diane Cilento. It was shot at Hammersmith Riverside Studios and made money. Which was more than can be said for NEVER LOOK BACK which had nothing going for it. It was Michael Carreras first outing as a producer and his aim was 4 minutes in the can per dia. It was to be one of the last times for quite a while that Jimmy Carreras was going to risk celluloid without a recognisable name on the poster.

The star-name syndrome was demonstrated in STOLEN FACE. Paul Henreid, on the run from the Un-American witch hunt, played a plastic surgeon obsessed with concert pianist Lizabeth Scott . She goes off and marries another and Henreid goes a bit potty and converts a criminal into a lookalike - with predictably tragic results. It brought another of the eventual Hammer Rep company stars on board, Andre Morell.

Hammer were now on a roll. Robert Lippert was supplying a never ending supply of well-known but slightly flaky American actors. At times they had two or three films on the go simultaneously. LADY IN THE FOG had Cesar Romero as another Yank in London showing the Limey cops what's what. In 1952 American Dane Clark had a solid portfolio of work behind him and a TV career stretching ahead. It seemed all that was needed was a halfway decent vehicle and he and the film would be romping home. The film was THE GAMBLER AND THE LADY. It was released to deafening one-hand clapping and more than a little mystery. It seems that nobody wanted to be named as the director. The next couple of years until, 1954, confirmed the general flavour of Hammer. Tight, violent scripts given a polish at the box office by an infusion of American stars. Such as THE FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE with Barbara Payton supported by British character heavy weights, James Hayter and Stephen Murray. Barbara Payton was back for THE FLANAGAN BOY with home- bred Tony Wright, a cauliflower ear and lust saga, SPACEWAYS(1952) should have been good. Howard Duff and Eva Bartok were up front, Michael Carreras produced and Terence Fisher directed. What wasn't there was a reasonable budget .

THE SAINT RETURNS(1953) had the slightly porky figure of Louis Heyward playing an unbelievably stolid Simon Templar. Hard on the Saint's heels came BLOOD ORANGE. This time it was the turn of Tom Conway (ex-Falcon) to add the American interest, but not much. Dan Duryea, the next pond hopper came for 36 HOURS.

Murder by Proxy

Murder by Proxy

FACE THE MUSIC(1954) with American Alex Nicol was a bit of an in -joke as far as producer Michael Carreras was concerned. A fairly routine story about a jazz musician falsely accused of murder. It gave him the perfect excuse to indulge his fancy. He got to play trumpet with the Kenny Baker Dozen.

One of the unsung stalwarts of Hammer films, practically from day one, was Continuity Girl, Renee Glynn. THE HOUSE ACROSS THE LAKE was her twentieth film for Hammer. Nicol once again fronted as the mug talked into murder by a beautiful but sinful woman. The bloke who wrote the book, Ken Hughes, got to write the script and direct.

It was back to borrowing subjects off the radio for LIFE WITH THE LYONS. Ben Lyon, who played the lead in the epic aerial adventure HELL'S ANGELS back in 1930, was the head of the dysfunctional family and Bebe Daniels, his wife in real, the much put upon spouse. It brought director Val Guest into the company. Times were lean after The Lyons. Dane Clark came back to kick in with a couple of less than Oscar Nomination performances in MURDER BY PROXY (1955) and FIVE DAYS. Paulette Goddard came to the end of a glittering career with the confusing THE STRANGER CAME HOME. Lloyd Bridges backed up by a faceful of the best of British actors must have looked attraction on paper. Unfortunately when coupled with THIRD PARTY RISK (1955) it just stayed there.

The trouble with filming cars racing around a track is that it is deadly boring. It should be exciting but a car is a car is a car. Jimmy Carreras thought he could overcome the genre's drawbacks by drafting in Richard Conte for MASK OF DUST. He couldn't So he returned to that old standby, Robin Hood with the MEN OF SHERWOOD FOREST. Donning the party hat and tights for this interpretation of the ancient tale was Don Taylor. It was shot in Eastman Color - a first for Hammer. There was a final romp with the Lyons - THE LYONS IN PARIS. The less said about THE GLASS CAGE, with John Ireland , the better.

The Quatermass Xperiment

The Quatermass Xperiment

Hammer's second foray into colour was BREAK IN THE CIRCLE. It had a strong cast headed by Forrest Tucker, Eva Bartok and Marios Goring and directed by Hammer's top director Val Guest. I'm told that lobby cards and posters of this and Men of Sherwood Forest exchange hands for good money. Probably because they are the first Hammer films in colour.

By this time the little company perched on the banks of the Thames had become a name in the film industry. A six part serial run on the BBC in the summer of '54 caught Carreras eye and he snapped up the film rights. This film, THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT, was the film destined to focus Hammer's output and earn the company the Queen's Award for Industry and eventually make the Hammer name synonymous with Horror. Although the start of Quatermass is overtly a space-opera, the space ship is only the maguffin that wheels on the Monster. It is a horror film through and through and I don't want an argument. The response to the film was instant and profitable. So good, in fact, that it blew the production teams schedule into orbit, George Donlevy, who was the now obligatory American lead, was not to everyone's fancy. To me he seems perfect. After all, he is supposed to be a scientist, not a latter-day Flash Gordon. It was team work of a high order which produced this milestone epic. Not a little of the atmosphere was created by the late James Bernard's searing violins. But the top credit must go to director Val Guest.

Quatermass 2

Quatermass 2

While the company directors sorted out what had hit them Val was kept busy with another cop movie, WOMEN WITHOUT MEN (1956). Quatermass was doing so well at the box office that not a lot of attention was given to the rather pedestrian film. Frantic search for another film in the Quatermass vein resulted in X - THE UNKNOWN. The 'X ' had also been used in Quatermass Xperiment as a not too subtle hint that it was definitely not for a Universal audience. Jimmy Sangster, who had been languishing in the Production office, co-thought up the basic idea and was given the job of writing the script. And a new horror/sci-fi writer was born.

This time the Monster came out of the bowels of the earth, not from a contaminated space ship but was just as ugly and even harder to destroy. And a fitting introduction to Quatermass 2. This time the originator of the piece, Nigel Kneale , who hadn't liked the first Quatermass one little bit wrote the script himself. Quatermass 2, with its theme of aliens invading the earth was a proper sci-fi film with just a hint of horror. Trio of Donlevy, Guest and Bernard had done it again. Again the directors had a picture to ponder on. Exclusive which had been the mainstay on Hammer throughout the fraught years, hadn't got the clout to handle the film so Carreras made a deal with United Artists in exchange for financing and future Hammer distribution was up for grabs.

The Curse Of Frankenstein

The Curse Of Frankenstein

STEEL BAYONET (1956) was another case of strumming the background cords while the front office decided the dance. It gave Michael Carreras a chance to try on the director's light meter for a feature. As Corporal Jones famously says, "They don't like it up 'em". And this was the general opinion of Steel Bayonet. It was the pause that teed up the great breakthrough at Hammer. Jimmy Carreras had sorted out that the bums on seats like to be thrilled with horror. He intended to give it to them. Mary Shelley's Monster had been given the cinematic treatment by Universal with Boris Karloff. It had done good business and earmarked a genre. Carreras called in Jimmy Sangster and told him to write THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Sangster had the writing quill firmly in his fist now and rewrote the Frankenstein saga. Peter Cushing was roped in to play the dedicated Victor Frankenstein. The Doctor was the main lead in Sangster's saga. Various stunt men were tried out for the stitches and dreadful haircut. Peter Brace claims that he was actually sitting in the makeup chair when word came through that Terence Fisher the director had decided that the Monster should be played by an actor. It was a prescient decision and brought Terence Fisher, Jimmy Sangster, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and James Bernard together for the first time.

(First published in MODEL & COLLECTORS MART).

PART 3 OF THE HAMMER STORY

THE HAMMER STORY

The Writings of Ingrid Pitt