This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of two of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s less heralded films, Gone to Earth and The Elusive Pimpernel.
Although very different in style and theme, the two films share some things in common. They were both released in 1950 under the auspices of Alexander Korda, with whom Powell and Pressburger had signed a five-picture deal in 1948, ceding the independence of their production company The Archers.
Finance for both films came from American partners. Korda needed the money – his company London Films was flat broke due to currency restrictions. He had co-produced The Third Man with David Selznick, who had been dazzled by The Red Shoes and was enthralled by the prospect of working with its creators.
Based on a popular novel by Mary Webb to which Korda had the film rights, Gone to Earth was intended by Selznick as a vehicle for his wife Jennifer Jones. It is the story of Hazel Woodus, a child of nature in late nineteenth century rural Shropshire where she lives with her father and pet fox. The local squire Jack Reddin seduces her but she marries the Baptist minister Edward Marston. Torn between passion and duty, she falls to her death while protecting “Foxy” from a pack of hounds – “gone to earth,” as the huntsman cries when a fox has escaped to its lair.
Powell had roots in Shropshire so was attracted to the novel’s setting in the Welsh Marches. Pressburger enjoyed meeting Selznick in May 1949 at the Krönenhalle restaurant in Zurich. It all looked extremely promising.
Once filming began in July Selznick, who fuelled himself with Benzedrine and amphetamine, bombarded the set with semi-hallucogenic memos that were up to ten-pages long. The ever-courteous Pressburger never read them before throwing them away but would always reply, “Thank you for your useful comments. We shall take the utmost account of them.”
Selznick was not the only challenge. During the location shoot at Much Wenlock there were objections from the British Field Sports’ Society, which prevented its members from lending packs of hounds because they felt the film was anti-blood sports. Eventually the Welsh farmer Daniel Stephens offered the use of his pack of hounds – he is seen in the film as “Master of Fox Hounds.”
After seeing the final cut in December 1949 Selznick claimed that it “varied in substance” from the novel and tried to block the film’s release. A judge ruled in April 1950 that because Selznick had approved the shooting script the film could be released in the UK. It was first screened to the public in November 1950.
The problems with Selznick continued even after the film had been released. His deal with Korda allowed him full control over the “western hemisphere” version of Gone to Earth: Powell and Pressburger were powerless to prevent alterations to the film. Selznick used Rouben Mamoulian to reshoot several scenes for the US version, including close-ups of Jones that were comically undermined by shots of her carrying what was obviously a stuffed fox rather than the live version of the first cut. It was released in America in July 1952 as The Wild Heart, using only 35 minutes of Powell’s footage.
In Gone to Earth Powell uses symbolism rather than the cinematic alchemy of The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death. Sometimes the symbolism is rather heavy-handed, such as the half-made coffin that frames Hazel’s first entrance to the cottage she shares with her father, or the flowers trampled underfoot by the squire when he seduces Hazel.
The Technicolor photography of Chris Challis is particularly fine; the extensive outdoor scenes were a literal breath of fresh air in an era that was still largely studio-bound. Brian Easdale’s brooding score contributes to the film’s otherworldly atmosphere.
Jennifer Jones gave a good if sometimes melodramatic performance with an accent that sometimes slips as much as her off-the-shoulder gowns. Perhaps her Hollywood lipstick and teeth are rather too perfect for a Shropshire country girl.
Gone to Earth was the third and final appearance by David Farrar in a Powell-Pressburger production; he remained the only actor ever to be personally contracted to The Archers. Esmond Knight and Hugh Griffith contributed entertainingly goggle-eyed performances as Hazel’s father Abel Woodus and Squire Reddin’s servant Andrew Vessons respectively. By contrast, Cyril Cusack plays Edward Marston understatedly.
Powell was dismissive of Gone to Earth in later years, calling it “a disaster… except for Jennifer’s performance, which I thought was absolutely wonderful.” It lacks the flamboyance of Powell’s most famed work but has endured better than he might have imagined. Steve Crook of The Powell & Pressburger Pages website suggests that the scene in which Jack Reddin stands in the rain outside the chapel house was the inspiration for a similar scene in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear.
Probably the importance of Gone to Earth is less to do with its cinematic values and more to do with Powell and Pressburger’s first experience of the Hollywood machine. The Elusive Pimpernel caused problems with its co-producer Samuel Goldwyn and proved conclusively that The Archers were too free-spirited for Hollywood. Their loss was our gain.