The Fall of the House of Usher (1949)
The onset of World War II and the shuttering of the British offices of several Hollywood studios created a content vacuum in Great Britain; though the heyday of the quota quickie had come and gone by 1937, inexpensive British films continued to be in-demand during wartime to keep the cinemas filled and the economy strong. Such an independent venture was Ivan Barnett's The Fall of the House of Usher (1948), filmed in the early postwar period. A liberal adaptation of the 1839 short story by Edgar Allan Poe, the film was produced fifty miles southeast of London in the coastal East Sussex town of Hastings. The Fall of the House of Usher's first-time director was 22 year-old Hastings native George Ivan Barnett, whose only professional credit at that time was as a cameraman for the British Railways industrial short Down to the Sea in Trucks (1947). Credited with the adaptation was Dorothy Catt, headmistress of Hasting's Orchard School of Speech and Drama.
Adding production value to The Fall of the House of Usher was the use of area landmarks, notably the seafront Queen's Hotel (whose lobby subbed persuasively for a Victorian gentleman's club) and Fairlight Hall, a 16,000 square foot sandstone mansion that had in years past seen duty as a private residence, headquarters for a cell of the British temperance movement, and a wartime boarding school for the children of Jewish refugees. Though Barnett's cast was comprised of non-professionals, his leading lady would go on to a lengthy career on the British stage, on television, and in films. Gwendolyn Watford was a former student of Dorothy Catt who had been talent scouted by John Gielgud, on the hunt in Hastings in 1943 for a young actress to appear in a West End staging of The Cradle Song; though Watford lost the role, Gielgud shepherded her towards formative stage experience at the Embassy Theatre and the Old Vic. Less prestigious but more highly visible was Watford's later work in such Hammer thrillers as Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960) and Taste the Blood of Dracula (1971) and as the spurned Calpurnia opposite Rex Harrison's Julius Caesar and Elizabeth Taylor's Queen of the Nile in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Cleopatra (1963).
Completed in 1947 and registered for copyright in 1948, The Fall of the House of Usher was mothballed for two years before being given a week's run on London's Tottenham Court Road. Largely due to its 70 minute run time, the film was later packaged on the lower ends of double and triple bills throughout the United Kingdom and even played on late night TV on both sides of the pond for decades before lapsing into obscurity. Director Ivan Barnett directed (produced, photographed, and edited) one more feature through his Hastings-based G.I.B Films, the crime thriller Robbery with Violence (1958), as well as the comedy short Meet Mr. Beat (1961), before abandoning cinema for the life of a photographer. George Ivan Barnett died in Cornwall on September 13, 2013 at the age of 88.
By Richard Harland Smith
A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford (The Hamlyn Publishing Group, Ltd., 1973
Gwen Watford obituary by Adam Benedick, The Independent, February 7, 1994
Gwen Watford obituary by Michael Billington, The Guardian, February 10, 1994
Sussex on the Screen: A Guide to Filming in the Country 1896 to 2012 by Daryl Burchmore (Pen Press, 2013)
Producer: Ivan Barnett
Director: Ivan Barnett
Screenplay: Dorothy Catt, Kenneth Thompson (writers); Edgar Allan Poe (story)
Cinematography: Ivan Barnett
Music: W.L. Trytel
Cast: Gwen Watford (Lady Usher), Kay Tendeter (Lord Roderick Usher), Irving Steen (Jonathan), Vernon Charles (Dr. Cordwall), Connie Goodwin (Louise), Gavin Lee (The Butler), Keith Lorraine (George), Lucy Pavey (The Hag), Tony Powell-Bristow (Richard), Robert Wolard (Greville).