Cast & Crew
On the last day of term at a boys private school, a new master arrives to familiarise himself. His predecessor, Crocker-Harris is much hated in the school but his younger wife seems more popular and not only with the pupils. Tensions erupt making this a day nobody in the school will ever forget...
The Browning Version (1950) - The Browning Version
Terence Rattigan was already ranked among England's major playwrights in 1949, when he set out to create a character inspired by one of the strictest teachers at his old school, Harrow. Far from getting back at the man, however, he created a touching human portrait of a teacher who feels cut off from his dreams of scholarship, his students and his life until a single act of kindness from a formerly apathetic student awakens him to a lifetime of lost opportunities. The title reflects the delicate layering of Rattigan's work; The Browning Version refers to the gift from Crocker-Harris' student, Robert Browning's translation of the Greek tragedy Agamemnon. Not only had the teacher once dreamed of publishing his own translation of the work, but its plot, in which Queen Clytemnestra murders her husband, mirrors the way the man's spirit has been murdered, at least in part, by his wife's infidelities and insensitivity. The student inscribes the book, in Greek, "God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master," a phrase that could be interpreted as gratitude for Crocker-Harris' having given the boy private tutoring or a gentle rebuke for a classroom infraction that earned the teacher the nickname "The Himmler of the Lower Fifth."
Director Anthony Asquith, who had worked with Rattigan earlier on adaptations of the playwright's French Without Tears (1940) and The Winslow Boy (1948), fell in love with the play, but had a hard time convincing anybody to back a production because it seemed such a downbeat story. He and Rattigan finally solved the problem by creating a final scene that allowed Crocker-Harris a degree of self-awareness. The play had ended with the teacher deciding to speak at the end-of-term ceremony, even though the headmaster had urged him to relinquish his place to a more popular colleague. For the film, Rattigan continues the story to show Crocker-Harris' speech, in which he apologizes for having failed to reach his students. His confession is so heartfelt, the students greet him with a spontaneous burst of applause, giving him at least a moment of triumph.
By the time Asquith had arranged for financing, Eric Portman, who had starred in the play's London premiere to great acclaim, was unavailable. Fortunately, Redgrave suddenly became free when a film he had signed for fell through. He came to the role on such short notice, however, that he did not feel he had time to prepare as thoroughly as he might have liked. In particular, Redgrave had wanted to lose weight for the role, something he had only partially achieved by the time filming started. His weight visibly fluctuates throughout the picture as a result. The rest of Redgrave's work on the role, however, was inspired. He used peroxide on his hair, which in black and white made it appear that the character was going gray, and asked his barber to shave the crown of his head to give the appearance of encroaching baldness. To his dismay, that effect was only visible in a few shots. Originally he had not wanted to wear eyeglasses, considering that a cliché for academic characters. After costume tests, however, he realized that a pair of wire-rimmed glasses completed the look perfectly. To top it all off, he developed a lighter voice for the role to give the character a more ethereal quality.
Redgrave was never totally happy with his film work. In his memoirs he would state that to begin filming with the climactic speech at the final assembly forced him to jump into the role at an emotional high point before it felt truly lived in. He also didn't like his approach to the cricket scene, in which the headmaster informs him that he will not be receiving a pension. He had not been prepared for Wilfrid Hyde-White's urbane approach to the headmaster role, and responded by playing his own part too deferentially. In his memoirs, Redgrave would cite his misinterpretation of the scene as the reason for one of his few negative reviews. In the London Observer, C.A. Lejeune wrote that "For such a big man, his [Redgrave's] performance is wonderfully delicate, but it is the delicacy of a floorwalker rather than a scholar." But Lejeune was in the minority. When the film played at the Cannes Film Festival, it brought Redgrave the Best Actor Award (and a screenwriting award for Rattigan).
The director and writer, however, would soon be experiencing their own midlife crises as their genteel approaches to their art soon fell out of favor as social changes inspired new artistic standards in Great Britain. Asquith had started his career as a cinematic innovator often compared to fellow countryman Alfred Hitchcock. Where Hitchcock had developed a distinctive, personal style over the years, however, Asquith gradually pared down his work to a level of subtlety focused on showcasing performances and finely honed scripts. With the rise of the auteur school of film critics, he would soon find himself dismissed as too genteel and impersonal for new generations of critics and filmmakers. In the same way, Rattigan's subtle approach to playwriting, in which he dramatized glittering surfaces beneath which beat his characters' repressed passions, would soon be eclipsed by the angry young men of the late '50s with their portraits of working-class rage. Ironically, the two collaborators would move into more expensive, glamorous productions, like The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964). Though critically derided, those films would make Rattigan the world's highest-paid screenwriter, offering him a decidedly cushy midlife crisis.
The Browning Version has remained a popular stage and screen property, with the lead role providing solid acting opportunities to such actors as John Gielgud, Peter Cushing and Ian Holm, all of whom played in television productions. In 1994, Mike Figgis directed a new film version starring Albert Finney, who was named Best Actor by the Boston Film Critics. Yet it is the Redgrave version that remains the acknowledged classic thanks to his deeply nuanced performance. In recent years, both Asquith and Rattigan have undergone critical reevaluation, with critics once again appreciating the subtle pleasures of their collaboration.
Producer: Earl St. John, Teddy Baird
Director: Anthony Asquith
Screenplay: Terence Rattigan
Based on the play by Rattigan
Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Art Direction: Carmen Dillon
Music: Arnold Bax, Kenneth Essex
Cast: Michael Redgrave (Andrew Crocker-Harris), Jean Kent (Millie Crocker-Harris), Nigel Patrick (Frank Hunter), Wilfrid Hyde-White (Frobisher), Brian Smith (Taplow), Bill Travers (Fletcher).
by Frank Miller
In My Mind's I by Michael Redgrave
The Browning Version (1950) - The Browning Version
The Browning Version (1951) - The Browning Version on DVD
Synopsis: Forced to retire over health issues, classics teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) spends his last teaching day doing what he always has, boring and browbeating his students. The school board shows its contempt for Andrew by refusing him a pension routinely advanced to other teachers in his situation. Headmaster Frobisher (Wilfred Hyde-White) condescendingly rearranges the graduation ceremony to downplay Andrew's participation. Crocker-Harris' wife Millie (Jean Kent) is furious over the pension decision and despondent that she'll lose contact with the popular science teacher Frank Hunter (Nigel Patrick), her lover. Just as he's about to succumb to self-pity and despair, Crocker-Harris receives a heartfelt gift from one of his students, Taplow (Brian Smith), that gives him a measure of hope. But is it just a schoolboy's ploy to obtain a better grade?
When the '60s wave of new directing talent hit English screens, much of the previous generation of mainstream filmmakers fell into immediate disfavor. Revisionist film critics discounted the work of Anthony Asquith as stuffy and anonymous. The Browning Version is a filmed play with no pretense to cinematic innovation and no clever camera work to catch the eye. Asquith lets his actors tell a story that takes place mostly in the stone interiors of an ancient school, and even the interruption of a cricket match doesn't cue an action scene. There is no apology for the theatrical focus on the plight of one unhappy professor.
Many a play has been diluted by the filmic opportunity to 'open it up' to better scenery, wide exteriors and action scenes. The screen adaptation of The Browning Version instead slightly re-thinks the beginning and ending with added scenes. Adapting his own work, playwright-screenwriter Terence Rattigan drops expository speeches from his first drawing-room scene and opens instead with a series of short sequences that establish the setting and introduce the teachers. We see for ourselves what makes Andrew Crocker-Harris a terrible teacher, even as we sympathize with him. Rattigan also finds a way to extend the ending, which on stage concluded with a single gesture from Crocker-Harris showing that he might stand up for himself. Two added scenes give the audience further hope that Crocker-Harris will redeem himself, an uplift that doesn't pretend all problems are solved.
The Browning Version is the antithesis of James Hilton's Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the famous story about another introvert who seems a similar failure until the right woman comes along to help him connect with his students and fellow faculty. Mr. Chipping's dreams of advancement and greatness don't come true, but he becomes immortal in the eyes of generations of students.
Michael Redgrave's Andrew Crocker-Harris didn't marry a supportive Greer Garson type and never learned how to relate to other people, let alone his students. His unfaithful wife detests him. His nickname among the schoolboys is "Himmler." His classroom manner is pedantic torture dished out by a profoundly unhappy man. The proof of his unpopularity is the snide way his headmaster lets him know that his pension has been denied. The faculty's desire to spare him the humiliation of his formal goodbye speech is really an academic version of the bum's rush. Andrew suddenly sees that his life has been wasted - he hasn't fostered a love for the ancient classics or earned anyone's respect.
On this last day at school, Crocker-Harris connects with the fellow faculty member who has cuckolded him, Nigel Patrick's Frank Hunter. Both Hunter and new teacher Gilbert (Ronald Howard) offer sincere speeches of apology, but Andrew isn't convinced that the gestures are genuine. Only the curious school kid Taplow (somewhat uncomfortably reminiscent of the bright-faced cherub in Mr. Chips) penetrates Andrew's thick defenses. Amid all the crushing disapproval, Taplow revives Andrew's emotions with a heartfelt gift. That new vulnerability allows Andrew to begin to take positive charge of his fate, and at last relate to his world as something other than a victim.
The Browning Version's Anthony Asquith does what modern filmmakers would consider career suicide - he tries to make his contribution transparent. Asquith's direction certainly isn't fussy; the only real formality in the piece is the camera angle on a stately school building that is both the first and last shot for the film. Asquith avoids the temptation to make Andrew heroic or instantly sympathetic. Instead, we look for a sign that he might break out of his social isolation and sense of worthlessness, and Asquith's reserved style refuses to give us easy signposts to follow. A single hint - the discovery of his forgotten translation of The Agamemnon by Aeschylus - is all that's needed to inspire hope. Crocker-Harris is the stunted potential in all of us and we can't help but root for him.
Michael Redgrave's acting is just about perfect. He never breaks character with stage business or affectations to endear us to Andrew or beg for our sympathy. The man is dull, unresponsive, resigned and miserable ... and we watch for the first glimmer that he might find himself.
A couple of Andrew's colleagues are capable of gallant behavior but the play is less kindly toward women. Jean Kent's backbiting and hurtful Millie is as unsupportive a spouse as one could imagine, capable of ever-greater cruelty. We're overjoyed when Andrew finally announces his intention to leave her behind.
More idealized and perhaps a bit troubling is Andrew's spiritual revival sparked by the kewpie-faced Taplow, a bright boy as sincere as he is appreciative. The story idealizes male relationships while presenting females as grasping and destructive; it is not difficult to read a subtext of male-male longing into the tale.
Wilfred Hyde-White brings his affected manner to the insultingly jovial headmaster. Young Brian Smith is excellent as the precocious student that recharges Andrew's academic batteries. Unbilled Bill Travers Ring of Bright Water, Gorgo) is unbilled in his second film appearance.
The Browning Version is the perfect antidote, not for the agreeable Goodbye Mr. Chips, but for mindless star vehicles about idealistic young teachers struggling to motivate their students - you know, Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer. Faced with surly thugs in the classroom, her teacher solves all by dressing in a leather jacket, talking tough and giving her full attention to one disadvantaged student. Ninety ridiculous minutes later, the whole school is celebrating her glory with a big party. A Hollywood story development person would have Crocker-Harris' The Agamemnon by Aeschylus win a Nobel prize and give him a resounding triumph for a feel-good fade out.
Criterion's DVD of The Browning Version is presented in an impeccable B&W transfer. A studious Bruce Eder commentary digs deep into the stories of its makers while comparing the movie to the source play. Disc producer Issa Clubb conducts a new interview with Mike Figgis, the director of the 1994 remake. Figgis had a peculiar problem: How does one do a meaningful remake of a classic? A 1958 TV interview with Michael Redgrave gives us a good look at the congenial, serious actor. Critic Geoffrey MacNab provides a liner essay in defense of the directors of England's classic period.
For more information about The Browning Version, visit the Criterion Collection. To order The Browning Version, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson