100 Years Of Movie Memories

Last Saturday night, several hundred people gathered at the Directors Guild of America to celebrate the 100th birthday of director, producer, writer, and cinematographer Ronald Neame. The British consul general was there, along with leading lights from Great Britain and Hollywood. The only one missing was the guest of honor, who died last June at the age of 99. As his wife Donna told us, he had counted on this centenary celebration and especially looked forward to a congratulatory telegram from the Queen.

Royal acknowledgement was something he earned, for Ronnie (as everyone called him) was the living embodiment of the British film industry. His father, Elwin, was a director in the earliest days of cinema and his mother, Ivy Close, was a beautiful actress who starred in Abel Gance’s silent classic La Roue. Ronnie worked his way up the ladder at Elstree Studios and was an assistant cameraman on the first talkie made in England, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail. As a full-fledged cinematographer he worked with such—

—well-loved stars as George Formby and Tod Slaughter on their bread-and-butter pictures before graduating to A-list fare with Major Barbara in 1941. It was on that project that he met film editor David Lean, who became a close friend and collaborator throughout the 1940s on such landmark movies as In Which We Serve, Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist. As a partner in Cineguild, Neame served as both producer and co-screenwriter, and shared Oscar nominations for the screenplays of Brief Encounter and Great Expectations. (His first nomination was for special effects on One of Our Aircraft is Missing in 1942.)

He subsequently became a director whose vastly varied credits include The Horse’s Mouth, Tunes of Glory, I Could Go On Singing, The Chalk Garden, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Gambit, Hopscotch, and The Poseidon Adventure. Some years ago I hosted a panel for American Movie Classics in which people associated with films airing on that channel spoke to television critics and reporters. Ronnie was there because The Poseidon Adventure was on AMC’s lineup. When his turn came to speak, he disarmed the audience by citing the action movie as his all-time favorite, “not,” he emphasized, “because I think it is a classic, but because it was so successful that it gave me f.u. money.” The laughter in the room was deafening.

Ronald Neame, interviewed onstage in 1996.

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Los Angeles staged Saturday night’s celebration, where Ronnie was remembered by colleagues, admirers, and his grandson Gareth, who is producing the current television hit Downton Abbey—and who told me that his grandfather’s name and reputation give him quite a lot to live up to. (Ronnie was even one of the founders of BAFTA, back in 1947.) Ernest Borgnine recalled the tumultuous shooting of Poseidon, where Ronnie never lost his cool. William Friedkin remembered Ronnie’s gifts as a storyteller. Legendary film editor Anne Coates spoke of working with Ronnie on the wonderful Alec Guinness film The Horse’s Mouth. And John Landis told his favorite Neame story, about a low point in Ronnie’s career when he was making The Seventh Sin, his first Hollywood movie. He had sold his house in England and moved to Los Angeles with great enthusiasm. But there was tension between him and his star, Eleanor Parker, and one Sunday his agent called to say that MGM was going to let him go. A short time later, the telephone rang; it was George Cukor, whom Ronnie had never met. Cukor consoled the younger director by assuring him that this wouldn’t hurt his career or reputation one bit, reminding him, “I was fired from Gone With the Wind!”

When it was my turn to speak, I expressed the gratitude that I felt, just like other film buffs and historians, with Ronnie to turn to for first-hand memories and observations about such a large swath of motion picture history. He was charming, generous with his time, and loved telling stories of his many experiences. I then introduced a documentary, Ronald Neame: A Life in Film, by Joseph Fenton, Miles England and Hop Phan, which was made over a decade’s time and brought Ronnie and his twinkling eye to life again on the Directors Guild screen.

I ended my remarks by recalling the night I invited Ronnie to my film class at USC following a screening of Great Expectations. I had scoured the country for a first-rate 35mm print and miraculously found one, not in an archive, but in a distributor’s depository here in Burbank. It was almost flawless, with just a few splices. When Ronnie, then a spry 89, arrived midway through the film, I took him by the arm and led him down the rather steep aisle to a waiting seat. He peered up at the screen, and with his cinematographer’s eye, said the print was “timed a little light.”

We should all be lucky enough to stay sharp, and remain as engaged in life, as long as Ronald Neame.

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April 2024