My Cousin Rachel meets Cleopatra
The Daphne du Maurier centenary doesn’t seem to be making the impact over here that it is in the UK. Unsurprisingly perhaps (too much Cornwall??). But it was a bit of a jolt to go to a screening of the 1952 My Cousin Rachel – with Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland – and find that the film professional doing the introduction was a bit uncertain that the whole plot had been based on a novel and certainly couldn’t pronounce her name (not even the Daphne).
We hadn’t actually gone to My Cousin Rachel for the sake of the movie itself. I think I had probably seen it before anyway, but all those black-and-white cliffs get a bit mixed up in my memory with the pretty much identikit ones in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. So honestly I’m not too sure.
The main point of the visit had been to see the movie theatre. For the film was playing in Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, one of those marvellous 1920s themed extravaganzas like the even more famous Chinese Theatre just up the street.
From the outside it looks just like you are going to see a movie in an Egyptian temple and apparently, when it first opened, a guy dressed in Egyptian costume used to patrol on the roof calling out the times of the movies. We wanted to see what happened on the inside.
The answer is that quite a lot has been changed (including – for good or bad -- the seats) but the ceiling of the auditorium still has a wonderful Egyptian fan design. And part of the ventilation system (not that we could see it) is modelled on Cleopatra’s needle.
These post-screening Q and A’s are an appealing bit of Los Angeles entertainment. And the husband in particular has become very keen on seeing 1950s heart-throbs on the screen, then having them in front of you aged c 90, to talk about the role. On this occasion it was a bit more cerebral. For the whole occasion was in honour of a famous production designer, who designed not only My Cousin Rachel, but also The King and I, Hello Dolly, The Agony and the Ecstasy and the Taylor/Burton Cleopatra.
Much of the talk was about de Cuir’s work on My Cousin Rachel and on the making of that film in general. Apart from sending a camera team for some shots of the Cornish cliffs, the whole thing had been made in the Hollywood studio. Actors, after all, didn’t like to move out of Southern California we were told (which seemed odd to us, as most of this lot were British anyway, so should have managed Cornwall perfectly well . . .).
But there was some talk too of Cleopatra, on which de Cuir Jnr had helped his father, notably taking responsibility for remaking in the studio the South end of the Roman Forum – bigger than the real thing he assured us. For me his best story was all the worry he had had that the vast sphinx they had constructed wouldn’t go through the triumphal arch that they had also (anachronistically) built. It did, just, with some careful fine tuning. For me – Roman triumph, again – sorry – it was a wonderful replay of the real ancient story, in which Pompey yokes some elephants to his triumphal chariot. But when he gets to an arch the poor beasts get stuck, and he has to replace them with the usual horses instead.
Art inadvertently imitating history.