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Ronald Neame: cinematographer, producer, screenwriter, director, CBE, gentleman . . .
In nearly twenty-five years of working for Janus Films and the Criterion Collection, I have had the good fortune to hear the recollections of a great many gifted filmmakers. But Ronald “Ronnie” Neame, who died last month at the age of ninety-nine, was incomparable.
His huge, varied contribution to British cinema was often obscured by the popularity of The Poseidon Adventure, something he accepted a bit ruefully but with grace. Poseidon’s unexpected success earned Ronnie what he called his “f-you money.” This surely helped him retire in comfortable style at his villa in Beverly Hills, where I first met him, his charming wife, Donna, and their fluffy white dog, Mikie, when I moved to Los Angeles in 2000. That’s when we began ten years of conversations, which I treasure, about the films for which he is best remembered, many of them in the Criterion Collection.
Although he was almost ninety when I met him, he was in great shape physically and still had an amazingly vivid memory. He was a living history lesson, chock-full of stories, but he never indulged in acrimony or bitterness, even though several events through the years would have earned him that right. It was always with humor that he recounted experiences with the likes of Alec Guinness, John Mills, Maggie Smith, Walter Matthau, and Judy Garland. I enjoyed many lively evenings high above Coldwater Canyon at Ronnie and Donna’s, and I never failed to appreciate the good food and, most especially, Ronnie’s generosity of spirit as he shared his memories.
Ronnie’s mother was the silent film star Ivy Close. His father, Elwin Neame, was the most famous still photographer in London; he’d taken photos of Ivy as she won the first Miss World contest. Their names and photos appeared in daily news columns and on posters in the London subway. But tragically, in 1923, his father was killed in a motorcycle accident, and Ronnie was forced to leave school in order to help support his family. Through his mother’s connections, he got a job at Elstree Studios, as a clapper, and then worked his way up to tea boy, assistant camera boy, and eventually cinematographer, which is how he made his mark. He was fortunate enough to work on Blackmail, the first talkie by Alfred Hitchcock.
Working for Arthur Rank—“Uncle Arthur,” as he called him—Ronnie got to know a young editor, David Lean. This friendship led to a creative partnership with producer Anthony Havelock-Allen and playwright Noel Coward, which produced the British classic In Which We Serve, in 1942. The four then formed an independent company, Cineguild, producing Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist—Lean directing, Neame producing. Cineguild brought together an informal stock company of gifted young actors—Alec Guinness, John Mills, Celia Johnson, and Kay Walsh, among others who continued with successful film careers—and gave Ronnie the opportunity to expand his skills from cinematography to producing and writing. Fifty years on, he would still chuckle at how he and Lean could invent Coward-esque dialogue that passed muster with the master himself.
Along with Lean and Havelock-Allen, Ronnie was one of the fourteen founding members of the British Film Academy and served as its third chairman, following the producer Michael Balcon (most famous for running Ealing Studios) and David Lean. The idea of an academy was proposed in 1947 by Alexander Korda, who summoned thirty prominent filmmakers to dinner at Claridges Hotel (where he lived in famously lavish style). Ronnie survived his colleagues by decades and received BAFTA’s prestigious lifetime fellowship award in 1996 and BAFTA/LA’s lifetime achievement award in 2005. His humorous and humble speech on accepting that second honor stood in marked contrast to the flashy Hollywood self-promotion that accompanied the reception of another award that evening, by Tom Cruise. Ronnie was too much the gentleman to overplay his tremendous contributions to British cinema.
He was always gracious when I asked him about David Lean, but he preferred to keep his stories focused on his own career, perhaps because there had been a breach in that friendship years earlier, which, fortunately, they mended as they grew older. Ronnie made his directorial debut at age thirty-five with the thriller Take My Life, and he went on to direct twenty-three more films before retiring in 1990. He was most proud of The Horse’s Mouth and Tunes of Glory. These art-house gems enabled him to work again with his great friends Alec Guinness and John Mills. His entertaining anecdotes about those productions can be heard on our DVDs (including the clip below, from The Horse’s Mouth).
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Tunes of Glory, and together with the Academy Film Archive, we are evaluating the original elements for a preservation effort. Although he was pleased with our DVDs, Ronnie always expressed a desire for beautiful new film prints. I promised him we would work toward this goal for his hundredth birthday. Although he would often say “I’ve still enough of my marbles to know that I’m very, very old,” he was so youthful that I was sure he would live to see that milestone. Sadly, also unrealized was his recent proposal to record a commentary for his 1952 film The Card with his lifelong friend Glynis Johns, with, as he said, their usual comic routine of “insulting each other” as the film ran by.
When I saw him last, for a lunch just before his ninety-ninth birthday, he smiled with that twinkle in his blue eyes and said, “You know, I’ve had an amazing life.” He ate heartily, but he seemed slightly less steady getting up from the table, and when he reminded me to come back as soon as possible, for the first time I worried I might not see him again. I cannot yet accept that he is gone, but when I do, I will always be grateful that I work for a company that honors his films and gave me the opportunity to know this talented and big-hearted man, who truly embodies the golden age of British Cinema.