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The Death and Life of Colonel Blimp (April 26, 2012)

Robert Graves and Alan Hodge in The Long Weekend, their history of Britain between the two world wars, write about the cartoonist David Low and the character he created, “Colonel Blimp was a bald, fat, walrus-moustached old man, usually depicted emerging from a Turkish bath with a towel round his middle, and precluding some fatuous Diehard remark with ‘Gad, sir, Chamberlain – or Baldwin or Hitler or Mussolini — is right!’” Graves and Hodge say that the proper noun “Blimp” even found its way into the language: “a contemptuous term for every reactionary muddle-headed Conservative who feared a Red Revolution at home more than national humiliation by the Totalitarian Powers.”

We’ve seen several films already at the library by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the Englishman and the Hungarian who, during the forties and early fifties, produced some of the most astonishing films ever made. Most recently, last year, we saw Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. This picture, written and directed by Powell and Pressburger, was made in twelve weeks, in Technicolor, in an England at war, from July to September 1942, and it was released in June, 1943 in England, though not until March, 1945 in the United States. It was photographed by Georges Périnal, whose work we saw in Rembrandt. The production design was by Alfred Junge. The music was by Allan Gray. It starred Roger Livesay, Anton Walbrook, and in a tour-de-force, the young Deborah Kerr in multiple roles. Winston Churchill didn’t like the idea of the movie and tried to put obstacles in the way of its production, not very successfully it would seem. Technicolor, as I’ve said before, was a very complex, very expensive filming process. To execute a project like this in a country at war, with limited resources, far away from Hollywood, where most Technicolor expertise was, must have been difficult. The film cost 200,000 pounds.

This movie is a masterpiece. The filmmaker Martin Scorsese has said, “Every time I revisit The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, it seems to have become more resonant, more moving, more profound. You could say it's the epic of an ordinary life. And what you retain from this epic is an overpowering sense of warmth and love and friendship, of shared humor and tenderness, and a lasting impression of the most eloquent sadness." The British magazine Time Out ran a review: “Like much of Powell and Pressburger's work, it is a salute to all that is paradoxical about the English; no one else has so well captured their romanticism banked down beneath emotional reticence and honor. And it is marked by an enormous generosity of spirit: in the history of the British cinema there is nothing to touch it.” I hope you enjoy watching it with me tonight.