Bright Lights Film Journal

Quiet Hero: Happy (Belated) Birthday to British Actor Kenneth More (September 20, 1914-July 12, 1982)

Kenneth More and Muriel Pavlow in Reach for the Sky (1956)

The centenary of the English film and stage actor Kenneth More’s birth falls on September 20 2014. I knew him slightly, and I’m confident in saying he wouldn’t have minded the lack of mainstream media attention to mark the event. More was of that peculiarly British, postwar school of actors who never aspired to the trappings of stardom – others in the same crew might include the likes of Jack Hawkins, Stanley Baker, Harry Andrews, and Trevor Howard – but nonetheless achieved a kind of quietly heroic status with home audiences. Apparently carefree, and blessed with an unflappable, mildly puckish take on life, you always felt you could safely entrust your first-born offspring to his care. Somehow, it only adds to More’s appeal to find that hot fires often burned just below the seemingly placid surface. Married three times, twice divorced, in the course of a brief career he managed both to alienate one British film mogul by heckling him at a televised awards ceremony (as a result, More lost a plum role in 1961’s The Guns of Navarone), and to sufficiently provoke another by his unappreciative comments in print into successfully suing him for libel. So – laid-back, and in general affable: check. A straight-shooter: check. The consummate professional: check. Nobody’s fool: also check.

In Yellow Balloon (1952)

In the 1950s, Kenneth More was revered as a great British actor, and seemingly the perennial man of promise – never quite fulfilled – in Hollywood. He typified a kind of bluff, everyman figure, whether playing the legless RAF fighter ace Douglas Bader in Reach for the Sky (1956) or the wonderfully calm ship’s officer in what’s still the best Titanic film ever made, 1958’s A Night to Remember. Yet, as the sixties began and the star of the ironic, postmodernist school rose, More was derided as a ludicrous old fogey with crinkly hair and a tweed jacket. These things are always subjective, but it seems that in more recent years the wheel of perspective may have again clicked back a notch and come to embrace much of what More stood for. As I say, he wouldn’t have cared greatly one way or another. More was never a “Look at me!” type, spending himself in a fury of impersonation or stagey mannerisms, just a solid, middle-class guy with the priceless ability to make you utterly forget you were watching a performance.

Keeping it clipped, as he would have wanted, the facts are these: Born into a comfortable English suburban home, More eventually tried to join the RAF, failed the physical, and as an alternative drifted into a junior-management role at London’s Windmill Theatre, where his duties included acting as a chaperone to the legions of nude women performing in the venue’s Revudeville comedy routines – surely the proverbial dirty job, but somebody had to do it. After war service in the Navy, he began appearing in repertory, eventually graduated to the West End stage, and landed small parts in modestly budgeted British films like Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and 1950’s The Galloping Major. From there, he hit the domestic heights gliding and charming his way through one light comedy after another – Genevieve (1953) and Doctor in the House (1954) are among the keepers – until the question of whether or not More could “really act” was settled for all time by his breakout role in both the stage and movie versions of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, a domestic psychodrama that makes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf look like a cozy night-in between friends, and that won More the 1955 best actor award at the Venice Film Festival. He seemed to have “arrived overnight,” as the phrase has it, but More was already over 40 and knew what it was like to be standing under enemy fire on the deck of a Navy destroyer, plowing through the gales of the North Atlantic. For me, that was a big part of his appeal: he was the guy next door, who just happened to have seen more of life than you had.

I’m always a bit wary of the erudite critics who, years after the event, inform you of things like: “One of the reasons Polanski’s dark vision worked so well in Chinatown was that it served as a metaphor for the political cataclysm of Watergate” – as if millions of Americans somehow consciously decided to drive out to their local mall to watch the movie because of its supposed allegorical insights into the culture. It’s only in long perspective that these sort of weighty associations seem to occur to the sociologists among us. At the time, most audiences surely react as they usually do on these occasions: Is the thing any good? Are the men and women up there on the screen halfway pleasant, or at least credible? Do we want to spend a couple of hours in the dark with them?

I mention all this only because, for once, it may be that some of the critical hindsights actually make sense when it comes to More’s career trajectory. As the sixties advanced, so his star regressed. The film writer Andrew Spicer spoke for many of us when he said: “More’s persona was so strongly associated with traditional middle-class values that his fame couldn’t survive the shift towards working-class iconoclasts” during that decade. Suddenly, he was the sane Englishman with his pipe trying to compete with the groovy ironists of a Blow-Up or an Easy Rider. Every celebrity culture has its epochs and phases, its stratifications and its correct chronology. More’s heyday dates from Genevieve in 1953 up to an unspecified but clearly discernible moment just ten years later – he was an Eisenhower kind of figure, not a Kennedy. After that his singular appeal wasn’t just neglected, it was aggressively rejected. More’s essential act ranged from a hearty endurance at one end to a genial conformity at the other. The new gods of the sixties and their descendants supported the opposing dogma that what we really wanted (OK, now I’m generalizing) was a stream of smug provocation that dared us to participate in their various anti-elitist hatreds. “Not quite my cup of tea” was More’s own, measured overview.

Father Brown (1974)

That said, there are certain Brits of my generation who still fondly associate More with the sixties and early seventies, and more specifically with his starring TV and stage roles in the likes of The Forsyte Saga (1967), The Secretary Bird (1968-9), Getting On (1971), and as the title character in Father Brown (1974). I was at college during the Brown series, and vividly recall it being the consensus water-cooler topic among my fellow loon-panted artistic rebels. The show was the guilty open secret for those of us otherwise busy shaking our straggly locks to the latest Captain Beefheart LP – with one or two vocal exceptions, we loved it precisely because of the fact that More embodied such an avuncular but wryly dry figure. His turn in Brown was sheer simplicity and sheer genius; not a bad exercise in decline management on his part. Brown was poignant, too, as More was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease shortly after the series wrapped. He handled it in characteristic manner, without whining, blaming, or emoting – while settling a few old scores in his wonderful 1978 autobiography, which slips effortlessly from serious to funny and back again – and finally bowed out in July 1982, aged 67.

You might think Kenneth More’s legion of middle-aged fans would be a little embarrassed by him today, but the best of his 50 or so screen roles can still hold us rapt with a terrifically light showmanship. If you want to know what this means in practice, you could do worse than to watch More in the 1958 Titanic feature A Night to Remember, shot for just over a million dollars, and then, if you can bear it, sit again through the interminable 1997 version of the same story, which cost 200 times as much, and decide which of them doesn’t submit to the temptation to turn a marvelously gripping, human tale into that of a turgid Hollywood melodrama.