Obituary: Sir John Woolf
Thursday 01 July 1999
He was the son of one of the great pioneers of British cinema, C.M. Woolf, who started off in 1919 when, as a partner in W & F Film Service Ltd, he successfully exploited the Harold Lloyd comedies. Charles M. rose to become managing director of W & F, joint managing director with the Ostrer Brothers of Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, and in 1935 persuaded J. Arthur Rank to join him in forming General Film Distributors. It was C.M. Woolf's secretary who devised the man-with-a-gong trademark which was adopted by the Rank Organisation.
John was born in 1913 and was educated at Eton and the Institut Montana in Switzerland. He followed his father into the film industry, and had become a joint managing director of General Film Distributors when war broke out and he went into the Army, achieving the rank of lieutenant- colonel and being awarded the US Bronze Star. During the final year of the war he was director of Army Kinematography with the War Office.
On returning to his old job at the end of 1945 (his father had died in 1942), he was not happy to be "a small cog in a large wheel" so in 1948, with his brother's help, he formed Independent Film Distributors, financing a programme of British films. Independent would put up 70 per cent of the cost of a film, but most of the ones in which they invested were not successful, so he and James decided to go into production themselves and formed Romulus Films.
It was the time of the witch-hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the United States, and John sent his brother James to California to woo some of the talented directors and artistes who were anxious to leave the country. James discovered that the director Albert Lewin had been about to start a production of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman at MGM, but the studio had cancelled the film because of Lewin's political problems. "So we brought Lewin to England to make the film with Ava Gardner and James Mason," Woolf told the writer Brian McFarlane. "That's what started us off with Anglo-American productions because British films were then very parochial - the best were the Ealing films and even they didn't sell in America."
Though financed by Romulus, the film was produced by its director Lewin, and Woolf thought this accounted for its lack of impact. "We didn't have much experience as producers then. It was too long and I couldn't get Lewin to cut it, but in many ways it was a brilliant film."
The next Romulus film, The African Queen (1951) was not only a tremendous success now accepted as a film classic, but is a testament to Woolf's courage and judgement. Many thought the story of a spinster missionary and a gin-soaked seafarer a doubtful commercial risk (the famed producer Alexander Korda told him, "Two old people going up and down a river in Africa - who will want to see that?") but Woolf risked his company to keep the film afloat. As he told McFarlane:
The book was owned by Warner Bros, who had bought it for Bette Davis. At the time we became interested in it, John Huston thought he was going to be able to get Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Producer Sam Spiegel was involved in it but his company didn't have the finance, so we undertook the finance, other than the American contribution . . .
When the unit was in Africa at the beginning of the film, Sam was supposed to have paid Huston and Bogart out of the American budget, but the money hadn't arrived and I think Huston got very fed up. In the end I had to give a guarantee of completion to the American bankers myself. So I took a huge risk with The African Queen . . . If it had failed it would probably have been the end of Romulus.
Wanting to work with Huston again, the Woolf brothers suggested that they film Pierre La Mure's biography of the artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge, and managed to persuade an initially reluctant Huston who, once he started to research the subject, became fired with enthusiasm for creating a style of photography that would equate with the diffused atmosphere of the artist's work.
He told his cameraman Oswald Morris, "I want this film to look as though Toulouse-Lautrec had directed it," and they devised a system of fogging the film before it was put into the camera (by running it past a small light) then using gauzes to produce the desired effect. Tests to produce these effects were expensive, but as Morris later said, "If Huston wanted pounds 500,000 for something, John Woolf would find it".
The film won three Oscars, including colour photography, and did well though critical response was mixed. A third Romulus film directed by Huston, Beat The Devil (1953), was one that Woolf did not want to make, but since Huston had backed his judgement on Moulin Rouge he went along with the project which Huston told him would be "another Maltese Falcon". Though the film now has a cult following, Woolf later confessed that "as Executive Producer, I was rather ashamed of it".
Though Romulus had established itself with these international productions, it did not neglect more modest home-grown product, including Women of Twilight (1952), Britain's first "X"-rated film with Freda Jackson repeating her West End stage performance as a landlady-from-hell, Cosh Boy (1953), which dealt with the topical juvenile delinquency problem and featured a young Joan Collins, and such parochially British fare as Sailor Beware (1956), starring Peggy Mount in the role of a battle-axe mother that she had created with sensational success on the London stage, and Three Men in a Boat (1956), based on the Jerome K. Jerome classic and filmed in Henley, "where it never stopped raining".
Woolf's perspicacity was further demonstrated when he watched Panorama on television one evening and saw Woodrow Wyatt interviewing a group of housewives in Bradford about a controversial book written by their local librarian. Next day Woolf rushed out to buy a copy and immediately bought the film rights. It was John Braine's Room At The Top, which became the first film on which the Woolf brothers put their names as producers.
A ground-breaking success, it was awarded an X certificate by the censors, restricting it to adult audiences, which could have severely limited the film's distribution. Said Woolf, "The Rank Organisation would not play X films, and ABC would not touch it until they could see what happened after it opened. So I opened it at the Plaza in central London and it got rave reviews, on the strength of which ABC agreed to book it. It was a great success all over the world."
Room At The Top was directed by Jack Clayton, who had been a production executive with Romulus for several years but had already directed an Oscar- winning short film for them, The Bespoke Overcoat (1956), and had long wanted to direct a feature. Clayton later described John Woolf as "really more interested in, and took his attitude about films from, the financial side. He very seldom interfered with anything artistic. Jimmy had the good sense to do much the same but always be there if you needed any help." When Vivien Leigh proved unavailable for a key role in Room At The Top, it was James Woolf who suggested Simone Signoret, who went on to win an Oscar, as did the film's script-writer Neil Paterson.
The Woolf brothers themselves received an award from the British Academy, which voted Room At The Top the year's Best Film. With its bleak, grainy photography of northern England (it was shot in Bradford), its biting view of working-class aspirations and its candid sex scenes, the film proved an influential landmark in British cinema, and was a film of which John Woolf was particularly proud.
After the Woolf brothers decided to separate professionally and go into solo production in the late 1950s, John was to have two massive hits, the first one of the most successful musicals ever made in Britain, Oliver!, though a few weeks before shooting started the film was without a director because Lewis Gilbert, who was supposed to do it, had been called by Paramount to fulfil a contract he had with them. Related John later, "I suddenly thought of Carol Reed, because of that marvellous film he made with the little boy, The Fallen Idol."
Oliver! won six Oscars, including Best Film and Best Director. In 1973 Woolf produced another international success, The Day of the Jackal, Fred Zinnemann's superb semi-documentary version of Frederick Forsyth's best-seller about a professional killer hired to assassinate De Gaulle.
Most of Woolf's activity now centred on television. In 1958 he had become co-founder and Executive Director of Anglia Television, with responsibility for the company's drama department, and he produced over 100 television plays and the series Orson Welles' Great Mysteries (1974-76) in which a cloak-swirling Welles introduced short stories by such classic authors as Wilkie Collins, Somerset Maugham, O. Henry and Dorothy Sayers with players including Christopher Lee, Susannah York, Joan Collins and Claire Bloom.
But his most notable series was Tales of the Unexpected (1979-89), originally hosted by Roald Dahl who introduced his own stories enacted by such star names as John Gielgud, Julie Harris, John Mills and Susan George - the star of the memorable episode Lamb To The Slaughter, in which she serves to officers investigating a murder the lamb joint which, when frozen, had been the murder weapon they are intent on finding. The series was a great success world-wide.
Woolf retired as a director of Anglia in 1983 but oversaw the drama department for another four years. Said Anglia's chairman David McCall this week, "He was one of the great men in the post-war British film industry. His contribution to Anglia and to television drama was immense. As the first chairman of Anglia's programme committee he was responsible for establishing Anglia as one of the leading suppliers of drama to the ITV network, which was unique for a regional company." Woolf, who was knighted in 1975, retired in 1988.
He married three times - his first wives were the actresses Dorothy Vernon and Edana Romney. In 1955 he married Anne Saville (the daughter of the film director Victor Saville) who survives him. Woolf said at the time of his knighthood, "I set out to provide entertainment. I'm not interested in messages. If you're out of step with the public you can stop being a film producer."
John Woolf, film and television producer: born London 15 March 1913; Kt 1975; married first Dorothy Vernon (marriage dissolved), second Edana Romney (marriage dissolved), third Ann Saville (one son, and one son deceased); died London 28 June 1999.
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