David Tree: Film star of the pre-war years who worked with David Lean, Alexander Korda and Anthony Asquith
Thursday 03 December 2009
One of the most charming and glamorous stars of pre-war British films, David Tree is best remembered for his performance as Freddie Eynsford-Hill in Anthony Asquith's Pygmalion (1938).
He had a strong theatrical background. His mother was the actress and singer Viola Tree, the daughter of Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, his father the theatre critic Alan Parsons. He was first on stage at the age of six, in a small role in The Tempest with his mother. Educated at Eton, he was a fine singer – a light baritone – and a songwriter, setting the romantic poets to his own compositions. He wrote 30 such songs in his twenties,and had a long-standing passion for jazz and the blues. He also loved to sing Lieder, and in later life greatly admired Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
In 1933, the year his father died, he joined the Old Vic as an acting student and performer and in 1934 went to Oxford Rep. His first film role was in Jacques Feyder's Knight Without Armour (1937), as a Russian revolutionary who throws a bomb, and gets shot. Alexander Korda hired him for The Drum (1938), as a young officer who throws a bomb and gets shot. When he complained at the type-casting, Korda said, "Oh, Davey, it's just the sort of thing you do so well." (In the end the scene was cut.) He was one of the few who failed to admire Alexander Korda, although he considered his brother Vincent a set designer of genius.
Whenever he had a spare moment at Denham Studios, Tree visited the young editor David Lean "with his streams of film in his cutting room", and watched him with fascination as he put pictures together. Lean would direct him in Major Barbara, and it was when researching a book about Lean that I met David Tree. He was as charming as on the screen, both hospitable and helpful, and enthusiastic about Lean. Yet he surprised me with his lack of nostalgia for the pre-war film industry. "Before the war, we were stage actors, not film actors," he said. "Which was why we were so bad – we were so self-conscious. The minutiae of film-making hadn't struck us at all. We were herded into film studios and did the same old things we did on the stage."
In 1938, he tried for an interview with Gabriel Pascal, the producer who had just persuaded Shaw to let him make Pygmalion. Pascal would not see him, so he turned up at his home early one morning. Pascal was in his pyjamas. "I want to play Freddy in Pygmalion," said Tree, flourishing a review from an Oxford paper. Pascal read it and said, "Come in, young man. I get dressed. Vee go see Bernashow."
Tree was apprehensive at meeting the great man because he knew he had disapproved of his grandfather when he had played Professor Higgins in the original 1914 production. "Now would you be a relation of that terrible fellow Beerbohm?' asked Shaw. He reluctantly admitted it. As Shaw began his case against Tree, Pascal interrupted to ask if he thought David could play Freddy. "Why not? You could scarcely make a greater mess of it than your grandfather made of Higgins."
After Goodbye Mr Chips (1939) and Asquith's French Without Tears (1939) he played a leading role in Q Planes (1940) with Laurence Olivier. He was cast in Pascal's Major Barbara (1941) and Pascal thought he should take over the role of Cusins when he fired the actor playing the part. David declined the offer; modest as ever about his ability as a serious actor, he felt his talents lay in comedy. Pascal eventually decided upon Rex Harrison. Since Major Barbara was still in production during the Blitz, Tree volunteered for night duty in the Auxiliary Fire Service.
Once free of his contract, Tree enlisted in the Royal Artillery. With his Bohemian background he was invariably late on parade but came to enjoy square-bashing, which he studied as a piece of complicated stage mime. He was given command of a barge equipped with an anti-aircraft gun in the mouth of the Thames.
Then he was sent for Officer Training in North Wales and asked to remain as an instructor. "One of my first jobs was to demonstrate home-made hand grenades. These are friendly enough 999 times out of a thousand, but the 1000th time they may decide to be less friendly. If the fuse, which you have become accustomed to burning for three seconds, should happen to burn for only two seconds, your hand goes off with the bomb..." Which is precisely what happened. For once, he should have thrown the bomb.
As soon as he was fit enough, he volunteered for SOE (Special Operations Executive) and was put in command of a training school in Scotland for agents destined to be dropped behind enemy lines. At the end of the War he was offered film parts but he yearned for open spaces far from the claustrophobia of film studios. His mother, who had died in 1938, had left him a derelict piece of land at Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, which he decided to exploit for fruit-growing. He was dissuaded, and his old C.O. urged him to try teaching. He went to Magdalen College, Oxford, on a special two-year degree for war veterans to read English under C. S. Lewis, Nevill Coghill and David Cecil. He became theatre critic for Isis. Had it not been for the loss of his hand, he might have returned to acting and eventually become a director – his natural role in the industry.
Travelling home on VJ day, he found himself in a London underground train opposite a spectacularly beautiful girl. Despite his natural shyness, he was summoning the courage to speak to her when he realised she was escorted by three sentinels - her mother and two sisters. He left the train without a word– only to meet her on the escalator. "In case I never see you again," he said, "what is your name?"
"Mary Vick," she replied. That night he looked up the Vicks in the phone book and composed a heartfelt letter, asking if her mother could put things on a proper footing. He was invited to stay the weekend and stayed every weekend until they were married in 1946. Mary had tried to join the WRNS during the war, but finding she was too young worked on boat-building for the Admiralty instead. After a spell as an apprentice, she ended up building 27ft lifeboats single-handed. Carpentry and such-like was child's play to her.
Thus she was the perfect companion when he came to start a small-holding at Broxbourne, about which he wrote a very funny book in 1966, Pig in the Middle (reprinted 2006, Noble Books). Having experienced a series of setbacks, mostly mechanical, he was offered a flock of ducks by, of all people, Gabriel Pascal, who had them delivered in a studio limousine. The ducks produced no eggs and were dismissed by an expert as being "past it". To bring in cash, Tree performed in BBC radio plays and the money was invested in six ducks of a pedigree breed. Still they made no money.
An expert to whom they went in desperation said that David and Mary were operating at too low a figure – he had 10,000 ducks, and just about got by. He ridiculed Tree for obeying the controlled prices system and urged him to go for the black market rate. He also sold them incubators which required a special type of paraffin, no longer available; black smoke filled their house. Three hundred eggs had to be thrown away. When they placed the 100 best female ducks in a carefully-built pen with a 6ft fence round it, a fox got in and killed the lot, on top of which salmonella was confirmed in their eggs. The duck era was over.
"When the director under Pascal was satisfied with the shot,the scene and the whole day's work, and everyone was waiting to go home, Pascal would say in a portentous voice, 'And now we shoot de odder conception!' Tree recalled. A blank despair would fill everyone's heart, and the director would stammer, 'But what other conception?' 'My new conception!' he would answer, proudly."
David's new conception was chickens – after every possible calamity including cannibalism, they began to make a profit with the sale of farm eggs. Tree also developed prize-winning herds of pigs and "exotic" European cattle. He later switched to lilies.
Tree wrote articles on farming for Farmers' Weekly, on butterflies and wild flowers for Country Life and on skiing for national newspapers. Having collected butterflies as a boy, he went on to breed endangered species and to create habitats for them in the grounds at Broxbourne. The house appeared at the beginning of Don't Look Now (1973), Nicholas Roeg's film in which Tree returned to the screen as Mr Babbage, the headmaster.
David Tree Parsons, actor, writer, farmer; born London 15 July 1915; married 1946 Mary Vick (one son, four daughters); died Welwyn Garden City 4 November 2009.
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