Teddy Darvas: Award-winning film editor who worked with David Lean and Vittorio De Sica

An award-winning film editor, Hungarian émigré and friend of Alexander Korda, Teddy Darvas was a dedicated film enthusiast who worked with David Lean, the Boulting Brothers and Vittorio De Sica. I first met him when I was a film editor in the 1960s and renewed my acquaintance when researching a book on David Lean in the '90s. I found him such a fount of information that I went back repeatedly.

Teddy Darvas was born in 1925 in Cluj, in what was then Transylvania. The family moved to Budapest and Teddy went to an English prep school in the city. His father, Simon Darvas, had been at school with Alexander Korda. They were such close friends that he took Korda to his first movie – at a coffee shop where the owner projected on to a white sheet. When the BBC made a documentary about the Kordas, the director asked Teddy's father to tell the story and he refused, saying: "Who wants to see an ugly old Jew who doesn't speak English?"

The Darvas family emigrated in 1938, when Teddy was 13. Simon had already been driven into exile – to Vienna and Berlin – first by the communists under Béla Kun, then by the fascists under Admiral Horthy. This time, they planned to go to America, since Teddy's mother had relations in Chicago, but by the time they reached England they could find no berth on a transatlantic ship. They stayed.

Darvas loved England from the moment he arrived. He went to Highgate School in London as a weekly boarder. During the Second World War, the school was evacuated to Westward Ho! and the Devon landscape increased his fascination with his new home. During the holidays, he was taken to Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire.

"They were shooting The Thief of Bagdad. It was the first time I heard there was a thing called a film editor, because Alex said to my father, "the most important person in film-making is the film editor and I pay my editor [William Hornbeck] £100 a week." In 1938 that was a fortune.

"When I was leaving school, Korda said: 'Isn't Teddy going to go to Oxford or Cambridge?' And my father said, 'Well, I can't afford it really.' And Alex said 'Don't be silly. I'll pay.' I realised all I wanted to study was English literature and history and that would not have got me a job afterwards, so I said 'No, I'll carry on working'."

Darvas joined the BBC in 1942 as holiday relief, and with his knowledge of languages ("English, Hungarian, German and a little French") he ended up in the Dutch section.

"The BBC was very good," said Darvas. "They said 'Look, we can't give you a progressive job. We'll give you a job as a typist and we'll give you time off if you want to study anything.' There was a photographic school very near and I took the highest diploma in photography. I worked on assignments for the Italian News and the Dutch section, and also in the German section. They were very good for getting girls."

He was unable to enter films because of the union ("no ticket without a job; no job without a ticket") and because he wasn't a British subject. Korda gave him a job as a clapper boy. "There was an awfully nasty man in the Ministry of Labour," Darvas recalled, "who stopped me working and said: 'As long as there is a British boy who can't get that job... '"

At last there was a vacancy for a trainee assistant film editor on Emlyn Williams's The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949). He also worked for Korda's brother Zoltá*on Cry the Beloved Country (1951). It was the first British film about the race question and some of it was shot in South Africa, where the two American stars, Sidney Poitier and Canada Lee, were denied access to hotels.

"Zoltá*had an inferiority complex towards his brother," said Darvas. "He had terrible tempers and he would shout obscenities. That was when he was being nice to me. But Zoli was a brilliant director, although he could never finish a film, cutting and re-cutting it all the time, so he never made as many films as he should have done."

Darvas became second assistant on The Sound Barrier (1952). The director, David Lean, was among the world's finest film editors. "He was the first to realise I really loved film, and that I was not just one of the many Hungarian 'pensioners' Korda employed. He told Korda about me, which pleased me tremendously. David's thoughtfulness shows clearly why so many of us would do anything for him. Indeed, at Shepperton Studios we were sometimes called 'The David Lean Adoration Society'. I've got a letter which Korda wrote to my father saying, 'David Lean thinks very highly of him, but don't tell him because it might give him a swollen head.'"

Next was Hobson's Choice, one of his happiest films. "David was between wives and I was a bachelor and he would give me a lift home from Shepperton. He loved the Buckstone Club, of which I was a founder- member. Dues were £3 a year and David never joined [he was known as David Mean]. But he'd say, 'Let's go and have a steak' and we'd stay till 3am, just chatting. Next morning I'd meet him on the set and he'd stare at me as though he'd never seen me before."

After Summer Madness (1955), Darvas was sent out to Ceylon for The Bridge on the River Kwai as assembly editor (the man who puts the scenes together in continuity order to make life easier for the editor). "Partly because Sam Spiegel [the producer] was screaming and shouting, David had to agree to let me cut sequences. He was fantastic because he made your mind work better than you ever thought it would. I remember when I was an assistant editor on Sound Barrier, Geoff Foot, the editor, said 'Wait until we come off the floor and go into the cutting room. That's the most exciting part of film-making. That's like ecstasy and joy.'

"It was. In those days, editors actually cut the film while they were shooting. But after River Kwai no one was allowed to touch anything and the film was left in rushes form until David had finished shooting and then he'd cut it himself. When he had a problem on a sequence, everyone would stop for coffee and we would all thrash it around. If you said something that was patently ridiculous, you wouldn't be ignored, but David would patiently explain."

Darvas met his future wife through a girlfriend. Ramona Stracey had had a colourful childhood during the war, travelling from Egypt to Cyprus to South Africa.

He edited a film for the great Vittorio De Sica, Woman Times Seven (1967), with Shirley MacLaine. De Sica, who had made the classic Bicycle Thieves, was given a poor script, albeit by the great Cesare Zavattini, and made as good a film as he could out of it. The English producer decided to ship Darvas back to England. De Sica said, "I never asked for Darvas to come on this movie – but now he's my valued collaborator, he stays!"

For Lionel Jeffries, Darvas cut three pictures. The Amazing Mr Blunden (1972), Baxter! (1973) and the most celebrated, and best loved, The Railway Children (1970). For this, he received the award of the Guild of British Film Editors for best editing of 1970-71.

"If I am a good editor," he said, "I owe it basically to David Lean, partly to Zoltá*Korda and then to the Boultings, who gave me my big break with Heavens Above (1963)."

Kevin Brownlow

Theodore Frederic Darvas, film editor: born Cluj 1 June 1925; married 1959 Ramona Stracey (two daughters); died Hampstead, London 27 September 2009.

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