Obituary: Jack Davies
Thursday 14 July 1994
JACK DAVIES was a writer of British film comedies, for over 40 years concocting vehicles for radio and stage stars of the Thirties, postwar classics like Laughter in Paradise and a string of Norman Wisdom successes and international blockbusters.
Born in 1913, Davies went straight from school at the age of 18 into the film industry, as part of the script department at the Elstree studios of British International Pictures. BIP had the largest studio in England in 1931, its nine stages covering 40 acres. Its productions included 10 films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, including Blackmail, but since the coming of sound its stature had waned. The Cinematograph Act of 1927, requiring that all British cinemas play a statutory amount of homemade product, had spawned a number of small companies turning out leaden low-budget films to feed distribution requirements - the infamous 'quota quickies'. BIP's product now filled the middle ground between these and the prestigious work of Alexander Korda, Michael Balcon and Herbert Wilcox at other studios.
When Davies joined their script department, they were turning out 30 films a year, modest but respectable programme pictures. He gained a solid groundwork in story construction and the ways in which best to exploit the particular talents of contract performers. He worked on vehicles for the opera star Richard Tauber (Heart's Desire, 1935), the stage star Gertrude Lawrence (Mimi, 1935, an underrated version of the La Boheme story), and the American singer 'Buddy' Rogers (Dance Band, 1934, and Once in a Million, 1936, a bright comedy that echoed Rene Clair's classic Le Million), plus a Somerset Maugham adaptation, The Tenth Man (1936), and an outrageously stylised comedy- thriller, Someone at the Door (1936).
Davies brought imaginative flair and innovation to many of these assignments. Radio Parade of 1935, starring Will Hay and showcasing radio stars of the day, had a finale filmed in Dufaycolour featuring a giant television screen in Piccadilly Circus, while Music Hath Charms (1935), starring Henry Hall and his orchestra, had an engagingly surreal approach, showing the startling effect of Hall's music on mountain climbers, African explorers, policemen and others that foreshadowed the films of the Beatles and the Monkees 30 years later.
Moving briefly to Gainsborough, Davies co-wrote the Will Hay comedy Convict 99 (1938). After war service writing training films in the RAF he became film critic of the Sunday Graphic but returned to scriptwriting in 1948, the same year that his son John Howard Davies became famous with his remarkable performance in the title-role of David Lean's Oliver Twist.
A productive partnership with the writer Michael Pertwee and the director Mario Zampi produced some of Davies's finest credits, notably Laughter in Paradise (1951), in which a millionaire specifies that in order to profit from his will his heirs must fulfil tasks at odds with their character - the imperious matron must work as a servant, the timid clerk must hold up a bank. In the most felicitous section, Alastair Sim, as a prim writer who has to get himself arrested, vainly tries to get caught shoplifting in Swan and Edgar's. 'Are you going behind the Iron Curtain?' asks his fiancee (Joyce Grenfell), when he advises her of his imminent secret absence. 'In a way, yes,' he replies.
Top Secret (1952), in which George Cole, designer of a new toilet filter system, is mistaken by the Russians for a defecting scientist, enabled the writers to have fun at the expense of bureaucrats and the cold war, while Happy Ever After (1953) took an unconventional approach to Irish shenanigans and included an off-beat role for David Niven as a roguish squire.
The sole writer of the comedy with music An Alligator Named Daisy (1955), Davies was one of four writers on the Norman Wisdom vehicle Up in the World (1956), but established such a rapport with the star that he was principal writer on six more Wisdom films. 'He did the storyline,' said Wisdom, 'and then would leave it to me to put my two-penn'orth in.'
Davies acknowledged the comedian's gag contribution by insisting that he share screen credit. The Square Peg, Follow a Star, The Bulldog Breed, On the Beat, A Stitch in Time and The Early Bird were not praised by critics, but were perfectly tailored for the star's talents and enormously popular with his fans.
Davies moved into the international market when he collaborated with the director Ken Annakin on the big-budget Cinerama film Those Magnifigent Men in their Flying Machines (1965), followed by Ronald Neame's caper movie Gambit (1966) and another all-star Annakin spectacular, Monte Carlo or Bust (1969). He was sole writer on Doctor at Sea, the last in that series, and was reunited with both Annakin and David Niven when he wrote the original story and screenplay for Paper Tiger (1975), after which he retired to California.
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