Obituary: Joseph Janni
Thursday 02 June 1994
JOSEPH JANNI's great contribution to British cinema was his encouragement of such talents as John Schlesinger and Ken Loach, both of whom made their first features under his aegis. The score of films he produced includes a handful of enduring entertainments.
He was born in Italy in 1916 and studied at the Centro Sperimentale, the film school set up at Mussolini's instructions to strengthen the Italian movie industry, but he left the country precisely because of his opposition to the Fascist regime. Settling in Britain, he became assistant first to the producer John Sutro and then to John Corfield. He formed his own company, Vic Films, to make The Glass Mountain (1949), a melodrama devised by himself and directed by Henry Cass in which Michael Denison forgets the wife back home, Dulcie Gray, when he spies Valentina Cortese among the Italian Alps. He also meets Tito Gobbi and promises to write an opera for him - based on 'The Legend of the Glass Mountain': and Nino Rota's concerto-like theme achieved such popularity that the film was reissued twice (in 1950 and 1953), a distinction which made it virtually unique.
Janni returned to Italy for Honeymoon Deferred (1951), directed by Mario Camerini, with Griffith Jones and Sally Ann Howes honeymooning in the village Jones had heaped to liberate. It was Janni's second product for the Rank Organisation, which dominated the local film industry; the first had been White Corridors (1951), an excellent drama about the daily routine of hospital life directed by Pat Jackson, with Googie Withers and James Donald. The agreement with Rank might well have terminated with Romeo and Juliet, but Janni came up with A Town Like Alice (1956) at a time when any film based on a successful war novel - this one was by Nevil Shute - seemed to cause a stampede at British box offices. Virginia McKenna led the women suffering in the Japanese POW camp. Peter Finch was the Australian with whom she has some moonlight trysts, and it was he who recommended Rolf Boldrewood's classic tale of the outback Robbery Under Arms (1957) to Janni and the director Jack Lee.
Rank's gratitude for the grosses of A Town Like Alice made them offer a two-year contract to Janni and Lee; but Rank's parsimony may be one reason why Robbery Under Arms, with Finch, is less successful. The two of them were happier with The Captain's Table (1958), based on one of Richard Gordon's comic novels about doctors. Rank distributed Janni's ambitious co-production about Eskimos with Anthony Quinn, The Savage Innocents (1960), directed by Nicholas Ray and Baccio Bandini, but its success in Italy was not duplicated in Britain or France, which had also contributed some of the financing.
John Schlesinger, looking for a backer after his acclaimed short about Waterloo, Terminus, chanced upon Janni and they agreed to film Stan Barstow's novel A Kind of Loving (1962). It received short shrift by the newspaper critics, who noted the distributor, Anglo- Amalgamated, and decided that this was the 'Carry On' team trying to cash in on Britain's own nouvelle vague; but then the magazine press came out in its favour and it took the Grand Prix at the Berlin Film Festival. With Alan Bates as the young Northern draughtsman caught up not in a kind of loving but the British kind of sex, it managed to be both funnier and more accurate on working people than such predecessors as Room at the Top and Look Back In Anger.
Indeed, they were almost the only precedents. For far too long British movies had treated anyone with a regional or cockney accent either with condescension or as fodder for laughter. With Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse as their screenwriters, Janni and Schlesinger destroyed the tradition forever. The four of them went on to Billy Liar] (1963), based on Waterhouse's novel and, with Tom Courtenay as the undertaker's mendacious clerk, always dreaming of moving to London, they enjoyed a critical and popular success.
So did Julie Christie, who played the Earth Mother encouraging Courtenay, but Janni found difficulty in getting backing for Darling (1965), which was to star her and Dirk Bogarde in a story of London's model-world. One distributor offered to take it if Shirley MacLaine played the lead; and it went into production only after Frederic Raphael had enlarged one role so that it could be played by Laurence Harvey, then a name of consequence in the US. Raphael's screenplay won an Oscar, as did Christie. The New York critics voted it the year's Best Motion Picture.
Therefore, when Schlesinger and Janni wanted to film Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) with Christie - and Finch and Bates plus Terence Stamp - MGM were happy to contribute to the high budget in exchange for the American rights. They would regret this, but the public responded in this country, more warmly than the press had done. Despite its failure in the US, Schlesinger found a Hollywood career open to him, but he returned to Britain to work on two pet subjects with Janni, Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), in which Finch and Glenda Jackson shared the favours of a young man; and Yanks (1979), in which Richard Gere and assorted GIs sought the same in wartime Britain with the likes of Vanessa Redgrave.
Janni's experience with Schlesinger prompted him to lure Ken Loach from television after Cathy Come Home had caused such a sensation. With Nell Dunn again as his writer, they fashioned Poor Cow (1967), the ne plus ultra of the working-class film. Loach went on to do more striking work both in both media, arguably because Janni and Schlesinger had first shown the way.
What is certain is that the mood of the Sixties demanded the end of the stranglehold of middle-class gentility on British films. It was a decade also notable for some cinematic monstrosities, not the least of them Modesty Blaise, Joseph Losey's version of a comic strip, with Bogarde, Stamp and, in the title-role, Monica Vitti. It is ironic that Janni should die just as a dollars 25m remake is announced, since the 1966 film is probably the least representative of his own aims and achievements.
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