Earl St. John

Earl St. John (14 June 1892 – 26 February 1968) was an American film producer in overall charge of production for The Rank Organisation at Pinewood Studios from 1950 to 1964, and was credited as executive producer on 131 films. He was known as the "Earl of Pinewood".[1]

Earl St. John
Born(1892-06-14)June 14, 1892
DiedFebruary 26, 1968(1968-02-26) (aged 75)
NationalityAmerican
OccupationFilm producer
Years active1950–1964
Known forExecutive producer, Rank Organisation

Early lifeEdit

St. John was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. His father wanted him to become a soldier but he ran away from a military academy aged 17 and began his career as a page boy for Sarah Bernhardt's company.[2][3]

St. John's uncle worked in the film business and he worked for him when he was 21. He worked as a poster boy then took two religious films around the US and Mexico. He worked during the Mexican Civil War and met Pancho Villa.[4] He fell out with his uncle and joined the Mutual Film Company.[3]

Move to EnglandEdit

St. John served in France with the Texas division during World War I. He demobilised in Liverpool, England, and elected to stay on in the country.

St. John ran a small picture theatre in Manchester and became successful.[2] In 1924, he joined Paramount Theatres Limited, building up its circuit and opening the Plaza and Carlton cinemas. In 1930, they took over the Astoria Cinemas and St. John was responsible for them as well.[5]

Paramount was bought out by Odeon in 1938 and St. John joined The Rank Organisation. In 1939 he became personal assistant to John Davis.[6]

Rank OrganisationEdit

In 1946 St John was appointed chief production adviser for the Rank Organisation.[7]

Two CitiesEdit

In May 1947 he was appointed joint managing director of Two Citites along with Josef Somlo. Their films included Hamlet, Fame is the Spur, Uncle Silas, The October Man, Vice Versa, The Mark of Cain and One Night with You.

Head of RankEdit

Early filmsEdit

In 1948 he was appointed Executive Producer at the studios by Rank's Managing Director John Davis with a brief to rein in financial losses.[8] "Some producers objected because he was a showman," said one producer of this time.[3]

Early films made under St John at Rank included the musical Trottie True (1949) with Jean Kent, and the fantasy The Rocking Horse Winner (1949) with John Mills. The Woman in Question (1950) was a thriller with Kent and Dirk Bogarde, and Highly Dangerous (1950) was an unsuccessful attempt to restore Margaret Lockwood to her mid 1940s popularity.

Under his austere and autocratic control, location filming was cut back, and budgets slashed. The Reluctant Widow (1950) starred Kent and Guy Rolfe; Rolfe was in Prelude to Fame (1950). More successful than these were a war movie, They Were Not Divided (1950) and the drama The Browning Version (1951). The latter was based on a play by Terence Rattigan and St John would go on to green-lit a number of films based on plays. "I started out as manager of a small out-of-town cinema, and I viewed films from the out-of-London angle," he explained in 1951. "This experience made me realise that the ordinary people in the remotest places in the country were entitled to see the works of the best modern British playwrights."[9] The film was directed by Anthony Asquith, and St John promptly agreed to finance another play adaptation from that director, The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), which was popular. St John would also finance a version of Romeo and Juliet (1954) shot in Italy.

Also popular was Encore (1951) based on the stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Venetian Bird (1952), a thriller from the director-producer team of Ralph Thomas and Betty E. Box who would become crucial to Rank, and The Card (1952) with Alec Guinness.

Less popular were dramas like It Started in Paradise (1952), Personal Affair (1953) and The Final Test (1953).

Colonial and war moviesEdit

St John decided to finance an action drama set during the Malayan Emergency, The Planter's Wife (1952), directed by Ken Annakin and starring Jack Hawkins and Anthony Steel. In an attempt to appeal to American audiences, St John arranged for Claudette Colbert to co star. The movie was not successful in the US but was a big hit in Britain, and led to St John making several movies with imperial settings.[10]:44–45

These included Malta Story (1952), a hugely popular World War Two story with Guinness, Hawkins and Steel; The Seekers (1954), an adventure tale set in New Zealand with Hawkins and Glynis Johns; Above Us the Waves (1955), a war film with Mills and John Gregson; Simba (1955), set in the Mau Mau Uprising; The Black Tent (1956) set in Africa.

ThrillersEdit

St John greenlit a number of thrillers at Rank including Hunted (1952) with Dirk Bogarde, The Long Memory (1953) with John Mills, The Net (1953), Desperate Moment (1953) with Bogarde, Turn the Key Softly (1953), The Kidnappers (1953) and Forbidden Cargo (1954), Passage Home (1955), Lost (1956), and House of Secrets (1956),

Dramas tended to be less popular such as The Young Lovers (1954), The Woman for Joe (1955), Jacqueline (1956).

ComediesEdit

In the early 1950s St John moved Rank more into the comedy area with films such as Made in Heaven (1952), Penny Princess (1953) with Bogarde, Always a Bride (1953), and A Day to Remember (1953). He was a big believer in making films in colour to compete with television. He also imported many actors from Europe to appear in Rank films.[11]

St John championed the work of Norman Wisdom, signing him to a long term contract and putting him in his own vehicle, Trouble in Store (1953) which was a huge success at the British box office. It led to a series of popular Wisdom movies such as Man of the Moment (1955), One Good Turn (1955)

He had a huge success with Genevieve, directed by Henry Cornelius, and starring John Gregson, Dinah Sheridan, Kenneth More and Kay Kendall. However his most profitable comedies were the "Doctor" series from Thomas and Box, starring Dirk Bogarde, starting with Doctor in the House (1954). This led to several sequels including Doctor at Sea (1955),

St John had less success with musicals such as As Long as They're Happy (1955). Later comedies included You Know What Sailors Are (1954), Mad About Men (1954), The Beachcomber (1954) with Robert Newton, To Paris with Love (1955) with Guinness, All for Mary (1955), Value for Money (1955) with Gregson and Diana Dors, Simon and Laura (1955) with Peter Finch and Kendall, An Alligator Named Daisy (1955) with Donald Sinden and Dors, Jumping for Joy (1956) with Frankie Howerd,

According to a 1954 profile:

His highly-paid job gives him power to say what films will be made, how they will be made and who will make them. He works with 12 producer - director teams, 21 contract artists, a varying number of guest artists, a story department consisting of an editor, two assistants and three readers, and three contract scriptwriters. Pinewood Studios' quota of 15 films a year, for which St. John is responsible and which average £150,000 each, is the largest in Britain today. In his films, St. John has fostered such stars as Petula Clark, Kay Kendall, Anthony Steel, Terence Morgan, Dirk Bogarde and John Gregson and he has helped to promote Jack Hawkins, Glynis Johns and Norman Wisdom. In the past four years he has supervised the making of more han 50 films... St. John has earned a reputation for being a driving showman with a gift for succinct expression.[3]

"He is like a ringmaster who is happy as long as his charges are performing correctly," said producer Peter Rogers. "His approach is: do what you want, but you know what I want," said director Robert Hamer.[3]

International filmsEdit

Rank had ambitions to make films that appeared in America. St John used Gregory Peck in The Million Pound Note (1954) and The Purple Plain (1954).[12]

In the late 1950s St John financed a series of adventure films shot on location overseas in colour based on some best-selling novel. These included Campbell's Kingdom (1957), set in Canada, with Bogarde; Dangerous Exile (1957), a French Revolution tale with Louis Jourdan; Windom's Way (1957), set in Malaya, with Peter Finch; Robbery Under Arms (1957), set in Australia, with Finch; Sea Fury (1958), made in Spain with Victor McLaglen; The Wind Cannot Read (1958), set in India, with Bogarde; A Tale of Two Cities (1958), set in France, with Bogarde; The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1958) with Melinda Mercouri; A Night to Remember (1958) with Kenneth More; Nor the Moon by Night (1959), set in South Africa with Michael Craig; The 39 Steps (1959) and North West Frontier (1959) with More; and Ferry to Hong Kong (1960), made in Hong Kong with Orson Welles.[13]

Rank continued to make comedies such as The Captain's Table (1959) with Gregson and Too Many Crooks (1959).

Producer Betty Box called St. John "a wonderful old drunk... a wonderful man. But he didn't quite fit into the British filmmaking tradition."[14] Anthony Havelock-Allan said "he did what [Rank chairman John] Davis told him to... nice man but not creative at all, not imaginative. He just did what he was told."[15]

Sir John Davis later said St. John "was jolly good. As executive producer his function was to produce films - to get together the units to make them. He was both a creative influence and a facilitator, with a grasp of the technical side of making films, and he understood the creative atmosphere."[16]

Michael Powell called him "John Davis' yes-men at Pinewood."[17]

Contemporary historical consensus is that St. John's influence was limited, and he mainly did what Davis told him to do.[10]:42–43

However when Bryan Forbes ran EMI Films he said he was influenced by Earl St John and would find "myself thinking, 'How would Earl have handled this situation?'".[18]

Earl St. John had an at times difficult relationship with Dirk Bogarde but he cast Bogarde in Doctor in the House, which made him a big star, and suggested him for the lead in Victim.[19]

Later yearsEdit

St. John's slate of films became less successful in the 1960s. The British film industry turned to riskier subject matter. For instance St John bought the film rights to the novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning but the Rank board refused to let him make the film, which became a big success.[20] He also refused to make a film of Look Back in Anger.[10]:42–43

St. John retired in 1964, after The High Bright Sun (1964), the last collaboration between Ralph Thomas, Betty Box and Dirk Bogarde.

He died while on vacation in Spain, survived by his wife whom he married in 1946.[21][22]

Select filmographyEdit

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ Falk, Quentin (1987). The golden gong : fifty years of the Rank Organisation, its films and its stars. Columbus Books Falk. p. 103.
  2. ^ a b "American is big British movie man". The Australian Women's Weekly. National Library of Australia. 3 December 1952. p. 57. Retrieved 31 October 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Hustling Showman Of British Films". The Newcastle Sun. NSW. 19 July 1954. p. 11. Retrieved 31 October 2015 – via National Library of Australia.
  4. ^ Mr Earl St John The Guardian [London (UK)] 28 Feb 1968: 5.
  5. ^ Astoria Cinemas. The Times (London, England), Tuesday, Dec 2, 1930; pg. 16; Issue 45685
  6. ^ "MAKING MORE & BETTER PICTURES" Karr, Jack. The Times of India [New Delhi, India] 16 May 1948: 5.
  7. ^ "St John is Made Chief Prod", Variety, 21 August 1946, p22
  8. ^ "FILM PRODUCTION CHANGES" The Manchester Guardian [Manchester (UK)] 23 Dec 1948: 8.
  9. ^ "FILMS REVIEWED Another "Mr. Chips"". The Argus. Melbourne: National Library of Australia. 28 April 1951. p. 15. Retrieved 31 October 2015.
  10. ^ a b c Harper, Sue; Porter, Vincent (2003). British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780198159346.
  11. ^ "Comedy and color are behind new British film boom". The Australian Women's Weekly. 1 October 1952. p. 58. Retrieved 17 December 2015 – via National Library of Australia.
  12. ^ "Mr Earl St John." The Times [London, England] 28 Feb. 1968: 12. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.
  13. ^ Scheuer, Philip K. (Feb 18, 1958). "M. Chevalier Young at 69: Boulevardier Still in Demand; Rank Organization Flourishes". Los Angeles Times. p. A7.
  14. ^ J Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry p 221
  15. ^ J Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry p 222
  16. ^ Brian McFarlane, An Autobiography of British Cinema p 159
  17. ^ Powell, Michael (1992). Million dollar movie. Random House. p. 285.
  18. ^ Moody, Paul (2018). EMI Films and the Limits of British Cinema. Palgrave MacMillan. p. 16.
  19. ^ John Coldstream (2011-09-03). "Victim's victory – Fifty years of the movie thriller that helped decriminalise homosexuality in Britain". The Spectator. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  20. ^ Mayer, Geoff (2004). Roy Ward Baker - Geoff Mayer - Google Books. ISBN 9780719063541. Retrieved 2017-04-08.
  21. ^ Obituary 2 -- No Title Chicago Tribune 28 February 1968: a10.
  22. ^ "Earl St. John dies on holiday" The Irish Times 28 February 1968: 7

External linksEdit