Sunday, July 12, 2009

Such Power Is Dangerous (1933)


"... my immediate success as a thriller writer had by then fired me with literary ambitions. Having heard that Edgar Wallace had been able to write a book in a week, I decided to find out the speed of which I was capable.
In order that I should remain undisturbed, Joe Links lent Joan and me a cottage on Cutmill Common, near Godalming, in Surrey.
There, although I worked all out, I failed to complete a book in a week; but I did so in a fortnight."

- Dennis Wheatley, The Time Has Come... The Memoirs of Dennis Wheatley - 1919 - 1977: Drink and Ink

The result - in Wheatley's own words: "a blood and thunder story set mainly in Hollywood" - was Such Power Is Dangerous. Almost immediately he felt inclined to dismiss it, lacking as it did any of the background research characteristic of his previous novel and most subsequent ones.
According to his autobiography, his disenchantment with Such Power, or more specifically with the slightly cynical experiment that led to its creation, was almost immediate:

In April, owing to the success of The Forbidden Territory, Hutchinson asked me if I had another completed manuscript that they could publish in the summer. Reluctantly, I submitted Such Power Is Dangerous, but said I did not want it to be published because it had been dashed off and was a very ordinary thriller with no informative background. After having it read, they said they wanted to publish it.
In those days publishers and printers worked fast. On 8 June we threw a party to launch Such Power Is Dangerous. The book was reprinted again and again.

Despite his misgivings, however, the book proved another immediate popular and critical success.

Nor is it the negligible work Wheatley's own comments suggest. True, it was not the result of that lengthy period of research and gestation that was Wheatley's favoured method of composition. But neither is it devoid of any depth of knowledge pertaining to its subject. Far from it, in fact: the background detail reflects a far more than casual acquaintance with the world of the cinema, and the obvious authenticity with which it recreates its milieu will delight anyone like myself who happens to love thirties Hollywood.
Where this understanding came from is partly revealed in Drink and Ink: "Alfred Hitchcock had long been a friend of mine and I had seen him make films in the old silent days. He and his wife, Alma, then lived in Cromwell Road. We had often dined with them and they with us."
(Hitchcock, who, thinly disguised as 'Titchcock' plays a significant role in the denouement of Such Power, was originally intended to direct the film version of The Forbidden Territory, but I shall save that story for a forthcoming post on the film.)

Mr Titchcock, at roughly the time he found himself unknowingly working for Mr Wheatley

The novel, based in the British and American film industries of the thirties, concerns a plot to control all film output by a sinister combine, a revolutionary invention - the 'Z' Projector - set to transform the industry and thus eagerly sought by the combine's agents, and the young and beautiful English actress who stumbles into it all.
As the jacket blurb from my 1973 Arrow paperback puts it:

She was Avril Bamborough, and she was a star in British pictures. Her arrival in Hollywood on a new stage in her career coincided with the formation of 'the Combine' - a vast conspiracy to gain control of the world's film industry and then to use it as a weapon in the pursuit of unlimited power. How finally she alone was left to thwart the terrible ambitions of men who had already bought, ruined or murdered all those who stood in their path is the story unfolded in this tale...

The most instantly striking feature of the book is the obvious confidence of its author. Here we see Wheatley already so sure of himself as a story teller that he feels able to indulge in a number of the amusements that would become standard features of his books, including in-jokes, self-referencing and the use of real people as fictional characters.
Despite the prefatory note that "(a)ll the characters in this story are entirely fictitious", a great many contemporary film personalities are featured in the novel, albeit hiding beneath (usually fairly obvious) pseudonyms (a device which Wheatley would abandon in his later works).
We have already mentioned the director Titchcock, who helps Avril re-make a film that the combine have destroyed (Wheatley's portrait of him taking orders from Avril and mechanically directing a film he had not prepared himself now seems hilariously at odds with the real Hitchcock). Others making a guest appearance include Percy Piplin "and the Marybanks crowd", Pritchard Tix, Lila Dalmatia, Hustler Beaton, Cyril de Rille, producer Eberhard Lutasch, two-in-one director Von Sternheim, and - my favourite - dashing Englishman Jeremiah Mustard. (Think about it...)

Wheatley's basically cynical view of film art is reflected in a sequence in which the characters go to see the new production This Brave New World, an adaptation of Huxley's novel. (Wheatley was on friendly terms with Huxley, who gave him signed first editions of many of his books. Brave New World in particular made a huge impact - its influence would be felt again very shortly in Black August, and later in A Letter To Posterity.) Needless to say, the finer points of the book are not preserved in the imagined screen treatment, summed-up by Wheatley in an authorial aside as "one of the hundreds which are made annually to fill the yawning maw of a greedy but uncritical multitude."

Giant sky-scrapers towered to the clouds, helicopters sailed about in every direction. Upon the dance hall the producer had let himself rip, in a riot of abandoned jazzing... Much had been made of the Native Reservation Scene, but not unnaturally, the Hollywood producer had felt Mexico to be totally inadequate. He preferred Africa, in order that he might more fittingly bring in lions, tigers, elephants and every other animal he could lay his hands on.
Much, too, had been made of the Delta minors who moved on all occasions in sinister gangs with downcast heads and shuffling feet, after the manner of the slaves in Metropolis. The death-bed scene had been cut out as entirely unsuitable, also that important portion of the book when the young man is scourged by the Mexican priest. The Alpha plus damsels were the loveliest possible collection of cuties with india rubber legs. A little quiverful of soft-tipped arrows had been substituted for the malthusian belts, and these cuties let fly with delirious abandon at the boy-friends of their choice. Unfortunately a theme song had been introduced for no particular reason, and the whole point of the book lost by the complete elimination of the interview with the Jewish World Controller and its original ending. Instead, the Hollywood editors had substituted a happy understanding with regard to legal union between the more resilient of the rubber-legged cuties and the handsome young savage - the latter being suitably injected with a strong dose of the 'Oh King live for Ever' serum. However, these little alterations were hardly a matter of serious concern since Ronnie Sherringham, Avril Bamborough and Nelson Druce were probably the only people in the house who had actually read the book, and it is doubtful if more than half a dozen others had ever even heard of Mr Huxley.

Brave New World is not the only work of contemporary literature facing Hollywood vulgarisation, as one of the villains explains:

"Maybe - maybe - but it's this way, Hugo; I figure to make this picture, The Forbidden Territory. We shan't call it that, of course, but that's the name of the book - incidentally I took the trouble to read the book myself, I was that struck with the synopsis. It's about Russia and those Bolsheviks. A young American gets put behind the bars in Moscow or Vladivostock or some place, and two of his pals go out from London to rescue him. It's a great story - sledge scenes in the snow - aeroplanes - a gun-fight with the Reds in a ruined chateau, and a dash to the frontier in a high-powered car - marvellous material to work on. It's by a feller named Wheatley - who he is, God knows - but that don't matter. There's plenty of love interest too - a little Princess who got left behind when the Whites cleared out, and a Bolshie actress who's full of pep. It's got the markings of a master film - great spectacle, human interest - and educative value as well..."

(As well as revealing his preoccupation with Huxley and looking back to Forbidden Territory, the book also looks ahead to his next project, Old Rowley, presumably already gestating in his mind, when one character quotes the dying words of Charles the Second.)

Wheatley at his writing desk during the early years of his career

Again suggestive of first-hand knowledge, the book reflects the fears, widely circulated among the film community, that their still relatively young art may not survive the Great Depression. Villain Lord Gavin Fortescue, mastermind behind the sinister combine, uses the financial uncertainty of the film moguls to his advantage:

"I will not waste your time, Mr Hinckman, by beating about the bush. I have, in the last few months, gone very thoroughly into the present state of the film industry in America, England and Germany. Many of the smaller concerns are definitely in financial difficulties - even the biggest are finding it no easy matter to continue the enormous outlay necessary to support their chains of theatres and pay their stars during this period of world depression. I have come to the conclusion that conditions at the present time offer a remarkably favourable opportunity for the formation of a combine which will control the film industry of the entire world."

Needless to say, he has more than financial gain in mind:

"I wonder, Mr Hinckman, if you realise the magnitude of my conception. The world control of the entire film industry. Our revenues would be greater than the budget of any but a first class state. The wealth of Ford and Rockefeller would not compare with ours. Again, our sphere of influence would be unbounded. By the type of film which we chose to produce we could influence the mass psychology of nations. Fashions, morals, customs, could be propagated by our will - we should even be able if it suited us to fill a whole people with a mad desire to make war on their neighbour - or if we considered that a universal language would lead to world peace we could induce the children of all nations to learn English, by a decision that our talking pictures should be made in no other tongue. We should have power to do either endless good ... or boundless evil. No king or emperor would ever have had such power in the world before!"

In other words, Wheatley had spotted that which Goebbels had realised, Lenin had anticipated, and has now come to pass: that the cinema (along with related technologies in popular culture) is the greatest propaganda tool ever invented, and will eventually wield such power that governments will march to its tune rather than it to theirs. Or as Avril puts it:

For the film world it will be simply terrible, thousands of people thrown out of work, bankruptcies and suicides galore, and the power of the Press won't be anything compared to the power of the Film Dictators. They will be able to colour the thoughts of the masses in every country, and in the most subtle way of all - through their principal amusement.

Though obviously influenced by his reading of Huxley, this is both a clever and hugely prescient conceit on Wheatley's part, and one that would have practical ramifications years later when he was employed to advise Churchill's government on its war strategy.
As if Such Power had been written the day before, all his old ideas about the supreme malleability of the masses and their yawning maw reappeared. Like a benevolent Lord Fortescue, he has the following to say in his paper Some Suggestions Regarding Propaganda, quoted in Craig Cabell's admirable compendium Churchill's Storyteller:

Films will naturally play a large part in propaganda and a special bureau should be set up to collaborate with the chief executives of the big film producers to this end.
In addition to documentary and news films, fiction should not be neglected or full-length films which could be made to serve a similar purpose. Here are... (some) suggestions of the type of film I mean:

a. Might be somewhat on the lines of 'An Englishman's Home' brought up to date, but in it the principal male character would be a communist and a pacifist. We see his reactions in his home and in the factory to Imperialism and the National Government. When the war breaks out, although he is quite fit, he deliberately shirks his duty and swings the lead with the medical board to evade conscription. His girl is indignant and throws him up, but he persists in the error of his ways. There is then an air-raid in which he is caught and in which he endeavours to rescue his girl but finds her seriously wounded. As a result, he goes off to join up. This, admittedly is pure slop in such bald phrases, but the multitude loves slop, if the characters are naturally developed and the story well written up so that it can be got over.

b. A good comic film could be made called 'Grin and Bear it', in which we see a rather simple-minded, clumsy fellow join up and the awful time that he is given by his sergeant major. But he rescues his sergeant major under fire when they go into action, and is duly decorated; demonstrating that it is not only clever people who can win distinction, and that a slow-witted, clumsy fellow does not necessarily lack courage. In this film, the training of troops in camp could be demonstrated, stressing the lighter side, the jolly ragging that young soldiers get up to, the attraction of communal life with men of one's own age, the sing-songs etc, into which one could probably introduce some excellent numbers.

Returning, then, to Such Power Is Dangerous: are there typical Wheatley thrills and action to be savoured too? Yes, of course there are. Poor Avril endures more perils than Pauline: implicated in shootings, abducted, pursued and even, in the full-blooded climax, trapped to within an inch of death in a Hound of the Baskervilles-style mire:

She seized a slender alder branch, which gave under her weight, and struggled to free her leg, but her other foot was now in the deadly grip of the morass. She pulled and jerked frantically, her front leg was now in up to the knee - the branch snapped and she fell forward, wildly clutching at another tree. The sudden wrench freed her other foot, it came out with an oozy plop, but she had no time to place it carefully, and being already off her balance it came to rest beside the first. With a wicked gurgle the green slime closed about that too.

Simply terrific stuff!