Film Preview: Alec Guinness Films Galore at the Museum of Fine Arts

Not since the closing of Boston’s Exeter Street Theatre have so many of Alex Guinness’s classic films been available to be viewed on a local big screen.

The Films of Alec Guinness, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, January 7 through 15.

Alec Guinness as the six relatives who need to be removed (permanently) in "Kind Hearts and Coranets."

Alec Guinness as the eight relatives who need to be removed (permanently) in “Kind Hearts and Coronets.”

By Paul Dervis

What a fabulous cinematic opportunity the Museum of Fine Arts Boston is offering Boston audiences this week! They are showcasing seven films starring Alec Guinness‘s over an eight day period starting tomorrow. Not since the closing of the city’s Exeter Street Theatre (which would have turned 100 last year) have so many of these classic films been available to be viewed on a local big screen.

Director David Lean’s entries in the marathon are of particular interest. Lean’s images are gigantic and his stories are epic – they demand to be viewed on a large canvass. On January 10 you will have a couple of chances to take in Lawrence of Arabia, an expansive historical narrative that, with all its twists and turns, was made to overwhelm viewers. The settings are spectacular, the desert is massive, and the characters are larger than life. This film won seven Academy Awards in 1962, including ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Director’ for Lean.

The Bridge Over the River Kwai follows the next day, and it is one of the truly great films about war, offering a darkly comic vision of how men juggle the demands of survival and conscience. It took in seven Oscars in 1957, with Guinness winning ‘Best Actor.’

Also on January 11 there’s an opportunity to appreciate an early collaboration between Lean and Guinness, Oliver Twist. Guinness shines in this version of Dickens, portraying a complex Fagin, a brutal villain who is also surprisingly delicate. Oliver Twist firmly established Lean as a brilliant interpreter of Dickens on celluloid. It was a follow-up to his critically acclaimed film version of Great Expectations, which featured Guinness in a small role.

The MFA is also showcasing four of Guinness’s smaller, very British films of the late ’40s to the mid-’50s. Anyone old enough to remember the Exeter Street Theatre (which closed in 1984) will surely remember these delightful movies…they played there often.

The series opens up January 7 with Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), an indelibly sardonic take on inheritance and murder. There are eight heirs in line ahead of Louis for the family fortune and they all need to be knocked off if he is going to become rich. The splendidly amusing twist in this film is all eight relatives that need to be rubbed out are played by Guinness. This one-man band concept has been attempted in many films since this one, but I dare say Kind Hearts and Coronets is the original…and it remains the best of the lot.

Also playing on the festival’s opening day is The Lavender Hill Mob. This 1951 film garnered Guinness an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a milquetoast bank clerk who gets himself involved in a robbery involving gold bullion.

On January 8, the MFA is screening two comedies Guinness did in collaboration with the talented director Alexander Mackendrick: 1951’s The Man in the White Suit and 1955’s The Ladykillers. In the former, Guinness plays an inventor who is endangered after he develops a ‘miracle’ fabric that never needs to be cleaned and is seemingly indestructible. In latter, he plays a leader of a bumbling band of criminals who find that they have to do away with the landlady of their rooming house because she might have seen too much. Katie Johnson, in her seventh decade of performing, does a marvellous job as the innocent-to-the-max homeowner.

Now, if only the Museum of Fine Arts decides to offer the complete Margaret Rutherford/Miss Marple series…

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

1 Comment

  1. Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on January 6, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Far more valuable than a MFA gathering of Margaret Rutherford’s Miss Marple films (which screen on cable’s Turner Classic Movies often) would be a festival dedicated to the comic genius of Alastair Sim (1900-1976). (Guinness is on record saying that his performance in The Ladykillers was inspired by Sim’s turn in Dulcimer Street.) To the latter film add Green for Danger, The Green Man, An Inspector Calls, the marvelously goofy Wee Geordie, and the definitive Christmas Carol and you would have terrific showcase for an overlooked talent.

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