May 26, 2008
Captured in oils by the great Basil Gogos on a cover of Famous Monsters, Peter Cushing was born on this day, May 26, in 1913.
In 1956, Cushing was at the peak of his powers. Stage-struck at an early age, he already had over 25 years of distinguished work in the theater under his belt. His award-winning live performances in the new medium of television made him immensely popular in Great Britain. Upon hearing that a small studio, Hammer Films, was preparing a new version of Frankenstein, Cushing asked his agent, John Redway, to suggest him for the part of the Baron.
With the phenomenal success of The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Cushing film career was launched. He would become one of the great horror film stars, playing a wide range of parts, sinister or heroic. He essayed the sinister Baron Frankenstein in six fascinating films.
Much earlier, as a fledgling actor in 1939, Cushing’s first brush with the cinema had an interesting Frankenstein connection to it. The young Cushing had boldly set out for Hollywood, half a world away from his native England. He was promptly hired to work with Louis Hayward in The Man in the Iron Mask.
Heyward played twins, interacting with himself through special effects. It was Cushing who played opposite Heyward in these scenes, his work to be discarded after the split-screen process was assembled. Cushing was rewarded with a small onscreen part. The director of the film was none other than James Whale. Barely four years after making his masterpiece, The Bride of Frankenstein, Whale was directing the actor who would one day become the busiest Doctor Frankenstein of them all.
Another interesting meeting occurred shortly thereafter, when Cushing was invited to play a game of cricket with a team of British expats that included another Dr. Frankenstein, Basil Rathbone, and the master Monster himself, Boris Karloff.
Cushing’s Hollywood adventure ended when, patriotically moved to “do his bit” for the war effort, and admittedly “desperately homesick”, he decided to return home, hopping cross country to the East coast.
I was fascinated to learn that Cushing stopped briefly in my hometown, Montreal, lodging and working nights at the YMCA and taking a job as an usher at the Loews Theater. Where Cushing stayed exactly is not known, as there were several YMCA buildings downtown, but I’d like to think he might have stopped in at the one in Old Montreal, the first WMCA in North America, circa 1851, a fabulous building still standing and converted into a boutique hotel.
Cushing, writing in his 1986 autobiography, tells a funny story about picking up some film work in Montreal as a prop builder, fabricating rising sun and swastika flags for the British film The 49th Parallel, partially shot in Québec. Discovering the enemy insignia, an alarmed chambermaid caused Cushing to be arrested as an axis spy by the Mounties. The problem with the anecdote is that Powell and Pressburger’s epic was finished and released a year earlier, in 1941. Perhaps additional scenes were shot, or Cushing’s contributions were for promotional purposes but, as things stand, the dates don’t jibe.
As for the Loews where Cushing ushered, it was built in 1917 as Canada’s biggest, grandest movie and vaudeville house. Designed by Scots-born New Yorker Thomas Lamb, considered the greatest of all the theater architects, it answered the plaster opulence and flashy faux marble of its competitors with real Botticini marble stairs, vast frescoes, grandiose promenades and a unique elliptical mezzanine. Will Rogers, Red Skelton and Milton Berle were regular performers there. Groucho Marx fondly recalled honing his craft at the Loews, and joked about picking up a disease in that great sin city up north.
Come the sixties, I remember walking the Loews’ grandiose corridor to the cavernous lobby and down the swooshing staircase to the 2800 seat auditorium, glowing with dark blue lights, like an underwater palace. As a teenager, I saw the early James Bond movies there and Cushing himself in the upscale Hammer spectacle She (1965). I wonder if, decked out in his “bum freezer” uniform, escorting patrons to their seats in 1942, Cushing ever imagined himself giant size, up there on that screen.Cushing returned to Montreal as a movie star 35 years later to shoot The Uncanny in which the character he plays meets his death on a frozen sidewalk. Appropriately, the Québécois title for the film was “Brrr”. The same year, 1977, Cushing signed one of his most famous roles as the galactically evil Grand Moff Tarkin — He even bosses Darth Vader around! — in Star Wars. Director George Lucas mostly shot the actor from the waist up, allowing him to swap his rigid leather jackboots for a pair of comfortable carpet slippers.
Cushing’s last hurrah was co-narrating — with his friend Christopher Lee — the comprehensive Hammer Films history Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror, written and directed by Ted Newsom. The documentary was broadcast on the BBC in two parts, on consecutive weekends, in August 1994. Cushing passed away that very week, between the two broadcasts, on August eleven.
The photograph from Man in the Iron Mask and biographical notes found in Peter Cushing's two autobiographies, collected together as An Autobiography and Past Forgetting, highly recommended, from Midnight Marquee Press.
Photo of the Loews theater from Montreal Movie Palaces: Great Theatres of the Golden Era, 1884-1938, by Dane Lanken (1993).
Holger Hass posts twelve wonderful watercolors by Peter Cushing on his Hammer and Beyond blog.