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Harris, Jack (1905-1971)


Main image of Harris, Jack (1905-1971)

With the partial exception of David Lean, Jack Harris was regarded by many of his peers as the doyen of British film editors between the 1930s and 50s. His career stretched back to 1921, when he joined the original Shepherd's Bush Gaumont Studios. By the end of the decade he was working as assistant director to Maurice Elvey and Victor Saville.

It was not until the coming of sound that Harris settled into editing at Twickenham Studios. There he became the prime example of an editor able to work wonders with quota quickies. He kept up with the furious speed of production despite being, in Richard Best's words, a meticulously 'slow thinker' who would scrutinise material intensely before making his cuts. David Lean, shortly after he became a director, moved quickly to secure Harris' services, beginning with This Happy Breed (1944). After a brief stint in the late 1940s as a supervising editor at Pinewood, the final two decades of Harris' career included a number of films at Ealing Studios, including Where No Vultures Fly (d. Harry Watt, 1951), The Ladykillers (d. Alexander Mackendrick, 1955), and various Hollywood-financed British productions.

Two of many examples which could be cited of Harris adding distinction to his 1930s films are: several carefully timed series of close-ups of women at a tea party inadvertently drunk on vodka in the Ivor Novello vehicle I Lived with You (d. Maurice Elvey, 1933); dynamic inter-cutting and matching on action which enlivens the otherwise quite static opening section of the Tod Slaughter 'melodrama of the old school' The Face at the Window (d. George King, 1939).

The care and thought Harris put into his work is evident from the brief sections he wrote for Karel Reisz's book The Technique of Film Editing. He discusses how he introduced variation and interest into the editing of one of several motorcycle racing sequences in Once a Jolly Swagman (d. Jack Lee, 1948). Harris also discusses the famous opening of Great Expectations (1946), but the extent to which he derived creative satisfaction from working on the prestigious, carefully planned projects directed by former editor David Lean is open to debate. Kevin Brownlow quotes Harris as feeling somewhat stifled by the time of this fourth collaboration with Lean: "I'm getting a bit tired of cutting off the number boards".

Harris edited in a classical style insofar as he disliked virtuosity for its own sake. He claimed to be "completely unaffected by fashionable views or mere technical brilliance". The biggest influences on him were the "utter ruthlessness" of the editing in the early comedies directed by Frank Capra, and editor Duncan Mansfield's work on The Front Page (US, 1931). As his comments about Great Expectations suggest, Harris believed editors should be intelligent, creative agents: "the technician with nothing to say is... the man most to avoid." He experienced high-pressure, low-budget studio production at Twickenham and a nascent form of independent production with Lean at Cineguild when this company was granted considerable autonomy under Rank's Independent Producers initiative. As a pragmatic, seasoned professional, Harris saw the merits of both approaches. He believed producers should retain final say over the editing of standard commercial films but that 'creative' directors should be given more freedom.

Roy Perkins/Martin Stollery, British Film Editors: The Heart of the Movie (BFI Publishing, 2004)

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Blithe Spirit (1945)Blithe Spirit (1945)

Noël Coward comedy about a ghost who won't stay still

Thumbnail image of Brief Encounter (1945)Brief Encounter (1945)

Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson start a great British romance

Thumbnail image of Broken Blossoms (1936)Broken Blossoms (1936)

A Chinese immigrant finds love in the slums of London's East End

Thumbnail image of Face at the Window, The (1939)Face at the Window, The (1939)

A man falsely accused of murder seeks to solve the mystery himself

Thumbnail image of Great Expectations (1946)Great Expectations (1946)

David Lean's definitive Dickens adaptation

Thumbnail image of Ladykillers, The (1955)Ladykillers, The (1955)

A gang of ruthless criminals meet their match in the elderly Mrs Wilberforce

Thumbnail image of Last Journey, The (1935)Last Journey, The (1935)

Exciting, highly-praised 'quota quickie' thriller by Bernard Vorhaus

Thumbnail image of Oliver Twist (1948)Oliver Twist (1948)

David Lean's definitive version of Charles Dickens' classic novel

Thumbnail image of Sammy Going South (1963)Sammy Going South (1963)

Alexander Mackendrick's film of a young boy's epic journey across Africa

Thumbnail image of This Happy Breed (1944)This Happy Breed (1944)

David Lean/Noël Coward film about a London family between the wars

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