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Mason, James (1909-1984)


Main image of Mason, James (1909-1984)

One of the greatest of all British male stars, tall, dark and saturnine James Mason began as a stage actor after reading architecture at Cambridge, making his professional debut with a rep company in Croydon before being taken on by Tyrone Guthrie at the Old Vic in 1933 to play a useful range of roles.

He entered films with 1935's newspaper thriller, Late Extra (d. Albert Parker), and, once his film career gathered momentum, he rarely appeared on the stage again, with a 1954 season at Stratford, Ontario, as exception. He owed his film start to the legendary American, UK-based agent, Al Parker, who 'discovered' him in 1935 and represented him till he, Parker, died, after which his widow, Margaret Johnston, took over the agency and Mason.

In the 1930s he made about a dozen mostly forgotten films, though given a chance to glower handsomely in, say, The Mill on the Floss (d. Tim Whelan, 1937), or to be the heroine's sensitive protector in Hatter's Castle (d. Lance Comfort, 1941).

It was when he took a riding crop to wicked Margaret Lockwood in The Man in Grey (d. Leslie Arliss, 1943) that he became Everywoman's favourite brute: he persecuted Phyllis Calvert in Fanny by Gaslight (d. Anthony Asquith, 1944); drove Dulcie Gray to drink and suicide in They Were Sisters (d. Arthur Crabtree, 1945); smashed his walking stick over Ann Todd's piano-playing fingers in The Seventh Veil (d. Compton Bennett, 1945); and, as a highwayman, fell in with The Wicked Lady (d. Leslie Arliss, 1945), Lockwood again.

These skilful studies in sexy sadism made him a huge box-office draw, though, when he played the character role of the retired draper in A Place of One's Own (d. Bernard Knowles, 1945), his subtlest work to date, the fans were less interested. Postwar, he gave, in Odd Man Out (d. Carol Reed, 1947), what may be his greatest performance, as a wounded gunman (IRA, though not named) pursued relentlessly through the night-time city to his inevitable end. This is work of tragic stature.

At this point, Mason embarked on the American phase of his stardom, attracting a lot of chauvinistic British criticism for doing so, and for a while the received wisdom was with the Picturegoer scribe who wrote (1950): "Certainly, James does not seem to be advancing his professional career in Hollywood". An auteurist decade later, his work for Max Ophuls in Caught (1948) and The Reckless Moment (1949) and Vincente Minnelli in Madame Bovary (1949) would be accorded new respect.

He did some fine work in Hollywood, including Rommel in The Desert Fox (US, d. Henry Hathaway, 1951), a troubled Brutus in Julius Caesar (US, d. Joseph L.Mankiewicz, 1953) and the tragically doomed Norman Maine in A Star Is Born (US, d. George Cukor, 1954), but it was as if he had turned his back on the easy stardom he had won in Britain in favour of becoming one of the world's best character actors.

He spent most of the 1950s in US films and would continue to live in America, making sorties to Britain. He was a miraculously cast Humbert in Kubrick's Lolita (1961), made witty sport of John Mills's up-from-the-ranks colonel in Tiara Tahiti (d. Ted Kotcheff, 1962), was compellingly vindictive in The Pumpkin Eater (d. Jack Clayton, 1964), humanised a bullying patriarch in Spring and Port Wine (d. Peter Hammond, 1969), gave significance to the clever, hothouse trash of Mandingo (US, d. Richard Fleischer, 1975), was a heart-breaking Cyril Sahib in the Merchant-Ivory masterpiece Autobiography of a Princess (1975), made sense of Dr Watson in Murder by Decree (UK/Canada, d. Bob Clark, 1978), and grieved one to watch as the decent, troubled landowner in his last British film, The Shooting Party (d. Alan Bridges, 1984). Anyone who makes over 100 films is inevitably going to be associated with some rubbish; Mason's achievement is, partly, that one wouldn't think of attributing the blame to him.

He married (1941-64) Pamela Kellino, journalist and semi-actress, and mother of one-time aspiring actress Portland Mason and producer Morgan Mason, and Australian actress Clarissa Kaye (1971, till his death).

Further reading
Mason, James, Before I Forget: Autobiography and Drawings (Hamish Hamilton, 1981)
Morley, Sheridan, James Mason: Odd Man Out (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989)
Sweeney, Kevin, James Mason: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press, 1999)
William Evans, Peter, 'James Mason: The Man Between', in Babington, Bruce (ed), British Stars and Stardom (Manchester University Press, 2001).

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Cinema

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Bells Go Down, The (1943)Bells Go Down, The (1943)

Stirring film about the Fire Services in Blitz-torn London

Thumbnail image of Fanny By Gaslight (1944)Fanny By Gaslight (1944)

Costume melodrama about a Cabinet minister's illegitimate daughter

Thumbnail image of Great Expectations (1975)Great Expectations (1975)

Michael York stars as Pip in the first colour version of Dickens' classic novel

Thumbnail image of Man in Grey, The (1943)Man in Grey, The (1943)

Melodrama about two girls whose fortunes run on very different paths

Thumbnail image of Odd Man Out (1947)Odd Man Out (1947)

A wounded Republican gunman dodges police on Belfast's streets

Thumbnail image of Pumpkin Eater, The (1964)Pumpkin Eater, The (1964)

Fascinating, underrated study of a troubled marriage

Thumbnail image of Seventh Veil, The (1945)Seventh Veil, The (1945)

Melodrama starring James Mason as a young pianist's obsessive guardian

Thumbnail image of They Were Sisters (1945)They Were Sisters (1945)

James Mason drives his wife to drink as her horrified sisters look on

Thumbnail image of Wicked Lady, The (1945)Wicked Lady, The (1945)

A bored Margaret Lockwood finds fulfilment through highway robbery

Thumbnail image of Jesus of Nazareth (1977)Jesus of Nazareth (1977)

Robert Powell plays Jesus Christ in Franco Zeffirelli's famous miniseries

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1940s costume dramas for a newly independent female audience

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