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Vorhaus, Bernard (1904-2000)

Director, Writer, Producer

Main image of Vorhaus, Bernard (1904-2000)

Bernard Vorhaus brought an outsider's eye, an American pace, and a distinctive feel for the cinema medium to his work in Britain. Toiling as a director in the 'quota quickie' field in the 1930s, he quickly made his mark in the industry; resurrected fifty years later, his films struck home with another generation, happy to find signs of life in a corner of British cinema often thought a graveyard. Like Michael Powell, another 'quickie' director, Vorhaus showed that with a lively imagination even the most recalcitrant script could be turned into genuine cinema, rather than dialogue with illustrations tacked on.

He was born in New York City on 25 December 1904 into a prosperous immigrant family. Childhood visits to the Fort Lee studios in New Jersey with his elder sister Amy, a scenario writer, sparked his interest in the medium. By the 1920s he was a writer himself, working in Hollywood for Columbia and Fox; among other tasks he ghost-wrote Fox's intensely romantic box-office hit Seventh Heaven (US, 1927). He moved into direction with a silent two-reel drama, Sunlight (US, 1928), lost from sight in the excitement of talking pictures.

With no work looming, Vorhaus came to England for a holiday in 1929. He stayed for eight years. The talkie bedlam gave him a niche at Wembley as production supervisor for British Sound Film Productions. When the company collapsed, Vorhaus re-edited some of its variety shorts into Camera Cocktails, and proceeded to his first feature, On Thin Ice (1933), a society thriller, indifferently received, now a lost film. With Money for Speed (1933), Vorhaus displayed more individuality, building his romantic triangle around the thrills of speedway racing, energetically shot on location. His editor was another industry newcomer, David Lean.

Subsequently, Vorhaus chiefly worked for producer Julius Hagen at Twickenham Studios, the factory for many quota productions, turned out on lowly budgets on two-week shooting schedules. His first task was The Ghost Camera (1933). Much in the story was mundane, though there is some risqué fun in a country guesthouse between hesitant hero Henry Kendall and spirited heroine Ida Lupino. Vorhaus refused to settle for commonplace images, breaking up the courtroom climax with a subjective, lurching camera, intercutting a crescendo of close-ups as the judge lays out the murder evidence. In his next film, Crime on the Hill (1933), Vorhaus spiced up a standard country-house murder yarn with irony, lively characterisations, and in the case of actress Sally Blane intimations of the erotic.

Not every assignment could be saved by Vorhaus's nimble handling. Alongside the pliable West End actors hired for the films - Lewis Casson, John Mills, Henry Kendall, among others - there was John Garrick, an actor-singer of unbending mien, who counteracts Vorhaus's creative efforts in Street Song (1935) and The Broken Melody (1934). Sometimes scripts arrived with their own limitations; another lost film, Ten Minute Alibi (1935), suffered especially, in Vorhaus's view, from its stage play straitjacket. The writers of The Broken Melody - in which a composer (the oleaginous Garrick) imprisoned on Devil's Island after a crime of passion, escapes and writes an opera about it all - perhaps needed a straitjacket of their own.

In one film particularly, The Last Journey (1935), material and method, style and substance, fused together with exhilarating results. This film had to move fast: it was set on a runaway train hurtling towards destruction at the hands of a driver facing retirement, tormented by jealousy. As in Money for Speed, Vorhaus wanted real thrills and spills, not studio mock-ups; the location shooting and fast cutting generated a level of excitement far beyond the British norm. The basic plot was banal, but Vorhaus's presentation kept the train and its passengers jostling happily. The crazed driver, the bigamist and his new acquisition, two fleeing crooks, the detective in disguise, the doughty stoker on the footplate, the handy brain specialist: Vorhaus stamped them all with humanising quirks and avoided cardboard caricatures. For a low-budget supporting feature, The Last Journey made a considerable impact. Dark World (1935), a more lurid thriller, made for Fox-British, also received strong reviews; unfortunately this is another lost film.

By this time Hagen's ambitions were rising. A lavish remake of Griffith's Broken Blossoms was mounted at Twickenham in 1935, directed by Hans (later John) Brahm; Vorhaus served as technical supervisor. His next venture as director, Dusty Ermine (1936), was another beneficiary of Hagen's largesse: a theatre thriller about counterfeiters, it was opened out to embrace extensive location work in the Swiss Alps. Vorhaus gave the play a vigorous shake, adding an eccentric role for newcomer Margaret Rutherford, and filled the screen with striking images whenever the characters took to their skis.

Hagen's financial difficulties deepened in 1936. Vorhaus's last British film, Cotton Queen, an uncongenial North Country comedy, was made for the American producer Joe Rock. Out of work, and out of pocket, Vorhaus accepted an offer from Herbert J. Yates, president of Republic Pictures, and returned to America. He joined Hollywood's assembly line, tackling motley medium-budget projects, and sharpening his left-wing sympathies on the Spanish Civil War. Resuming feature film-making after the Second World War, he ventured into independent production, and found some success with So Young So Bad (1950), an earnest drama about delinquent girls, before HUAC and the anti-Communist witch-hunts drove him into exile.

He returned to England in 1951, but unlike fellow exiles Joseph Losey and Cy Endfield chose to retreat from the industry. He developed a flat conversion business in London, Domar Properties, and lived long enough to relive his past achievements when his career as one of the brightest, least British of British directors was rediscovered in the 1980s. He died in Tooting, south London on 23 November 2000.

Angelini, Sergio, 'The Archive Presents... A Tribute to Bernard Vorhaus', National Film Theatre Programme, March 2001, pp. 46-7
Brown, Geoff, 'Vorhaus: A Director Rediscovered' in Sight and Sound, Winter 1986/7, pp. 40-43
Brown, Geoff, 'Money for Speed: The British Films of Bernard Vorhaus' in Jeffrey Richards (ed.), The Unknown 1930s: An alternative history of the British Cinema, 1929-1939 (London: I. B. Tauris, 1998)
Eyles, Allen, and Meeker, David, Missing Believed Lost. The Great British Film Search (London: BFI Publishing, 1992)
Vorhaus, Bernard, Saved from Oblivion. An Autobiography (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2000)

Geoff Brown, Directors in British and Irish Cinema

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Selected credits

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 Ghost Camera, The (1933)Ghost Camera, The (1933)

Lively, inventive low-budget thriller about a camera holding a vital clue

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

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

Thumbnail image of Money for Speed (1933)Money for Speed (1933)

Stirring 'quota quickie' about love and speedway rivalry

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Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Lean, David (1908-1991)Lean, David (1908-1991)

Director, Writer, Editor