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Cornelius, Henry (1913-1958)

Director, Producer, Writer

Main image of Cornelius, Henry (1913-1958)

Henry Cornelius was born in Cape Town, into a South African German-Jewish family, on 18 August 1913. While he was still young his family moved back to Berlin, where at the age of 18 he was accepted to study acting and theatrical production with Max Reinhardt. Before he was 20 he was producing plays at Berlin's Schiller Theatre, but he quit Germany with the advent of the Nazis and moved to Paris, where he worked as a journalist and made his entry into the film industry as an assistant editor at the Studios de Montrouge. From there he moved on to London, where René Clair was about to start work on The Ghost Goes West for Alexander Korda. Clair wanted a French-speaking assistant editor, "inexperienced enough to take instead of giving advice"; Cornelius fitted the bill perfectly.

Cornelius remained with Korda for the next four years. He was promoted to editor on Men Are Not Gods (d. Walter Reisch, 1936), and also worked on Forget Me Not (d. Zoltan Korda, 1936), The Drum (d. Zoltan Korda, 1938), The Four Feathers (d. Zoltan Korda, 1939) and The Lion Has Wings (d. Michael Powell/Adrian Brunel/Brian Desmond Hurst, 1939). In 1939 he briefly joined Alberto Cavalcanti at the GPO Film Unit, then went back to his native country to become Deputy Director of the Film Section of the South African government's Propaganda Unit. In this capacity he wrote, produced, directed and edited some fifteen propaganda shorts. He returned to Britain in 1943 and at Cavalcanti's suggestion joined Ealing Studios as an associate producer (producer, in effect, at this studio).

Cornelius's first assignment was the drama-documentary, Painted Boats (1945), directed by Charles Crichton. He went on to produce two key Ealing movies: Hue and Cry (1946), again for Crichton, the first of the true 'Ealing comedies', and Robert Hamer's poetic-realism-influenced East End drama It Always Rains on Sunday (1947). The success of these persuaded Michael Balcon to let Cornelius try his hand at directing a feature. Passport to Pimlico (1949), in which the London district of Pimlico declares independence from Britain and shrugs off post-war controls, has become one of the most fondly-remembered of the Ealing comedies, a classic example of Balcon's "mild revolution". But to Balcon's dismay the shoot went seriously over-schedule and over-budget, not wholly through Cornelius's fault; the action, set during the summer of 1947, one of the driest on record, was shot during the summer of 1948, one of the wettest.

Still, Passport easily recouped its cost, giving Ealing one of its biggest box-office hits. On the strength of it Cornelius demanded a raise, never a wise tactic with the frugal Balcon; he was turned down flat, and promptly quit the studio. Together with another Ealing alumnus, the publicist-turned-producer Monja Danischewsky, he formed a production company, Sirius. Their first production, The Galloping Major (1951), was a sub-Ealing comedy about an ex-Army officer who bands together with friends and neighbours to buy a racehorse. Returns were unimpressive, and Danischewsky quit the company to return to Ealing. Cornelius, thinking to follow his example, offered his next project to Balcon; but the manner of his departure still rankled, and Balcon declined the offer. As a result, 'the most Ealing film not made by Ealing' was produced by the Rank Organisation.

Genevieve (1953), a comedy about two rival males - and their long-suffering females - taking part in the London to Brighton Veteran Cars rally, was scripted by William Rose, an American-born writer with a wry eye for British foibles. He went on to script, inter alia, Alexander Mackendrick's The Maggie (1954) and The Ladykillers (1955), and Basil Dearden's The Smallest Show on Earth (1957). Cornelius conceived Genevieve as a character-centred film, "an English equivalent of [Jacques Becker's] Edouard et Caroline". Initial omens for the film were not promising: it was shot with a disgruntled cast under conditions of some discomfort, and once finished was loathed by John Davis, the autocratic Chief Executive of Rank, who pronounced it too bad to distribute and wanted it shelved. Only Cornelius's persistence rescued it from limbo. When finally released, Genevieve met with overwhelming enthusiasm from critics and public, and went on to become one of the most profitable films in the history of the Rank Organisation. The second leads, Kenneth More and Kay Kendall, stole the picture from its stars, John Gregson and Dinah Sheridan, and Larry Adler's perky harmonica score stole it from all of them.

On the strength of this triumph, Cornelius seemed poised to become one of the foremost British directors. But ill-health was hampering his career, and he directed only two more films. I Am a Camera (1955) was a double adaptation, taken from the Broadway play by John Van Druten, itself adapted from Christopher Isherwood's Berlin novels, Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin. The material - which later provided the basis for Kander and Ebb's smash-hit musical Cabaret - was heavily bowdlerised, and the film showed scant sense of period style. It was further encumbered by Laurence Harvey, disastrously miscast as Herr Issyvoo. Isherwood himself described it as "a truly shocking and disgraceful mess", and the US critic Walter Kerr dismissed it with the immortal crack, "Me no Leica".

Cornelius's last film, which he himself scripted from a short story by Paul Gallico, was Next to No Time (1958), a flaccidly whimsical comedy about a mild-mannered engineer (played by Kenneth More) on a transatlantic liner. Learning that each day on board gains a 'lost hour' to compensate for the change in time zones, he's emboldened to change his life and achieve his ambitions. By the time the film was released Cornelius had succumbed to his illness. He died in London on 2 May 1958.

Barr, Charles, Ealing Studios (London/Newton Abbot: Cameron & Tayleur/David & Charles, 1977)
de la Roche, Catherine, 'The Independent', Films & Filming, Feb. 1955, pp. 11, 30

Philip Kemp, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Drum, The (1938)Drum, The (1938)

London Films' first Technicolor feature, a stirring Empire epic

Thumbnail image of Four Feathers, The (1939)Four Feathers, The (1939)

Lavish Technicolor costume epic about an alleged coward fighting in the Sudan

Thumbnail image of Genevieve (1953)Genevieve (1953)

Cheerful light comedy set against the London to Brighton car rally

Thumbnail image of Hue and Cry (1947)Hue and Cry (1947)

First of the postwar Ealing comedies: a joyous boy's own romp

Thumbnail image of It Always Rains On Sunday (1947)It Always Rains On Sunday (1947)

Robert Hamer's bleak portrait of life in London's East End

Thumbnail image of Men Are Not Gods (1936)Men Are Not Gods (1936)

Romantic comedy melodrama inspired by Shakespeare's Othello

Thumbnail image of Passport to Pimlico (1949)Passport to Pimlico (1949)

Cherished comedy in which a Pimlico street declares its independence

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Eternal postwar comedies from 'the studio with team spirit'

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