Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The Stars Look Down

It is 40 years today since the death of the Scottish writer A. J. Cronin. One of his best books - The Stars Look Down - was turned into a great British movie, produced by Igee Goldsmith and directed by Carol Reed. As far as I know Cronin never kept a diary, but since Igee was my own grandfather and I am a great fan of the film and the book, I’d like to mark the anniversary with the only diary link to Cronin I can find - a couple of entries from my own diaries!

Cronin was born in 1896 in Cardross, the Scottish lowlands, but, after his father died, he grew up in Dumbarton. A first class sportsmen, he also excelled academically and - having served in the navy for a couple of years - graduated in medicine from Glasgow University in 1919. He married Agnes Mary Gibson in 1921, and they had three children.

Cronin’s first medical practice was in a Welsh mining town; and then, in 1924, he was appointed Medical Inspector of Mines for Great Britain. This work led him to publish reports on the links between coal dust inhalation and lung disease. He moved to a practice in Harley Street, London, before starting his own in Notting Hill. However, in 1930, illness forced him to take a break from work, and this allowed him time to write his first novel, Hatter’s Castle. It was such a publishing success that he never returned to medicine.

Subsequently, Cronin wrote about one novel each year in the 1930s; he then moved to the US, where he lived until the mid-1950s, with frequent visits to Europe, especially to Cap-d’Ail in southeast France. For the last 25 years of his life, though, he lived in Switzerland. He died in Montreux on 6 January 1981. More biographical details are available at Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica, and The Huffington Post has an article about Cronin’s move to Hollywood.

Cronin is probably best remembered today for creating Dr Finlay, the title character in a long-running TV series; and for his book The Citadel, also made into a film, which is said to have contributed to the establishment of the National Health Service in Great Britain by exposing the injustice and incompetence of medical practice at the time.

The Stars Look Down, published in 1935, is set in a fictional town in the northeast of England, and weaves a story around a coal mine and three men: a miner’s son who is studying to become a doctor; a miner who becomes a businessman; and the son of the mine owner. The film version was produced in 1940 by my grandfather Igee Goldsmith, who a few years earlier had fled from Germany having been placed on Hitler’s black list for importing socialist movies like All Quiet on the Western Front. Carol Reed, who went on to make The Third Man which is considered one of greatest British movies, directed The Stars Look Down; and the cast included several young actors who would go on to become famous: Michael Redgrave, Margaret Lockwood and Emlyn Williams.

Apart from being thoughtful and telling a great story, the film has thrilling scenes in which shaft constructions give way and the mine floods trapping a group of miners deep below the surface. There is a clear socialist message in the book and the film suggesting that such accidents were inevitable so long as the coal industry was run by a large number of small owners, rather than operated by the government within a nationalised industry. The famous American film critic Pauline Kael said of the film: ‘[It] has an understanding, an achieved beauty, that Carol Reed was never again able to sustain.’

Much as I would like to ramble on about Igee (and his second wife, Vera Caspary, who wrote the famous American novel Laura, also made into a film) I realise I have already strayed far enough from the main subject. Here, then, are the two entries in my own diary which refer to Cronin.

8 July 1987
‘. . . I should mention The Stars Look Down. I’m currently reading the novel and find a family called Todd (who do not appear in the film) which is of course my mother’s maiden name . . . And in this [fictional] family I find a Laura Todd and an Adam Todd - Laura and Adam being the very two names we are currently considering for our baby [to be born in the next couple of months]. A. J. Cronin’s book is divided into three books. Yesterday, as I approached the end of Book 1, an enormous thrill filled me for I realised the film was essentially only made from a fraction of the novel. The great disaster scene, which forms the film’s climax, so brilliantly done too, comes at the end of Book 1. A few sub-plots further on have been incorporated - David Fenwick’s discovery of his wife’s adultery, Joe Gowlan’s further rise in society, Fenwick’s dismissal from school. But with two-thirds of the book to go, I can look forward to considerable development and perhaps, just perhaps, a happy rather than a sad ending.’

19 December 1987
‘Cronin’s The Stars Look Down in many ways is a profoundly pessimistic novel. Satisfying in that it weaves the stories of many well drawn characters in and out of each other and in so doing creates a tapestry of the times, rich in colour and detail and action. But Cronin must have been deeply upset at the way British politics and society was moving. All the decent and upright characters find their life’s efforts rewarded by failure, while those who are greedy and even nasty do well. The heroes find some success in the world but Cronin tends to smash it down. The baddies are never more than incidental, but they succeed in the world. Cronin does not even make a very good job out of showing their nastiness and the consequences on the people around them. He has taken on a bitterness about the day’s politics and unleashes it through the novel. I remember discovering that the novel I’d had for years but never looked at contained two more parts than were filmed for the movie by my grandfather. How excited I felt to be able to learn more about the film’s characters, see them develop on and find some justice in the world. Clearly Goldsmith and director Carol Reed captured the mood of the entire book in the film even if they only used one-third of it.’

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