By Film Historian Andrew Roberts MA PhD FRSA
In the 1950s and 1960s, the names of Harry Lee and Edward J. Danziger were synonymous with films and television programmes that seemed to revel in their low budgets. Gerry Anderson recalled the Brothers’ favourite saying was ‘we’ll sell it by the pound’. On the 7th of July 1960, Kine Weekly reported, ‘The Danzigers are aware of the criticisms in some quarters of the quality of their productions. Says Harry Danziger: “What is a successful British series? One that gets the biggest worldwide sales or one that doesn’t?”’.
Edward was born in New York in 1909 and Harry Lee in 1913. Their initial involvement with the film industry was a sound studio in their home city, and by 1949, they had moved towards production. They made the TV series Calling Scotland Yard four years later at London’s Riverside Studios. Paul Douglas hosted the programme, and he flew in from Los Angeles and shot 26 introductions and epilogues for the 13 episodes in one day, returning to the USA that evening. By dint of such economies, the Danzigers once found themselves with ten extra days of studio space, and their solution was to produce the world’s finest alien dominatrix film – 1954’s Devil Girl from Mars.
The pleasures of this remarkable picture are many and varied, from the robot “Chani” (a cunning fusion of a disused BP petrol pump and a cardboard box) to a Martian costume made from Latex, thanks to the Danzigers’ deal with the brand’s UK supplier. Then there is the truly magnificent performance of Patricia Laffan, even if her habit of declaiming ‘Your puny earth men!’ eerily anticipates Margaret Thatcher’s Party-Political Broadcasts some twenty-five years later. Yet, Devil Girl was atypical of the Brothers’ output as the bulk of their epics tended to have the following ingredients:
- The dashing hero.
- A police car – two, if the director felt wildly ambitious.
- Civilian cars used from production to production.
- Villains who displayed their caddishness on a regular basis.
- “International Locations” with a remarkable similarity to the Home Counties.
- “The Inspector”, whose purpose was to smoke a pipe and ask our hero: ‘But how did you find that vital clue?’
- Various props acquired second-hand by the Brothers from other studios. These would shape the screenplay – Brian Clemens, the future creator of The Avengers, said of his time with The Danzigers, ‘I was told to write a script, but it must include a submarine, a nightclub and a hotel as they had standing sets they needed to reuse.’
The Brothers made their first British works in Riverside, MGM, and Shepperton attempting to lease Twickenham and acquire Beaconsfield. However, in 1955 they initiated the construction of New Elstree Studios, a former aircraft engine testing factory. It opened on the 15th of March 1956, and Harry later informed the trade press that ‘ours is a commercial operation. We know the business and have no time for amateurs.’ One director, Ernie Morris, noted ‘It was all about shooting fast, and you were told off if you wasted film on more than one take for each scene. The actors were told if they forgot a line to ad-lib and it would be put right in the editing stage.’ Many productions were crime dramas, but the Brothers also produced comedies, Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, and The Nudist Story at the end of the 1950s – the star of the latter was second-feature stalwart Anthony Oliver, giving his standard second-feature performance (only without any clothes). Even better, Brian Cobby, the future voice of “The Speaking Clock”, portrays another camper, and the result is incredibly British, with much pipe-smoking.
The average budget for a Danziger B-feature ranged from £15,000 to £17,500, and Geoffrey Helman, a New Elstree assistant director, remembered shooting a film in just two weeks: ‘However, very occasionally, if we were behind schedule, the front office would issue an instruction to the director to rip out a page or two from the script!’ The Brothers were against attempts at “arty” photography and actors wearing a bow tie, as they believed this would create difficulties with sales to US television networks. In addition, fight scenes often consisted of a private eye/detective aiming a fist in the vague direction of his opponent, and the closing credits would sometimes assign the wrong name to a cast member. Pete Murray had the memorable experience of starring in a Danziger gangster film. One gun-shooting sequence took place in Watford High Street, and the actor ‘wondered why they were in such a rush to film it on the day. Later I found out they had no permission from the council or the police, so the real-life shoppers had no idea.’
However, New Elstree productions frequently benefited from casts including Gordon Jackson, Dick Emery, Peter Butterworth, Kenneth J. Warren, Anton Rogers, Honor Blackman, Bernard Bresslaw, Angela Douglas, and a very young Dennis Waterman. Ferdy Mayne was a delightful villain, Colin Tapley regularly appeared as a CID officer, and Harold Lang was a memorably serpentine criminal. Christopher Lee once observed ‘They never worried whether you were right for the role, just whether you were available and worked cheap.’ Several productions feature the menacing Denis Shaw, and another familiar face was the Australian Vincent Ball. He later reflected, ‘Doing a Danziger really was the end of the line, but I had a wife and kids and a mortgage to pay.’ Joseph Losey was once a Danziger script editor, and Nicolas Roeg operated the camera on The Great Van Robbery. Michael Winner worked on the second unit of Saber of London, and a part-time skiffle band musician named Terence Nelhams was a cutting-room assistant before becoming known as “Adam Faith”.
In addition to producing over 140 films, the Brothers also made six television series: Calling Scotland Yard, The Vise, Mark Saber, The Man From Interpol, The Cheaters and Richard The Lionheart. In 1960, Kine Weekly pointed out they were the only people who consistently and successfully sold British television films on the American networks. Unfortunately, there was a downturn in the US market at the beginning of the 1960s, and the Danzigers’ last picture completed production in December of 1961. Harry told a journalist, ‘Eddie and I have been in show-business all our lives. We are not saying goodbye to films and television, but it will be long au revoir until conditions alter in favour of the independent producer.’
In 1965, RTZ Metals bought the New Elstree Studio buildings as a warehouse. Yet, the Danzigers’ epics continued to be fondly remembered by countless enthusiasts, who greatly appreciated the sometimes Ortonesque dialogue and nightclubs populated by approximately four extras. Harry once complained to Kine Weekly that ‘we have to take the sort of critical beating that should be reserved for producers whose films cost ten or twelve times as much as ours.’ The best of New Elstree’s works often reflected the Brothers’ ethos, which the actor Robert Arden described as ‘get the work done but enjoy it’, and the film historian Brian McFarlane also made the critical point that British second’s features often presented ‘a low-key reflection of contemporary mores, undistorted by personal vision, and of the prevailing norms of cinematic practice.’
The Danzigers’ final detective series was The Cheaters, with John Ireland as a heroic insurance claims investigator for Eastern Insurance. While other members of his profession may have dealt with reams of paperwork and spent their evenings listening to the BBC Home Service, “John Hunter” has a Canadian accent, dynamic sideburns and investigates crimes as much as filing reports. He often arrives in the nick of time in his trusty Standard Vanguard Vignale, accompanied by Bill Le Sage’s vibraphone music. Robert Ayres, a Michigan-born actor long-established in the UK, played his boss “Walter Allen”, and the easy rapport of the two leads is a highlight of the 39 stories.
If one had to select an episode, it would be The Legacy, for its direction by John Llewellyn Moxey and excellent contributions from Peter Butterworth, Ann Lynn and Francis Matthews. The second-named is one of the gems of British cinema, and Matthews was a brilliantly versatile performer equally at ease with Cary Grant style light comedy, Morecambe & Wise, and outright villainy. And, had the Brothers found some incredibly tempting bargains from sales at Pinewood and Shepperton that week, this edition of The Cheaters might also have contained the following lines:
Walter: John, I’ve just had a call from the local nuclear power plant. The office manager’s secretary has been forging documents while dressed as the Devil Girl from Mars. And she is also an expert with a longbow and a keen tap-dancer.
John: A tough assignment, Boss. Do I have time to show the camera my handsome profile?
Walter: Not really, as you will have to parachute into the main compound.
John: I am on my way, Boss. Let us hope the stock footage of WW2 paratroopers does not arrive there before me.
Cue the vibraphones.