Mining Culture: The Welsh in Hollywood

It was too pleasant an afternoon not to be warming to it. The outdoors, I mean. Though all thumbs (and not one of them green), I nonetheless tried my hands at gardening again, transplanting English-grown Californian Lilac into Welsh soil. Unless deterred by the vagaries of what goes for “vernal” here in Wales, I shall probably spend more time tending to the plants than to this journal next week, when the storm-frayed and patched-up telephone lines to our house are scheduled to be cut down and replaced, a spring renewal of telecommunications during which service is likely to be suspended.

No internet, no landline, and no traffic along the already quiet lane leading to this hermitage I call home—it’s “a proper place for a murder.” That is how the setting of Night Must Fall was described when on this day, 27 March, in 1948, the famous and oft revived thriller by Welsh playwright Emlyn Williams was performed on the US radio thriller anthology Suspense.

Along with two members of the original (1935) London cast—Dame May Whitty (as Mrs. Bramson) and Matthew Boulton (as the inspector)—Robert Montgomery was heard in the role of Dan, the lady killer he had played in the 1937 film adaptation. As I realized after seeing it on stage, Night Must Fall is not your common crop of a crime melodrama. It goes beyond the question of whether or not the victim will die by asking us whether she ought to, by making us eager for the “must” of her demise and examine the decline and “fall” of our own civilized morality. As a psychological and ethical puzzler, it translates well into other languages and media.

Now, Night falls in Essex, England, rather than the wild west of Britain; but according to Williams’s stage directions, the character of “Baby-face” Dan “speaks with a rough accent” that, unlike Montgomery’s, is “more Welsh than anything else.” On Broadway as on the London stage, this “sort of Welsh” Dan (as his girlfriend describes him) was voiced by the very Welshman who created him. In an acting career spanning six decades, Williams was a frequent player in (mainly British) film, on stage and television; on US radio, he was heard in one of Norman Corwin’s plays for the United Nations. I recently spotted him in The Citadel (1938), his voice lending authenticity to the depiction of life in a Welsh mining town rendered unconvincing by the casting of Hollywood productions like John Ford’s Academy Award-winning How Green Was My Valley (another cinema classic I caught up with this year) or The Corn Is Green. The latter is based on an autobiographical play by Williams; but with stars like Bette Davis (on screen) and Claudette Colbert (on radio, nearly a decade later) taking on the role of a Welsh schoolteacher, it is the audience who is expected to be green.

Having lived in this country for well over two years now, I am all ears for representations and representatives of Wales in popular culture, whether in British cinema or American radio drama. What remains of this country once its landscape, language, and lore are forced through the filter of the camera or microphone, once it is translated by a popular medium like film and transferred to an international audience? During the next few months, leading up to a Welsh film festival hosted by the National Screen and Sound Archive here in Aberystwyth, I am going to mull over such matters from time to time.

To be sure, the landscape and culture of Wales have changed considerably since A. J. Cronyn’s Citadel and Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley were bestsellers in the US back in 1937-38 and 1940, respectively. Prominently featured in 20th-century popular culture (including the previously discussed “Comedy of Danger,” the first play written for radio), the mines have been shut down years ago and wind farms have replaced collieries. Today, however, the BBC reported that coal mining is making a comeback here, as the first “deep mine” is set to open in over three decades. Could this mean that Ms. Zeta-Jones is going back to her Welsh roots for a Hollywood returns to the Citadel, the Valley or other recycled Corn?

2 Replies to “Mining Culture: The Welsh in Hollywood”

  1. Trying to pass off Robert Montgomery\’s Dan as \”sort of Irish, I think\” was, I think, much the safer bet. Though I\’m quite sure an Irishman or Irishwoman wouldn\’t agree.It goes beyond the question of whether or not the victim will die by asking us whether she ought to, by making us eager for the \”must\” of her demise and examine the decline and \”fall\” of our own civilized morality. Yes! In allowing Mrs. Bramson no endearing qualities, Williams manipulates our response to a point, but he ultimately places the responsibility of deciding the crotchety one\’s deservedness of her fate on our shoulders. We must pass judgment on our own desensitization.Being part Welsh on my father\’s side, I always feel rather remiss in not being better informed on Wales\’ artistic contributions. This post has served as a prodder.

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  2. I guess, desensitized me won\’t miss the likes of Mrs. Bramson.Speaking of sensitivity, I have a lot to learn yet about Welsh culture; in fact, I can barely pronounce place names. Originally designed as my American retreat, broadcastellan has gradually become more reflective of my new surroundings.Perhaps I\’ll get to read about your Welsh connections one day.

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