Making "Genevieve"

This page weaves together excerpts from a number of accounts of the making of Genevieve. To read about the production of Genevieve from the perspective of The Veteran Car Club, read Elizabeth Nagle's account of the Club's dealings with the producers here.
Following text from Quentin Falk's "The Golden Gong: Fifty Years Of The Rank Organisation, Its Films And Its Stars" © Columbus Books 1987; (currently out of print). Stills courtesy BFI Films: Stills Posters and Designs
Quentin Falk: Motorists negotiating country lanes near Moor Park Golf Club in Hertfordshire, north of London, must have been astonished suddenly to find signposts proclaiming "Brighton: 6 miles." A local copper was positively bewildered when, glancing out of his bedroom window one morning, he saw another sign, "Beware: Cattle Crossing," which seemed to have sprung up mysteriously overnight. It was in the gathering winter of 1952-3, and one of Rank's most successful, and enduring, films had begun shooting.
That Genevieve even made it before the cameras was a triumph for the persistent 39-year-old producer-director Henry Cornelius. South African-born and Sorbonne-educated, "Corny," as he was known, first learned his craft as an assistant to the great French director René Clair. As director, he met had made the popular Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico (1949).

Following text from Sir Michael Balcon's "Michael Balcon presents... A Lifetime of Films" © Hutchinson & Co., 1969 (currently out of print). 

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Sir Michael Balcon: Henry Cornelius had left Ealing and set himself up as an independent. After much frustration he managed to get financial support for a film, The Galloping Major, a good comedy idea of a small community investing in a racehorse.

It made an appealing film but, inappropriately for a racehorse, it was a bit of a slow starter and consequently Corny had difficulty in setting up his second film. Pocketing his pride, he returned to me with an outline story, by no means fully developed, by Bill Rose, and I knew at once that it could not miss.

I was now faced with a moral dilemma. Our own schedule of films of was arranged and if I took Corny back it would mean displacing another director, an idea which would not have proved popular for good and valid reasons. Although Corny was immensely popular with his ex-colleagues at Ealing, he had left of his own volition and, by the way, it was very rare for anybody to leave Ealing.

As I was then a director of The Rank Organisation, I sent Corny to Earl St. John, in charge of production at Pinewood.

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Quentin Falk: Armed with the script by William Rose, an American, Corny went out to persuade Earl St. John to back the film on behalf of Rank. St. John, confronted with this whimsical comedy about two young couples who plan to race their old crocks home from the London-Brighton veteran car rally, was incredulous. "If we made that sort of film, I'd get the sack and, frankly, I can't afford to lose my job," he told Corny. But the filmmaker just would not take "no" for an answer and returned two or three more times to work on St. John.

Finally the Organisation's executive producer asked what the budget would be. The answer was £115,000 -- not a vast amount, he admitted, but he'd still have to get board approval.

dinahsig2.JPG (60479 bytes)Rank eventually agreed to provide 70 percent of the investment as long as Cornelius could find the remaining 30 percent, which he managed thanks to the involvement of the government-sponsored "merchant bank," the National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC).

Following text from Christopher Challis's "Are They Really So Awful? : A Cameraman's Chronicle" © Christopher Challis 1995. This book is available at Amazon and is highly recommended.

ChallisBook.jpg (70608 bytes)Christopher Challis: ...The Rank Organisation agreed to back it, but with  the minimum investment, and on condition that Henry Cornelius put up the completion money himself. In order to do this, he had mortgaged his house and sold every tangible asset and here he was, with the absolutely minimum of finance, on the verge of turning his dream into a reality.   foursomecr.jpg (71974 bytes)  
Quentin Falk: Casting was to prove perhaps the key to the film's eventual success. Playing Alan and Wendy McKim were to be John Gregson, who had already featured in some Ealing comedies, and Dinah Sheridan, the English rose of Where No Vultures Fly (1951).
more.jpg (29281 bytes)Kenneth More was, at the time, wowing West End theater audiences in Terrence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea.  "Critics hailed me almost as an overnight discovery," he reflected, "conveniently forgetting I was already 38 and I'd been working in the theater for nearly twenty years." More had also been seen in a handful of small screen roles, including Scott of the Antarctic (1948).

Following text from Kenneth More's "Happy Go Lucky" © Kenneth More 1959, Robert Hale Ltd. (currently out of print). Mr. More is a wonderful storyteller, but his versions of events are often at odds with the recollections of others.

Kenneth More: One evening after the performance of The Deep Blue Sea, I was in my dressing room at the Duchess when a message came up from the stage door that Mr. Cornelius wanted to see me.

"Cornelius?" I asked.

"Yes. Henry Cornelius."

The name meant nothing to me. Suddenly I remembered; he had directed that test for Scott of The Antarctic at Ealing. 

[Quentin Falk points out that  More had played a "spit and a cough" in the director's The Galloping Major a year earlier, so it seems highly unlikely that the name Henry Cornelius would "mean nothing" to More!]

Corny came up. Born in South Africa and educated in Germany and France, he was the enfant terrible of the film world of pre-Hitler Berlin. He worked on The Drum and The Four Feathers as film editor, and since our last meeting had directed the top Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico. Now he had formed his own independent company.

In The Deep Blue Sea we had won such ecstatic reviews, and flattery from visitors had become such a routine thing, that I fully expected him to say: "What wonderful performance tonight!"

But when I asked him if he had been out front, he said: "No."

"You've seen the play already then?"

"As a matter-of-fact I haven't. This sort of show isn't my cup of tea at all."

I was at a loss. I couldn't help asking: "What is it you want?"

"I'd like you to be in a film I'm making," he said. "The test you did for Scott showed me that you have the qualities I need."

He went on to explain that he had been offered the outline of a story which he liked so much that he snapped it up within 48 hours. "The plot," said Corny, "centers on the veteran cars annual rally from London to Brighton."

"What do you want me to play?" I asked.

"Ambrose Claverhouse -- brash, bouncy, girl-chasing; an extrovert."


"Character comedy."

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Ambrose, Corny said, is an advertising agent who rides in ancient barrel-bonneted Dutch Spyker in the rally. His intentions where women are concerned are far from honourable. He believes in taking a different girl with him on every week-end trip. On this occasion his companion is a model, Rosalind Peters. Ambrose also has a friend, a young barrister named Alan McKim, who goes to Brighton with his wife Wendy in "Genevieve," a 12 horsepower Darracq made in Paris in 1904.

All four get to Brighton, but Ambrose and Alan quarrel, the outcome being a 100 pound wager as to which of them can drive back to Westminster Bridge first.

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"The return journey," Corny enthused, his eyes sparkling, "is packed with laughs; water splashes, sheep blocking the road, children holding up the cars by dawdling on the zebra crossing, and so on. Ambrose and Alan practically go crazy with excitement."

[Dinah Sheridan says the children on the zebra crossing was a last-minute inspiration on the part of Henry Cornelius.]

He gave me the script. I put it on my knee, glanced at the title -- Genevieve -- and started reading.

"We'll be doing it in Technicolor at Pinewood," Corny went on, persuasively. "Larry Adler is composing the music."

I hadn't finished the second page before I realized that the film was for me. "This is marvelous," I said. "I've got to be in it!"

"Of course," said Corny. "And you will be too. I'm a very determined man. The part has been written with you in mind."

[Dinah Sheridan
says the director's first choice for the part was Guy Middleton]

Then I started to think of the obstacles, all the difficulties that would crop up. "I've just been married," I said. "We're moving house at any moment and I'm appearing in this play!"

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But every objection I raised, Corny knocked down.

Moving house? The best removal firm in London would be called in; it would lay on a fleet of vans and we wouldn't have to lift a finger. Getting from the studio to the theater? He would personally arrange for a superfast car to do the journey at record speed.

"But what about [More's wife] Bill?" I asked. "How will she manage on her own? I won't have time to see anything of her at all if I do a film as well as a play."

"Don't worry," said Corny blandly. "She can visit you at the studio. We serve lovely meals in the canteen." Lovely meals in the canteen!

"Anyway," said Corny, "come and have lunch tomorrow with me and Kay Kendall. She is to be your girlfriend, Rosalind, in the film".


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"Quentin Falk: The vivacious Kay Kendall (born Justine McCarthy), though only 26, had made an earlier bid for stardom in the film London Town.

Kenneth More: As far as Katie was concerned, it was to be her second bid for stardom. Once the youngest-ever member of the Palladium chorus line, she starred at the age of 17 in London Town, perhaps the biggest screen flop of all time. She had seemed set for a golden career; then suddenly everything was finished. It was the most shattering experience anyone could have. But she had guts; she went into rep, did TV and gradually charmed her way back into the films.

FR_suziandkay.JPG (70464 bytes)The three of us met in Rule's, in Maiden Lane, for the maddest lunch I can remember. Corny opened his briefcase and brought out sheets and sheets of foolscap on our "family backgrounds." I, as Ambrose, was the son of a kidney pill manufacturer; Katie learned that Rosalind's grandfather had crossed the Alps at the age of three.

We roared with laughter. We were in fits.

"What on earth does it matter who our relatives were?" we asked. "Either you want us to play these parts or you don't!"

movie mag cover.jpg (32839 bytes)But Corny didn't work like that. He was very painstaking. He believed in what I suppose could be called The Method.

We must have had one glass too many of the burgundy because Katie and I ended the meal by promising to do the film.

For me, Genevieve was a bid for stardom too. I remembered what Bill had told me once, when I confided in her my hopes for the future.

"You'll never be a star," she said, "until you've had a part with real personality in it."

Was Ambrose Claverhouse, the hearty terror of the highways, the answer? I signed a contract with Corny for £2,500.

The snag that probably none of us fully realized when we entered the film so gaily was that three-quarters of the shooting was on outdoor location. The 57 day production schedule lasted from October to February, right through some of the bitterest weather of the year.

Christopher Challis: George Gunn [a Technicolor representative] had persuaded Henry that, in spite of the money problem, the extra cost of filming in colour was more than worthwhile as, at that time, it was still a great attraction at the box office.

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Planned to be filmed almost entirely outdoors... weather was obviously a big hazard and Henry explained that he could not afford to wait for ideal conditions. 'If there is enough light to get a bare exposure, I just have to shoot. I know it's asking a lot, but there is no other way I can make the picture.'  

Kenneth More: Corny very cunningly solved the lighting problem by taking his own special brand of sunshine with us in the form of a generator and 24 arc lamps. The result was a fantastic sight. A winding caravan of cars, vans and trucks loaded with 50 tons of gear blocked the roads and caused traffic chaos.

Christopher Challis: The traveling scenes in the cars were resolved by loading the whole unit into in large flat, open trailer, known as a 'Queen Mary.' It was a relic of the war and had been used to transport military aircraft. We all piled in - camera, lights, crew and small generator -- and on the back was perched a mock-up of the car in which our actors 'drove.'

The whole circus was at the mercy of the driver in the cab of the Queen Mary, who often proved difficult to communicate with. Another truck followed with mock-ups of the other cars, ready to be switched at a moment's notice. For forward-looking shots, another flat truck was used. The driving cab was removed, further mock-ups made to disguise what little we saw of the bonnet and a period steering wheel and windscreen fitted, all of which had to be changed each time we switched cars.

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Kenneth More: The genuine London to Brighton route wasn't right for all the backgrounds we needed so, on the assumption (later proved correct) that only diehard devotes of the rally would notice, we shot quite a few of the "deep in the heart of Sussex" scenes in Buckinghamshire, near Moor Park golf course. When we did venture into Sussex, we littered it with phony signposts, signs and traffic lights. Motorists were baffled to see "Brighton 6" on signposts when they thought that the sea was at least 40 miles away.
FR_jdinahreclines.JPG (66513 bytes) We had a high-spirited time together. Playing Wendy McKim was Dinah Sheridan, the blue-eyed strawberry blonde who is a keen, hearty motorist. She took a bone-rattling on African roads in Where No Vultures Fly, but had to admit that bumping down a cart-track in Kenya in a jeep was paradise compared with the trip to Brighton in Genevieve.
Then, of course, there was Katie, who loves fun and laughter. She lounged around the set, a dazzling vision in tight blue jeans and mules trimmed with ostrich feathers. For the actual film, Marjorie Cornelius, Corny's wife, designed for her some superb creations, very elegant, very English, with enormous floppy hats.

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Marjorie's costumes for Dinah, I recall, included a dress in chocolate, coffee and strawberry, which gave the appearance of a very delectable Neapolitan ice.

My rival in the film, in our grueling, jolting journey was John Gregson, a burly, tousle-haired Liverpudlian who like myself was in the Royal Navy during the war, but in minesweepers.


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Also like me, he had been in that frosty epic, Scott of the Antarctic, though he had taken a shortcut to success with Whiskey Galore, The Lavender Hill Mob and Angels One Five.

In Genevieve, John achieved the no mean feat of driving from London to Brighton and back without a full driving license! He took a course of lessons, but there wasn't time to pass his test before filming began. In all, he did about 100 miles at the wheel, with the police turning of the blindest of the blind eyes.

In many respects we enjoyed ourselves immensely.

FR_joyce.JPG (83066 bytes)We had Joyce Grenfell giving an excruciatingly genteel performance as a hotel  manageress. Also, John got a taste of the penalties of screen fame when audiences believe implicitly in what you do.

We were in the Old Kent Road, waiting between takes, when a little girl of about nine came up and asked him: "Hey, mister, is your name John Gregson?"

John preened himself, admitted that he was indeed John Gregson and prepared to whip out his fountain pen for an autograph. But little girl hadn't finished her questions.

"Weren't you in Venetian Bird?"

John nodded.

"And didn't you bash Richard Todd on the back of the head?"

"Well, yes," John admitted. "That's right."

"Then I'll never see one of your pictures again as long as I live!" With that, she swept off.

We had another moment of humour, completely unrehearsed and certainly not in the script, which all happened because Corny was such a perfectionist. He had to have everything right. Every single scene had to be filmed time and time again, just to be absolutely sure.

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This wasn't too bad in the studio, but it was perfect hell out of doors. One morning -- about 7:00 it was, and dreadfully cold -- Kate and I had to do a shot in which we drove down the road towards the camera.

We did it once, but Corny wasn't satisfied. We did it again, but that wasn't right; a hair had got in the gate of the camera. We did it a third time -- and a fourth. On each occasion, the repeat performance meant driving half a mile back up the road again and turning round.

The weather grew even worse. A fine penetrating drizzle came down, soaking us through. We couldn't wear macs or any other kind of protection because it was supposed to be fine weather.

The more times we kept on doing the journey, the more frozen and cross Katie became. When we had done the scene for the fifth time, and Corny said: "Let's have just one more!" Katie grabbed the parasol which was in a long wicker basket running down the side of the car. Holding the parasol both hands, she started to whack Corny over the head with it.

"You're a rotten little so-and-so!" She screamed. "You're a miserable, dried up little man!"

[Dinah Sheridan says that she was actually the one on the receiving end of Kay Kendall's outburst]

I thought she was joking. It was colossal fun seeing Corny being brained. I roared my head off.

But it was no joke. It was genuine. Katie had really gone. She was hysterical. The terrible cold weather, added to the normal tension of filming, had got her down.

I shouldn't have laughed. In a few more days I was feeling the same way myself.

kendall.jpg (20406 bytes) Quentin Falk: Olive Dodds, the Organisation's director of artists and regular confidante of her charges, said that Kay Kendall spent hours with her "trying to persuade me to get her out of the film, which they all thought, while shooting on it, would be a disaster. The combination of the long filming, the many takes, changes in script and very, very bad weather had put them all into the glooms. In my view, it proved to be the one part that appeared to have been written for Kay and Kay alone.

Following text from Eve Golden and Kim Kendall's 's "The Brief, Madcap Life of Kay Kendall" © 2002 The University Press of Kentucky. Finally, the real story behind Kay Kendall's behavior during the filming of Genevieve."

Eve Golden and Kim Kendall: Kay had more problems than Kenneth More realized: she had found out a week or two into filming that she was pregnant. Kay took three days off [in order to end the pregnancy] and came back to work much sooner than she should have. Weak and anemic under the best of circumstances, she was in no shape to withstand jostling in antique cars and sitting about in the freezing cold. "She was really in a bad way," recalls Dinah Sheridan. "She shouldn't have been back at all."
Kenneth More: Seven-eighths of the way through Genevieve we ran out of money. In order for work to begin on a film these days, the financial backing for it, known as the "guaranteed completion money," has to be put up first.

If for any reason the producer goes over his budget, more money is needed to finish the job. This might mean 20,000 pounds or more. Insurance companies, however, give protection against this, and for a premium they will, if the worst happens, step in and help the producer by supplying "end money," as it's called. They're on a pretty good wicket, I think, and don't have to pay out very often.

An exception, though, was Corny. He always ran over. He went on and on, persevering until he got what he believed was right. He never compromised. He never cut anything out. He never shortened anything.

Eventually with Genevieve, we reached a stage where the insurance company was financing us. It didn't like paying out. To save a bit here and save a bit there, it had little men prowling around the studio, switching off lights that weren't needed. During the final weeks shooting they watched electricity meters like hawks. It was as bad as having the bailiffs in.

Dinah Sheridan: In February of 1953, we saw loops of the film in a darkened studio and had to repeat our dialogue into a microphone. We each re-recorded our lines separately - we weren't together. We had a reference tape recording that had been made throughout the filming. When you re-recorded a line, you had to match the original as closely as possible -- and we were out-of-doors; we were sniffing, we were coughing... choking, probably -- and we had to do it exactly as it had been. That wasn't easy at all. 80 to 85% of the dialogue in the film had to be recreated on the soundstage.

I was at home one day and they telephoned and said, "We've got Kay here, doing her lines... and she can't laugh. She is quite incapable of producing a natural hysterical laugh. Could you come over to the studio and help her?" Much to my delight, I got an extra day's pay to go over to Pinewood Studios - about a fifty-minute drive - and produce, with Kay, hysterical laughter. Then I had to stop, and she had to go on.

In the scene in the Brighton hotel room, the loud argument between Alan and Wendy provokes an awful banging on the wall from the very annoyed people next door. The sound of this banging was added later. When they filmed the scene, I had to react to nothing. All I knew was that it was in the script. Alan leaves for the garage; the banging starts up on the wall again, and I take a brown paper bag, blow it up, and explode it onto the wall. And then there's a scream from the other side of the wall -- obviously, I'd stopped the banging. What few people know is that during the re-recording sessions, they asked me to perform the scream! So that's me you're hearing from the other side!

The film starts practically silent - you get no music at all right through the first credit titles - then Larry Adler's music begins.

Click the button above to hear Larry Adler's "Theme From Genevieve"

 Wonderful, simply marvelous music. Larry told me many years afterward (I didn't meet him until many years afterward) how he was given the script and was asked if he'd write the music. And he said yes, he would love to. He had got an idea for it and he would absolutely love to. And they said, "How much do you want?" And Larry named a price, and they said, 'But we've told you, we don't have any money, we just want you to do the film."

 And Larry said, yes, he'd love to do it, too, but he couldn't do it for nothing. And so he lowered his price quite a bit. And they said, "Now, look, we said we don't have any money!" And he said, oh dear, I really want to do this, and I've got such a good idea for it... I'll do it for a two-and-a-half percent interest in the film. Which made him the only one -- except for Henry Cornelius and the Rank Organisation -- who got anything out of it at all. We got 2,500 pounds, and that was it - we've never had another penny. But Larry still gets two-and-a-half percent!

Quentin Falk: As if confirming the worst -- apparently, the "front office" didn't like the finished film -- the opening at the Odeon, Leicester Square was,  according to Keith Robertson of Rank Film Distributors (now RFD's director of administration), then still General Film Distributors, "a non-event." It was, at first, very coolly received. 

It often happens that winners are not recognized as such at first by the people close to them. Bill Rose tells of the day when he and Corny were in the bar at Pinewood, anxiously awaiting the verdict of the "front office" after the first showing. Earl St. John came in, put his arms around their shoulders and said in the nicest possible way -- and he was, indeed, a very kindly man -- something to the effect that they were not to be depressed; he believed in them and they would surely make a good film sooner or later

Christopher Challis: The first showing of the completed film was in the preview theatre at Technicolor. As the lights came up at the end, Earl St. John, the American head of production, who had expressed little interest in the film during its making, rose to his feet and observed to Henry, and the rest of us who made the movie, 'We may get a few car nuts to go along and see it in this country, but it won't do business anywhere else.'


Quentin Falk: But somehow, with the word-of-mouth, it took off and the results were amazing. In those days it took about 18 months for a film to go through the sequence of six-day bookings, three-day bookings, Sunday nights...

"We didn't let Genevieve go to Sunday nights, we put it out as a reissue double bill with our other big hit, Doctor in the House. We'd always had double feature programs, but it was always a first feature and a B-picture. This was the first of its kind -- "the Doc and the Crock" -- and it proved to be one of the most successful double programs we've ever put on."

Full of now-classic moments like Kay Kendall's impromptu trumpet solo, the creaking bed rocked by the chimes of the huge clock opposite, and More telling Kay to get out and push the recalcitrant Spyker, not to mention wonderful cameos by Geoffrey Keen as a traffic policeman and Joyce Grenfell as a hotel proprietress, plus Larry Adler's fine harmonica score, no wonder Genevieve was named Best British Film of 1953. It also, perhaps surprisingly for something so quintessentially English, earned two Oscar nominations, for William Rose's deft screenplay and Muir Matheson's music direction.

Sadly, only one of the starring quartet is still alive today: Dinah Sheridan. Kay Kendall died in 1959 (a year after Henry Cornelius), John Gregson in 1975 and Kenneth More in 1982.

As Miss Sheridan reflected: "It's very sad. I'm very much the lone survivor -- if you don't count Genevieve herself. She will be our epitaph."

Sir Michael Balcon: Despite the variety of films we made over the years, I suppose it is the comedies with which Ealing will always be identified. Even as late as 1967, an American correspondent of The Times, commenting on a letter from a number of American governors, senators, congressman, chancellors of universities, etc., on means of preserving the historic relationship between [the United Kingdom and United States], said: "the old Ealing studio comedies, which are still appearing on television late-night shows, have done more for the relationship than any official program could have done."


Corny and the enchanting Kay Kendall are, alas, dead long before their time but Genevieve will remain in the hearts of all the fans of their generation. Meanwhile Bill Rose, now a naturalized British subject, has done a lot of work for Hollywood and has among his more recent credits such important script as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, for which he deservedly won an Oscar, for the best original screenplay, in 1968.


Genevieve 1 sheet.jpg (150258 bytes)Genevieve was perhaps the most successful British comedy film ever made -- written by an Ealing man and directed by another, but, alas, not at Ealing!


One of the world's great movies; one of the world's worst one-sheets: the American poster for "Genevieve."


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