Alex Vetchinsky - Writer





Art Director. Nationality: British. Career: 1930s—draughtsman at Gainsborough Studios; set designer at Gainsborough and Gaumont British until 1970s; 1977—retired from films. Died: In 1980.


Films as Art Director/Production Designer:

1931

Michael and Mary (Saville); Sunshine Susie (Saville); Faithful Heart (Saville)

1932

Love on Wheels (Saville); Jack's the Boy (Forde)

1933

The Lucky Number (Asquith); It's a Boy (Whelan); Falling for You (Stevenson and Hulbert); Friday the Thirteenth (Saville) (co); Aunt Sally (Whelan)

1935

The Phantom Light (Powell); Stormy Weather (Walls); Boys Will Be Boys (Beaudine); Foreign Affairs (Walls)

1936

Jack of All Trades (Stevenson and Hulbert); Tudor Rose (Stevenson); The Man Who Changed His Mind (Stevenson); Where There's a Will (Beaudine); Everybody Dance (Reisner); All In (Varnel); Windbag the Sailor (Beaudine) (co)

1937

Good Morning, Boys (Varnel); OK for Sound (Varnel); Said O'Reilly to McNab (Beaudine); Dr. Syn (Neill); Oh Mr. Porter! (Varnel); Bank Holiday (Reed)

1938

The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock) (co); Owd Bob (Stevenson); Old Homes of the River (Vernal); Hey, Hey, USA (Varnel); Convict 99 (Varnel); Alf's Button Afloat (Varnel)

1939

A Girl Must Live (Reed)

1940

Night Train to Munich (Reed)

1941

The Young Mr. Pitt (Reed); Charley's Aunt (Forde); The Ghost Train (Forde); Kipps (Reed); Cottage to Let (Asquith); I Thank You (Varnel)

1942

Uncensored (Asquith); The Flemish Farm (Dell)

1943

The Lamp Still Burns (Elvey); Tawny Pipit (Miles and Saunders)

1944

Don't Take It to Heart (Dell); Waterloo Road (Gilliat)

1946

Beware of Pity (Elvey)

1947

Hungry Hill (Hurst); The October Man (Baker)

1948

The Mark of Cain (Hurst); Escape (Mankiewicz)

1949

Give Us This Day (Dmytryk)

1950

Morning Departure (Baker); Highly Dangerous (Baker)

1951

High Treason (Boulting); Hunted (Crichton)

1952

Something Money Can't Buy (Jackson); The Long Memory (Hamer); Single-Handed (Boulting)

1953

Trouble in Store (Carstairs); Hell below Zero (Robson); The Black Knight (Garnett)

1954

The Colditz Story (Hamilton); Up to His Neck (Carstairs)

1955

Value for Money (Annakin); Passage Home (Baker)

1956

House of Secrets (Green); Ill Met by Moonlight (Powell); A Town Like Alice (Lee)

1957

Robbery under Arms (Lee)

1958

A Night to Remember (Baker); Carry on Sergeant (G. Thomas)

1959

Carry on Nurse (G. Thomas); Operation Amsterdam (McCarthy); Carry on Teacher (G. Thomas); North West Frontier (Lee Thompson)

1960

Conspiracy of Hearts (R. Thomas)

1961

Victim (Dearden); The Singer Not the Song (Baker)

1962

Life for Ruth (Dearden); Tiara Tahiti (Kotcheff)

1963

Doctor in Distress (R. Thomas)

1964

Carry on Spying (G. Thomas)

1965

The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (Young)

1966

Deadlier Than the Male (R. Thomas); Rotten to the Core (Boulting)

1967

The Long Duel (Annakin)

1968

Carry On up the Khyber (G. Thomas)

1969

David Copperfield (Mann)

1970

Jane Eyre (Mann)

1972

Kidnapped (Mann)

1974

Gold (Hunt)

Publications

On VETCHINSKY: articles—

Screen International (London), no. 233, 22 March 1980.

Film and Television Technician , May 1980.


* * *


Alfred Hitchcock's return to Britain in 1971 to direct Frenzy was marked by a banquet at Pinewood studios. Seated next to the director was his set designer from The Lady Vanishes (as "a reminder of old times," publicists claimed). To Alex Vetchinsky the honour must have seemed ambiguous. Even though his employer Michael Balcon produced most of Hitchcock's films of the 1930s, he had assigned Vetchinsky to none of them. While the more flamboyant Alfred Junge worked with innovators like Hitchcock and Michael Powell, Vetchinsky remained at Balcon's low-budget Gainsborough studios, mostly ignored.

Balcon launched Gainsborough Films in 1924 on the cramped Famous Players lot in inner London's Islington. Driven to keep up a supply of comedies, musicals and crime stories, many of them (under a deal with UFA's Erich Pommer) copied from German or French originals but aimed at the American market, he recruited a directorial team which, while it included Victor Saville and Carol Reed, more often fell back on such minor talents as Marcel Varnel and failing American pros like William Beaudine who had learned to work quickly and cheaply in Depression Hollywood. It was a cheerless milieu . "Mickey Balcon had a Programme," commented Michael Powell, "and when as a filmmaker you have a Programme, you have lost your soul."

Vetchinsky joined Gainsborough at the age of 23 and within a year was designing sets. He did little else for the next two decades. A vital cog in the Balcon "Programme," he provided at the rate of three or four a year the country mansions, Swiss finishing schools, Riviera casinos, London Art Deco nightclubs, trans-Atlantic liners and innumerable trains and stations demanded by the standard Gainsborough films. These were often comedy musicals ( Sunshine Susie , Love on Wheels , Falling for You , Jack of All Trades ) or farces featuring the exvaudeville Crazy Gang and Will Hay, for whose most popular films, Good Morning, Boys and Oh Mr. Porter! , Vetchinsky provided the minimal sets.

The Lady Vanishes had already been started by American director Roy William Neill but cancelled after problems during Yugoslav location shooting. Needing to direct a film, to complete a two-picture contract, Hitchcock took over not only the script but also the available Gainsborough talent including Vetchinsky, who could by then have provided designs for the film's trains, stations and snowbound Ruritanian hotel from stock. Nobody, least of all Vetchinsky, seems to have imagined the film would become the most successful of Hitchcock's British career. Having designed the period smuggling melodrama Dr. Syn before The Lady Vanishes , Vetchinsky (who shared the art direction credit with Maurice Carter and Albert Jullion) moved on immediately afterwards to two Will Hays films, two Crazy Gang films, and Owd Bob , the lachrymose tale of a Scots shepherd and his dog.

All the same, Vetchinsky's 1930s work does show ability and imagination. His sets for Tudor Rose , Robert Stevenson's 1936 version of the life of Lady Jane Grey, were widely applauded, though his true style, more modern and naturalistic, is apparent in the shadowy lighthouse interiors of Michael Powell's The Phantom Light . Powell made research expeditions to the Eddystone Light but Vetchinsky amplified reality with the cluttered, almost claustrophobic interiors of which he had become a master.

As his reputation increased Vetchinsky created authentically seedy seaside settings for Carol Reed's Bank Holiday and an expressionistic attic dormitory for the apprentices in the same director's Kipps , with a ceiling of slanting planes and bizarre angles that is among his finest work. For the next three decades he worked mainly on the big-budget films produced in Britain by American studios, especially 20th Century-Fox, for whom he designed Reed's Napoleonic The Young Mr. Pitt . After the Second World War, however, he seldom collaborated with directors of Reed's calibre.

North West Frontier and the Titanic story A Night to Remember were Edwardian dramas which submerged his talent for realism in the fussy period detail that signified in Hollywood's eyes "a British Film."

The Vetchinsky signature is more apparent in The October Man , a contemporary thriller with John Mills set mostly in a London suburban boarding house surrounded by a fog-shrouded park skillfully hinted at but never actually seen. Ironically Vetchinsky's one film of this time with a major artist was Michael Powell's Ill Met By Moonlight which takes place almost totally on Cretan hillsides. After Carry on Nurse in 1959, a farce which must have recalled the bad old Gainsborough days, his reputation revived with the 1974 thriller Gold . Set largely in the depths of a South African gold mine which, for the climax, is also flooded, Gold offered the sort of challenge to which someone trained in the hard school of Gainsborough could respond perfectly.

—John Baxter

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