1930s—draughtsman at Gainsborough Studios; set designer at
Gainsborough and Gaumont British until 1970s; 1977—retired from
Michael and Mary (Saville); Sunshine Susie (Saville); Faithful Heart (Saville)
Love on Wheels (Saville); Jack's the Boy (Forde)
The Lucky Number (Asquith); It's a Boy (Whelan); Falling for You (Stevenson and Hulbert); Friday the Thirteenth (Saville) (co); Aunt Sally (Whelan)
The Phantom Light (Powell); Stormy Weather (Walls); Boys Will Be Boys (Beaudine); Foreign Affairs (Walls)
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)
Good Morning, Boys (Varnel); OK for Sound (Varnel); Said O'Reilly to McNab (Beaudine); Dr. Syn (Neill); Oh Mr. Porter! (Varnel); Bank Holiday (Reed)
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)
A Girl Must Live (Reed)
Night Train to Munich (Reed)
The Young Mr. Pitt (Reed); Charley's Aunt (Forde); The Ghost Train (Forde); Kipps (Reed); Cottage to Let (Asquith); I Thank You (Varnel)
Uncensored (Asquith); The Flemish Farm (Dell)
The Lamp Still Burns (Elvey); Tawny Pipit (Miles and Saunders)
Don't Take It to Heart (Dell); Waterloo Road (Gilliat)
Beware of Pity (Elvey)
Hungry Hill (Hurst); The October Man (Baker)
The Mark of Cain (Hurst); Escape (Mankiewicz)
Give Us This Day (Dmytryk)
Morning Departure (Baker); Highly Dangerous (Baker)
High Treason (Boulting); Hunted (Crichton)
Something Money Can't Buy (Jackson); The Long Memory (Hamer); Single-Handed (Boulting)
Trouble in Store (Carstairs); Hell below Zero (Robson); The Black Knight (Garnett)
The Colditz Story (Hamilton); Up to His Neck (Carstairs)
Value for Money (Annakin); Passage Home (Baker)
House of Secrets (Green); Ill Met by Moonlight (Powell); A Town Like Alice (Lee)
Robbery under Arms (Lee)
A Night to Remember (Baker); Carry on Sergeant (G. Thomas)
Carry on Nurse (G. Thomas); Operation Amsterdam (McCarthy); Carry on Teacher (G. Thomas); North West Frontier (Lee Thompson)
Conspiracy of Hearts (R. Thomas)
Victim (Dearden); The Singer Not the Song (Baker)
Life for Ruth (Dearden); Tiara Tahiti (Kotcheff)
Doctor in Distress (R. Thomas)
Carry on Spying (G. Thomas)
The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (Young)
Deadlier Than the Male (R. Thomas); Rotten to the Core (Boulting)
The Long Duel (Annakin)
Carry On up the Khyber (G. Thomas)
David Copperfield (Mann)
Jane Eyre (Mann)
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.