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“It’s a commission from British Railways!” August 26, 2006

Posted by Jeff in 1946 through 1960, Art, Movies.
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Mike Morgan and Alec Guinness

Right: Mike Morgan (left) and Alec Guinness (right)

When I had to come up with the names of three movies that “closely resembled” my screenplay Tabula Rasa, one of the movies I listed was The Horse’s Mouth (1958), directed by Ronald Neame from Alec Guinness’s screenplay based on the novel by Joyce Cary.

Gulley Jimson (Guinness) is an Artist, not all that different in a suprising number of respects from my Lucy Hoffman. One primary difference is that Lucy is a twelve-year-old girl, whereas Jimson is a dirty, lecherous bum — whose work just happens to be in the permanent collection of the Tate Gallery.


Much of The Horse’s Mouth is pure farce, expertly played and directed, but the movie gets (relatively) serious when Gulley starts to create. Gulley spends the movie searching for Inspiration, in the form of the perfect wall for his fantastic murals (painted for the movie by real-life British artist John Bratby, one of what was called the “kitchen sink” school of hyper-realists — another connection to Tabula Rasa, in which Lucy’s inspiration is John Sloan, another artist misleadingly branded as a “kitchen-sink-school” artist).

In this sequence, Gulley has shown up at the apartment of potential patrons Lord and Lady Beeder (Robert Coote and Veronica Turleigh). In the scene preceding this one, he gets drunk, insults Lady Beeder’s attempts at a landscape, and passes out; the Beeders toss him in a spare bedroom and take off on vacation:

Gulley is joined by Nosy, his shy, stuttering protégé (Mike Morgan) and then by Abel (Michael Gough), a sculptor who is even a bigger parasite than Gulley:

Gulley has lost the inspiration, and all the effort has been for naught.

The Horse’s Mouth ends on an ambiguous note, with Gulley launching his houseboat into the Thames and receiving a visit from his Muse, as Nosy calls out: “Michelangelo, Rubens, and Blake — you’re one of them!” This may be the best movie ever made about the life of an artist, and it is certainly Alec Guinness best leading-role performance.

And here is a morbid note. Mike Morgan, the thirty-year-old actor playing Nosy for whom this was only his second film, came down with meningitis ten days before the end of shooting, and was dead before the movie wrapped. Since so many of his scenes had been shot outdoors, an actor had to be hired to impersonate him in the postdubbing. Vissi d’arte, indeed.

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