Historical biopic retrofitted as literate WWII propaganda. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The Young Mr. Pitt, the 1942 British-made biopic of William Pitt the Younger, Britain's youngest Prime Minister. Written by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (with help from the Right Honorable Viscount Castlerosse), shot by Freddie Young, directed by Carol Reed, and starring Robert Donat, Robert Morley, Phyllis Calvert, Raymond Lovell, John Mills, Felix Aylmer, and Herbert Lom, the tasteful, discreetly lavish The Young Mr. Pitt may be historically suspect (according to the experts...of which I am decidedly not), but its morale-boosting intent to graft Pitt's Napoleonic struggles onto 1942 England's battle against Hitler, is plainly obvious. And quite entertaining. No extras for this nice black and white fullframe transfer.
England, The House of Lords, 1770. William Pitt the Elder, The Earl of Chatham (Robert Donat) addresses the assemblage, decrying England's assault on its "brethren," the colonists in America, and declares that should a foreign power do to England what England is doing to America, its populace would never lay down arms in surrender. Although "The Great Commoner" Pitt the Elder admonishes his hero-worshipping son--whom the Elder fully intends to follow in his own political footsteps--never to seek fame through war, another young man is born, across the sea, whose violent destiny will become intertwined with the young Pitt and change that paternal wish forever: Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1783, a morally and financially corrupt England is led by an unpopular coalition government headed by Charles James Fox (Robert Morley) and Lord North (Felix Aylmer). When King George III (Raymond Lovell) is finally able to persuade William Pitt the Younger (Robert Donat) to take on the role of Prime Minister--becoming Britain's youngest, at 24 years of age--he earns the scorn of former ally Fox, who leads raucous opposition to Pitt when Pitt makes his first speech at the House of Commons. While Pitt has the King eventually dissolve Parliament and force a general election, Napoleon (Herbert Lom) continues his ascent through the ranks of the French Army. Pitt's efforts to rebuild England into a respected world power are successful enough for the treacherous French envoy Talleyrand (Albert Lieven) to propose, on behalf of Napoleon, who is set to invade England's ally, Holland, that England team up with France to control Europe--a proposition Pitt dismisses out of hand. What follows is years of seesawing warfare with France, as the British public alternately hails and condemns Pitt's often unpopular promotion of war preparation over the pusillanimous appeasement efforts of debased libertine Fox. Frail of health from overwork, Pitt's romantic life is equally fraught, as he realizes marriage to beloved Eleanor Eden (Phyllis Calvert), is doomed to history.
Full disclosure: except for notoriously unreliable movie and TV "refresher courses" over the years, I've largely forgotten my college English history studies of the time period covered in The Young Mr. Pitt. So if egregious license was taken with Pitt the Younger's achievements and setbacks in Gilliat's and Launder's condensed, witty script, I am wholly ignorant of it (although a quick net search seems to indicate the scriptwriters stayed pretty close to the spirit of the man's career). To the average American viewer (myself included), these events in British history will probably only make sense in the limited context given here. For instance, in The Young Mr. Pitt, it's put forth that Pitt resigns from the Prime Minister position in 1801 because his passionate pro-war preparations stance in the face of Napoleon's phony offer of peace, was at odds with a British public weary of conflict. And yet, the historians seem to say that Pitt resigned because King George refused to adopt Pitt's emancipation of Irish Catholics, in a bid seen as appeasement, should they rebel, with France's encouragement, against England. Does that discrepancy matter here? Not particularly, since I can't fathom anyone expecting a biopic to ever tell the whole truth about a person, anyway (and don't feel superior with today's biopics, over these Hollywood outings: the new ones lie, too...). Complicated issues are simplified, and complex characters are narrowed and focused for convenient dramatic purposes here, as with all biopics.
What is clear, however, is The Young Mr. Pitt's transforming Pitt's struggles against corrupt, inattentive government and a lazy public in order to mobilize England against a deadly foe, into WWII morale-boosting propaganda akin to Churchill's struggles to make England take seriously Hitler's menace. Made on an expensive scale in England (a million dollar budget from frozen Fox funds), The Young Mr. Pitt opens on a beautifully-dressed set of the House of Lords, where Pitt the Elder speaks of England leaving the American colonists alone--a neat, clean way to connect the American viewer, the most lucrative potential audience for the movie, with Pitt's influential father, who then goes on to state England will fight as tenaciously as the Americans will no doubt do, should a foreign army land on native soil. That immediately puts the movie Pitts on the side of the American audience, who can then position Pitt the Younger as an underdog to be rooted for against the fickle English public, the cowardly political opposition, and most importantly, Napoleon. And while The Young Mr. Pitt doesn't attempt an apples-to-apples comparison between the moral decay and financial turpitude of Fox's and North's England and pre-war Neville Chamberlain's, the movie's Pitt the Younger could be a not-too-distant Churchill relative, what with speech after speech about the dangers of financial instability, a weakened military, and the pursuit of easy, false peacemaking with "a nation of armed fanatics, led by an arch-fanatic," (does any of this sound vaguely familiar today, reader?).
If this all sounds rather dry, well...I suppose it could have been, considering The Young Mr. Pitt consists of little more than scene after scene of somewhat unfamiliar historical characters (I'm betting Nappy's the only one they might know) discussing equally puzzling distant political problems, with nary a battle scene or substantial romantic subplot--typical additions to these kinds of historical pieces--to liven up the proceedings. However, such is the nimble facility of Gilliat's and Launder's script that potentially dry toast is made into a surprisingly palatable main course. The storyline's construction is straightforward with clever, deft touches here and there (the chaotic, amusing montage of Pitt's first general election, cutting to the grave, spartan success of Napoleon in military school; Pitt playing a game of hide and seek with children at a party, until a new, deadly game interrupts: he is told that French forces have massed on Holland's border), while the dialogue is frequently quite bright and witty. Setting the stage for the morally bankrupt England Pitt inherits when first appointed to Prime Minister, the narrator says, "It is an age of highly polished manners...and rather low behavior," as the coalition government "sticks its head ostrich-like in the sands of time whilst the country sprawls aimlessly on a multi-colored quilt of feckless folly." Beautiful. Memorable lines are divvied up for all the major characters; if Robert Morley's fleshy face isn't advertisement enough for spiritual decay, he simply speaks, "My life has been made hideous by bad cards and good women--I don't know which is more tedious," and we completely understand his character.
If a certain narrative choppiness becomes noticeable from time to time (speeches seem to cut off at odd moments, or they're montaged-in, without sound), it's possible this happened when the run time was cut to 102 minutes (this DVD's count) for the February, 1943 U.S. launch, after the June, 1942 London premiere, where The Young Mr. Pitt premiered at 118 minutes--a relatively big reduction (no word on where that footage might be). Still, director Carol Reed directs with an assured simplicity that keeps the innately static material smoothly rolling along--a feat not little dependent on the superior cast of British actors. Future matinee idol John Mills doesn't have much to do here, despite his third billing, but scene stealers like Robert Morley (absolutely perfect) and Raymond Lovell (astonishingly funny and marvelously loony) more than fill in. Of course Robert Donat is the movie's anchor, and he does quite a lot, with seemingly very little. Watch the scene where he first meets quite mad King George; as Lovell goes on about his turnips, Donat remains deathly quiet and watchful, at the same time respectful of the King's sovereignty...and cautiously mindful that he is clearly talking to someone who's "off." It's an unusual choice from Donat for this scene (he could have been cocky, or youthfully enthusiastic), but it's indicative of his careful, thoughtful approach to his scenes, often letting a slight inflection of his voice, rather than some outsized actorly "trick," naturally carry the humor and drama of the well-written lines. It's just one more refined element in this thoroughly tasteful--and quite entertaining--biopic.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.