Thursday, December 22, 2011
Celebrity Grave: "Sweet Smell of Success" Director & Teacher Alexander Mackendrick 1993
Alexander Mackendrick (September 8, 1912 - December 22, 1993) was a Scottish American director and teacher.
Alexander Mackendrick was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the only child of Francis and Martha Mackendrick, who had emigrated to the United States from Glasgow in 1911. His father was a ship builder and a civil engineer. When Mackendrick was six, his father fell victim to the influenza pandemic that swept the world just after World War I. His mother, in desperate need of work, decided to be a dress designer. In order to pursue that decision, it was necessary for Martha MacKendrick to hand her only son over to his grandfather, who took young MacKendrick back to Scotland when he was seven years old. The boy never saw or heard from his mother again.
Young Alexander Mackendrick had a very sad and lonely childhood. He attended Hillhead High School from 1919 to 1926 and then went on to spend three years at the Glasgow School of Art. In the early 1930s, MacKendrick moved to London to work as an art director for the advertising firm J. Walter Thompson. Between 1936 and 1938, Mackendrick scripted five cinema commercials. He later reflected that his work in the advertising industry was invaluable, in spite of his extreme dislike of the industry itself. In 1937 MacKendrick wrote his first film script, Midnight Menace, with his cousin and close friend, Roger MacDougall. It was later bought by Associated British.
At the start of the Second World War, Mackendrick was employed by the Minister of Information making British propaganda films. In 1942 he went to Algiers and then to Italy, working with the Psychological Warfare Division. He then shot newsreels, documentaries, made leaflets, and did radio news. In 1943, he became the director of the film unit and approved the production of the classic Rossellini film, Rome, Open City.
After the war, Mackendrick and his cousin, Roger MacDougall, set up Merlin Productions, where they produced documentaries for the Ministry of Information. Merlin Productions soon proved to be a poor investment, so in 1946 Mackendrick joined Ealing Studios where he worked for 9 years. Starting working on storyboards, he eventually worked his way up to writing and directing his own feature films. Among those films were Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955). Mackendrick assisted Dutch film maker Bert Haanstra with the production of the popular comedy film, Fanfare (1958).
Return to the U.S.
In 1955, Mackendrick left Britain for Hollywood. The rest of his professional life was spent commuting between London and Los Angeles.
Mackendrick began directing the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster (HHL) film Sweet Smell of Success in 1957. It was a critical success about a press agent played by Tony Curtis who is wrapped up in a powerful newspaper columnist’s (Burt Lancaster) plot to end the relationship between his younger sister and a jazz musician. Mackendrick got along poorly with the producers of the film because they felt that he was too much of a perfectionist. After The Sweet Smell of Success, Mackendrick went back to England to make his second HHL film, The Devil’s Disciple in 1959, but he was fired only a month into production due to lingering tension from their first project together. Mackendrick was devastated.
After his disappointment with HHL, Mackendrick directed several television commercials in Europe for Horlicks. He also made a handful of films throughout the Sixties including Sammy Going South (1963), A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), and Don't Make Waves (1967). A project to film Ionesco's Rhinoceros, which would have starred Tony Hancock and Barbara Windsor, fell through at the last minute.
In 1969 he returned to the United States after being made Dean of the film school of the California Institute of the Arts. He gave up the position in 1978 to become a professor at the school. It is not difficult to understand why Mackendrick quit directing to become a teacher. "He found himself spending more energy on making deals than on making films." When Ealing studios was sold, Mackendrick was cut loose to pursue a career as a freelance director, something he was never prepared to do:
"At Ealing ... I was tremendously spoiled with all the logistical and financial troubles lifted off my shoulders, even if I had to do the films they told me to do. The reason why I have discovered myself so much happier teaching is that when I arrived here after the collapse of the world I had known as Ealing, I found that in order to make movies in Hollywood, you have to be a great deal-maker ... I have no talent for that ... I realised I was in the wrong business and got out." 
Due to severe emphysema, Mackendrick was unable to go home to Europe during much of his time at the college. He stayed with the school until he died of pneumonia in 1993, aged 81. His remains are buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.
Some of Mackendrick's most notable students include Doug Campbell, Terence Davies, Don device, F. X. Feeney, Richard Jefferies, James Mangold, Stephen Mills, Thom Mount, Sean Daniel, Bruce Berman, Gregory Orr, Don Di Pietro, Michael Pressman, Douglas Rushkoff and Lee Sheldon, and David Brisbin, amongst others.
Whisky Galore! (1949)
The Man in the White Suit (1951)
The Maggie (1954)
The Ladykillers (1955)
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Sammy Going South (1963)
A High Wind in Jamaica (1965)
Don't Make Waves (1967)
Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)
Dance Hall (1950)
1.^ Patricia Goldstone, 1960
2.^ Alexander Mackendrick quoted in On Filmmaking, Paul Cronin (ed.), 2004
Lethal Innocence: The Cinema of Alexander Mackendrick by Phillip Kemp
On Film-Making : An Introduction to the Craft of the Director by Alexander Mackendrick (edited by Paul Cronin).