The First of the Few (1942)

The First of the Few (Spitfire)

R.J. Mitchell’s story was developed by Australian writer Henry C. James and approved by Mitchell’s widow in 1940. Film producer George King took an option on the story at the beginning of 1941; actor-writer Miles Malleson worked on it, and wrote a scenario. Robert Donat, who knew Malleson, was very interested in the story and wanted to play Mitchell, but he was under contract to MGM. MGM was not interested in the screenplay, as the film could not be produced in Hollywood. George King then formed his own company, British Aviation Pictures, managing the rights to the Mitchell story.
It is not clear how Leslie Howard heard of the story, but he immediately became very interested in it. He approached Arthur Rank of General Film Distributors and discussed the project with him. Rank agreed to finance the entire production.
Leslie Howard brought in Anatole de Grunwald to work with Malleson on the screenplay, and soon the project became of great interest for the government itself. Churchill himself granted the production all possible facilities, and provided Leslie with a ‘go anywhere’ pass. The War Office gave David Niven — who was at that time in the Army — a special leave to work on the film (four weeks according Niven’s memoirs, five months according military records).

The film does take some liberties with R.J. Mitchell’s character and story. In fact, rather than an inspired, visionary Don Quixote fighting against an obtuse mentality, he was a successful designer profitably working at many different aircrafts. He was a tall, big, practical man, quite different from the character played by Leslie Howard. Mitchell’s illness and death, too, are romanticized: he did not exhausted himself to death working on the Spitfire, he eventually lost his struggle against a rectal cancer in 1937. Ronald Howard wrote: “In the final analysis Mrs Mitchell ad, to an extent, her son Gordon who frequently accompanied her to the studios, had reservations about the way the film depicted Mitchell. Perhaps Leslie had carried the humanising process too far.” (In Search of My Father, p. 110).

The film was released on September 12, 1942  in the UK. In the United States, it was released on June 12, 1943, a few days after Leslie’s death. In spite of the sad coincidence that could have possibly given the film a great resonance, The First of the Few (renamed Spitfire) was tepidly received in the US. Reviewers generally complained that the film was not the heroic saga they had expected. As Estel Eforgan  rightly points out in Leslie’s biography, “the film is very different from the full-blown, romanticized style of Hollywood. There was the influence of the wartime documentary movement […] The death of the young pilots in the battle of Britain was a sickening loss to the country, and yet another one that it could barely afford to make. No wonder that the mood of Leslie’s nearly contemporary film was less one of celebration, more of angry questions being asked” (Leslie Howard, the Lost Actor, p. 187)

Final note for Leslie’s fans: there are two interesting cameo appearances in The First of the Few: Leslie Ruth Howard (Leslie’s daughter) as Nurse Kennedy, and Violette Cunnington (credited as Suzanne Clair) as Madeleine.

The First of the Few (Spitfire)

Directed and produced by Leslie Howard
Original story by Henry C. James and Kay Strueby
Screenplay by Anatole de Grunwald and Miles Malleson
Original music by William Walton
Art director Paul Sheriff
Lighting and cinematography by George Périnal
Camera operator Jack Hildyard
Film editing by Douglas Myers

Cast

R.J. Mitchell Leslie Howard
Geoffrey Crisp David Niven
Diana Mitchell Rosamund John
Miss Harper Ann Firth
Commander Bride Roland Culver
Mr Higgins David Horne
Sir Robert Mclean J.H. Roberts
Mable Lovesey Rosalyn Bouleter
Lady Houston Toni Edgar Bruce
Mr. Royce George Skillan
Squadron Leader Jefferson Derrick De Marney
Bertorelli Filippo Del Giudice
Messerschmitt Erik Freund
Von Straben F.R. Wendhausen
Major Buchan Gordon McLeod
Macpherson Herbert Cameron
Madeleine Suzanne Clair

Summary

The film story of the Spitfire is told in retrospect by David Niven, as Geoffrey Crisp, Mitchell’s friend and test pilot. Niven is seen as a Wing Commander somewhere in Britain, in September 1940, awaiting with a group of young pilots the order to “scramble.” The youngsters are wondering who designed their Spitfires and Crisp, flying veteran of the first World War, who knew the designer, then tells Mitchell’s story and the scene shifts back to 1922.
Mitchell, the aircraft designer, is shown picnicking with his wife, played by Rosamund John, and dreaming of a streamlined airplane based on the seagull’s flight. He is soon joined by Crisp, ex RAF officer, who becomes his test pilot, as Mitchell starts his long fight to improve British aviation. Schneider Cup disappointments and successes mark the course of his career, and he finally triumphs with the Supermarine S-6, which wins the trophy for Britain permanently.
During a holiday in Germany with his wife and Crisp, Mitchell discovers the growing might of the Germain air force, and meets Messerschmitt, who is to give his name to Goering’s most dangerous plane. Mitchell hurries back to England to try to warn the government that new fighting planes must be built, and meets the industrial slump and technical prejudice. But Lady Houston, an eccentric noblewoman, comes to his aid and he is able to continue his work.
Falling ill, Mitchell is warned by his doctor that he must slow up and take a holiday, or he will die. He has just agreed to a vacation when the headlines tell of German planes bombing Spanish towns, and he insists on continuing his work. He lives only long enough to see the plane put in mass production.
(Jane Corby, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 14, 1943)

Reviews

It is difficult to tell how closely Mr. Leslie Howard’s account of the life and work of R.J. Mitchell conforms to fact, but at least it contains nothing wild or improbable. Mitchell is seen working away with persistence and all of Mr. Howard’s imperturbability at designs which won the Schneider Trophy for Britain and finally evolved into the Spitfire. He has to face opposition, failure, the unwillingness of the Government to spend money on aviation, and finally, an illness which he is warned will kill him if he persists in overworking. Mitchell has been to Germany, however, and is convinced of England’s danger: the work goes on, the first Spitfire is built, and Mitchell dies happy in the knowledge that he has given his life for his country. It is a story which could have been told blatantly, but Mr. Howard, the director, manages it with a tact which keeps it continually interesting, and occasionally moving. Mr. Howard, the actor, has the help of Mr. David Niven, as the test pilot, and together they give an impressive demonstration of acting in the tradition Gerald du Maurier represented on the stage. The screen is not inclined to be over-friendly to the casual under-statement, the off-hand approach, the artlessness which conceals an art conceived in terms of hard work and perfect timing, but here the style is successful, for it perfectly fits the theme and title of the film.
(The Times, August 20, 1942)

Released at this particular time, when Leslie Howard is believed to have been lost when the plane in which he was flying to England was so recently shot down, interest in “Spitfire” has an added impetus, aside from Howard’s personal prestige and the keen American awareness of the exploits of the Spitfires themselves. In the role of R.J. Mitchell, designer of the plane, Howard gives a poignant and moving performance, how moving he himself could not know. In an almost prophetic sequence, when, as Mitchell, he is about to die in the film, he says goodby from the screen, expressing his gratitude to his friends. The scene has a profoundly stirring climax to Howard’s own career, though he intended it only as the climax to the career of R.J. Mitchell.[…]
“Spitfire,” as the story of fighting plane, pales beside such stories as Hollywood’s Flying Fortress film, “Air Force.” But “Spitfire” is primarily a biography, not an action film, and its easy pace puts over the personality of Mitchell the designer, rather than the dazzling adventures of the plane he created. Leslie Howard acts well the role of the dreamy, inspired designer who sacrifices himself for his country’s need and David Niven is interesting, if not entirely convincing as a daring test pilot. Rosamund John is charming as Mitchell’s wife.
But it is Leslie Howard as himself who holds the spotlight in “Spitfire,” as the talented screen figure who is probably making his last appearance.
(Jane Corby, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 14, 1943)

If the film seems more informative than dramatic, that perhaps is due in large measure to the retiring nature of Mr. Mitchell, who apparently led a very ordinary life outside of his workshop. It is evident, too, that Leslie Howard, as the star, director and producer of the picture, deliberately avoided accentuating any phase of the inventor’s life, preferring to tell the story in a simple, straightforward manner. That is at once the picture’s weakness and, conversely, its strength, for what lacks in dramatic intensity it compensates for in large measure by its honesty of purpose–to do simple justice to its subject.[…]
Mr. Howard, who was reported killed recently on a flight from Lisbon to England, gives a casual, but sincere performance as the designer.
(T.M.P., The New York Times, June 14, 1943)

As a director, Howard avoided tasteless melodramatics with commendable honesty of purpose, but he consistently failed to give his picture the lift it needs and deserves.
The interest of the subject is such that “Spitfire” can be seen without contributing to the waste of our time. Regarded on its own ground, that of the modestly tolerable British film, it has certain views, instructions, and pleasures to offers. Severe disappointment results only when you see it in the light of the great British pictures or believe that it could and should have been an inspiring saga of the man who more than any other single person saved England and the rest of the world from Nazi domination.
(Archer Winston, The New York Post, June 14, 1943)

Spitfire is in no way a slick, machine-turned production; it has, on the contrary, a virtue uncommon in contemporary films—the look and texture of the lovingly handmade article. It has also the quiet discretion that always distinguished Leslie Howard as an actor. He is well supported by Rosamund John and David Niven, who delicately suggest the subtle interdependencies which may develop between a mature woman, a man of vision and a man of action. (Time, June 28, 1943)

This is a film you will remember. For somehow, telling a man’s dream come true and the origin and growth of the Spitfire, Leslie Howard, who directed and produced this film, tells an underlying story too–an underlying story about ideals and decency and the individual pride which belongs to men of free nations–the very thing all such men fight for today.
Your Reviewer Says: Don’t miss this.
(Photoplay, August 1943)

Gallery

Leslie Howard The First of the Few

Rosamund John and Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard The First of the Few

Leslie Howard and David Niven

Leslie Howard The First of the Few

Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard The First of the Few

David Niven and Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard The First of the Few

Leslie Howard and Rosamund John

Leslie Howard The First of the Few

David Niven and Leslie Howard

Leslie Howard The First of the Few

Leslie Howard and David Niven

Leslie Howard The First of the Few

Leslie Howard as R.J. Mitchell