By Peggy Nelson
The Horse’s Mouth – 1958 – dir. Ronald Neame
In the comic film The Horse’s Mouth, (dir. Ronald Neame, 1958), Alec Guinness plays an irrepressibly antic and irresponsible artist, in what has been called the most realistic onscreen portrayal of what makes an artist tick. When we first meet him, Gulley Jimson is jut getting out of jail, where he has been locked up for harassing his patron, the wealthy [name], for more commissions and more money. The very first thing he does is make straight for the phone booth to call him again. Jimson lives the pure artist’s life, a bohemian existence on a houseboat, concerned only for his painting and the freedom that inspired it. No poseur, he simply lives for art. And despite his not being overly concerned to make friends and influence people, he has friends who look after him, patrons that are mad for his work, and fellow artists who both beleaguer and entertain him, as they reflect all his contradictions right back at him.
This lively picaresque, scored to the music of Prokofiev, follows Jimson on his escapades as he sets about creating his next masterpiece. Back on his houseboat, Jimson hears that a Sir William and Lady Beeder might be interested in acquiring some of his early work. But while flirting shamelessly with Lady Beeder, Jimson spies the living room wall and, after the Beeders have left on vacation, charms his way past the housemaid and proceeds to create a new, and giant, painting right on the wall, suffering artistic agonies the whole time. Meanwhile, his friends and rivals discover his whereabouts and move themselves in, making a chaotic ad hoc artist’s studio out of the luxury apartments.
Despite Guinness’ impish immersion in the role, Michael Gough almost steals the show as Abel, a sculptor and rival artist. He somehow manages to have a crane lower a giant block of concrete into the apartment from the skylight, where it proceeds to crash through the floor to the apartment below. There he sets up shop with his naked model, while proceeding to sculpt the giant block away to almost nothing. Upstairs, Jimson finally finishes his painting, which, we are finally allowed to see, is a Philip Guston-like cartoon of giant feet. Of course Jimson hates it completely the minute it’s done and has to be forcibly prevented from destroying it. In the way of these things, the painting is declared a national treasure.
Later, a bequest lands Jimson a retrospective at the Tate, where he runs into, and charms, his ex-wife, and gets the idea to steal back some of his early work from her house. He gets her drunk and almost succeeds in his quest, but she discovers him stealing back the work and gets knocked out in the ensuing fistfight, although she has the advantage of him. On his way home, Jimson sights a blank wall of an abandoned church, where he immediately conceives of his largest painting yet. Recruiting helpers from the community, even including Lady Beeder, Jimson covers the wall with his “The Last Judgment,” a giant mural, finishing minutes before the building’s scheduled demolition. Then he leaps into the cab of the bulldozer and knocks down the wall himself.
As we last see him, he has spontaneously unmoored his houseboat and is drifting down the Thames, leaving all his friends and enemies behind, in a lovely image of artistic freedom. One senses, however, that he will be back. He needs his unruly community as much as he claims to be free of it.
Jimson’s paintings were created for the film by the English painter John Bratby, a founder of the Kitchen Sink school of realistic painting. “Kitchen Sink” realism also influenced the working class portrayals of the “angry young men” of late 1950s British cinema, typified by the early roles of Richard Burton and Albert Finney.
Alec Guinness, in addition to starring in the film, was responsible for the screenplay, based on the 1944 novel of the same name by Joyce Cary. However, Guinness adapted the book’s themes to stress “the artist’s life,” more so than any political or social context. And in this he succeeds. One senses that Guinness himself is not unfamiliar with Jimson-like escapades, or at least with the motivation behind them. Far more than any biopic, the slapstick adventures of The Horse’s Mouth show what it’s really like to be an artist, and the way that even the most successful of them march to the beat of a drummer so different, as to risk veering off the road entirely.