13 January 2008

A Long Overdue Tribute to Francis L. Sullivan


This has never happened to me before: I was lazing about on the couch on a Saturday afternoon (actually that part has happened to me quite a bit), halfway watching a film, when I saw an actor who was so amazing that I woke up. The film was the 1946 version of Great Expectations. The actor was Francis L. Sullivan.

Now I need to paint the picture properly: I really had been half asleep. The other actors in the 1946 Great Expectations are pretty mediocre, to say the least. The guy who plays "Pip" is a whiney-looking midget, the actress who plays "Estella" is much bigger than him and looks as if she could beat him arm wrestling, and don't even get me started on Miss Havisham. But then a scene comes up with Mr. Jaggers, the lawyer handling Pip's benefits, and WOW. Francis L. Sullivan played the role, a role which could have been the biggest yawn in what was already a veritable Armada of yawns, but instead he was amazingly alive and he brought the role (and indeed whatever scene he was in) a certain coolness. I actually stopped the scene at the end, rewound it, and played it again a few times (I love digital cable). And then I was so possessed that I actually waited for the credits just so I could see who this guy was. Yes, it was so important to me that I actually sat through the entire 1946 version of Great Expectations, just to see the scenes Francis was in, and to get his name at the end. I hope that wherever Francis is, he appreciates this fact. In case you're curious, all ends well for Pip at the end of the story, although it's a pretty boring ride getting there. This is a film sorely in need of a sex scene or a well-timed car chase. But I digress.

So anyway, I immediately got up and found out everything I could about him. Well, OK, I didn't exactly "get up", because my computer was right there. But I sat up. And here are some of the things I found out:


Francis L. Sullivan was born 6 January, 1903 in London, England. From childhood he had a great interest in the works of Shakespeare, he made his Old Vic debut at the age of 18 in a production of Richard III, he worked successfully in theater in London, and then eventually was "discovered" by Hollywood, and the rest is history - or rather not. Because although he worked a lot and was very successful and certainly had the admiration of his peers, it's not as if his name has gone down in history. In fact, if not for the fact that he performed with some bona fide Hollywood legends, he might be altogether forgotten (or in today's parlance: Un-Googleable). This is an interesting thing about Hollywood: Not all great actors are famous. And not all famous actors are great. Not by a long shot.

This is how good Francis is: He was actually able to steal focus from one of the most beautiful women in screen history, Vivien Leigh. Here's a scene of him in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), in which he plays Pothinus. He's the big chubby one.

Such presence! And there's no mistaking who he is when he walks into the scene!

Here he is as Mr. Brumble in 1948's Oliver Twist:


Look how expressive he is! You can't even see his whole face, but for crying out loud, look at him!

Now here's a theory that I have: I think that people who are really great actors must also be very intelligent. I mean how can you convey intelligence on the screen if you haven't got it for real, right? A lesser actor might convey intelligence by putting glasses on, but he's only fooling himself. Well go and look at some of Francis's work. The man simply oozes intelligence. I would love to go back in time and have lunch with him!

Here's a story that I adore: Apparently, while portraying an airplane passenger in a live television drama, Francis forgot his lines, ad-libbed "Excuse me, this is my stop," stepped off the "plane," and disappeared from the proceedings. I LOVE HIM!!!

Here he is looking all intense. I don't know which film this is from:


Pretty scary, huh?

By now you might have gathered that I have a bit of a crush on him. I do. Wim knows it, too. But since Francis has been dead for over 50 years, he's OK with it. So, you know, everything's out in the open. Ain't nothing for me to feel guilty over. I've gone a whole lifetime without ever being the sort of person to get a crush on an actor, and now finally I do and he's, well, so inaccessible. *sigh*

I'll leave you with what I consider one of the nicest photos of Francis, and the one which I imagine was closest to what he must have looked like "off set". So when I imagine hanging out with Francis and giggling like a schoolgirl while I tell him he's my favorite actor of all times, this is what he looks like:


More Francis Stuff!!

The trailer to the 1946 version of Great Expectations:

Here he is in Oliver Twist (1948) - from about the 7:48 mark on the video:

And here from about the 4:08 mark on the video:

BTW It turns out the guy who plays Fagan in this film is the same guy who played Pip in Great Expectations who I described as a "whiney looking midget", and it turns put it was Sir Alec Guinness (whoops!), and I must say he's amazing as Fagan. Maybe I just don't like the character Pip altogether. Either way, Francis L. Sullivan is consistently fabulous in everything he does as far as I can tell. Editors note: April 2009 I have just been informed by a reader that Sir Alec Guiness did not, in fact, play Pip; but instead that he played Pip's friend, Pocket (who was considerably handsomer and more engaging on screen than Pip so it explains a lot, really). I must have read the credits too quickly or something.


Brian said...

But what has he done LATELY?

Ken_l said...

The actor who played Fagan in Oliver Twist did NOT play Pip in Great Expectations....he played Pocket, Pip's roommate.
He went on to win an Academy Award for his role in Bridge on the River Kwai.

Jovanka said...

I stand corrected! Sorry about that....And thanks!

altadenahiker said...

Well, you'd have to fight me for him. Love when he says, "Not a particle of evidence!"

Jovanka said...

Yes! He made every word count - that's what was so great about him!

Drew said...

The 1946 version of Great Expectations, of which you write, is nothing at all to do with Hollywood. Is it any accident that it's one of the finest films ever made?

I do find Francis L Sullivan to be a great actor, myself though.

Joe Lannen said...

John Mills is the actor who played Pip in the 1946 version of Great Expectations.

Anonymous said...

Completely agree when Great Expectations is on the TV I watch it just to see & enjoy seeing & listening to him!!!

Tiarnan said...

I have "Great Expectations" on pause as I search for the man who played Mr Jaggers...because I'm actually dumbfounded as to how good his performance is. In fact what his performance reminds me of is a speech by Huey Long... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hphgHi6FD8k

Glad I found your article - as its nice to know people appreciate acting that transcends the screen.

Anonymous said...

WatchFrances in Pimpernel Smith outstanding

charles r said...

Great actor, great performance...good of you to honor his work and memory.

Anonymous said...

I believe I own a painting by him, watercolor