Joan Henry: The Jailbird Muse

August 30, 2020
A look at the career of one of Britain's most prolific directors, J. Lee Thompson – and the role played in it by his one-time wife Joan Henry.

The superb season of Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast focuses on the life and times of Polly Platt, perhaps the most famous member of Hollywood’s “first wives” club: namely, spouses who made immense, yet forgotten contributions to their husband’s careers… careers that never reached the same heights after they dumped said wife.

Other confederates of this association include Marcia Lucas (Mrs George Lucas), Virginia Zanuck (Mrs Daryl Zanuck) and Irene Selznick (Mrs David O’Selznick) – women whose partners peaked artistically when wed to them. This phenomenon isn’t limited to first wives, or even wives – there are plenty of unsung collaborators in filmmaking who never get the credit they deserve (for instance, Sam Wasson’s recent book on the making of Chinatown only recently shone some much-needed light on Edward Taylor’s extensive contributions to Robert Towne’s career). But there is something particularly poignant about the notion of someone owing a great deal of their success to their spouse, then betraying that spouse, emotionally, sexually and professionally… and paying for it, at least on a creative level.

Such was the case of J. Lee Thompson and Joan Henry.

Most film buffs would know Thompson, the British writer-producer-director whose credits include The Guns of Navarone, the 1962 Cape Fear and some of Charles Bronson’s worst movies. Henry is less well-remembered today, although at one stage her fame (or, rather notoriety) outstripped Thompson’s.

She was born in 1914 in Belgravia, London. Henry had a classy lineage – she was descended from two British Prime Ministers (John Russell and Robert Peel), and her mother’s cousin was the philosopher Bertrand Russell. It wasn’t an easy life, though – her father deserted the family when Joan was young, causing her mother to have a breakdown; Joan and her twin sister were brought up by her grandparents in Ireland, and that sister died when Joan was 21, causing much anguish to the surviving sibling.

Joan was a debutante, making her “debut” in 1932, and she married an army officer in 1938. They had one daughter but World War Two put the marriage under such strain that they eventually broke up. Henry started writing romance novels to bring in some money and developed a gambling habit which resulted in her passing a forged cheque; she claimed it wasn’t her fault but the police didn’t believe her, nor did the jury assigned to her case: in 1951, Joan Henry was sentenced to twelve months in prison. She wound up serving eight, most of it at the legendary Holloway Prison, with the rest at Askham Grange Open Prison, a newer, more reformist institution.

Former debutantes-cum-romance-novelists-cum-prison-inmates were not common at the time – it was suggested Henry write a memoir about her experiences, which she did. The result, Who Lie in Gaol, became a bestseller and media sensation on its publication in 1952, drawing attention to the treatment of female prisoners in Britain. The book was read by director J. Lee Thompson, who wanted to adapt it into a movie.

Thompson was born the same year as Henry. He had been something of a child prodigy, claiming to have written forty plays by the time he was 18, the year he married his first wife. One of those forty plays, Double Error, had a short run on the West End in 1935, which helped Thompson break into the British film industry as a writer and dialogue director. He rewrote Double Error as Murder Without Crime which had success on the stage in London and Broadway in the 1940s. After war service, Thompson returned to writing but when he sold the film rights to Murder without Crime, he decided to direct it as well. The film was released in 1950 and Thompson established himself as a solid helmer of B pictures such as The Yellow Balloon and For Better or For Worse . He was ambitious to do something more, and was impressed by Who Lie in Gaol. Thompson’s backers at Associated British agreed to finance a film version, which became The Weak and the Wicked (1954), starring Glynis Johns as (basically) Joan Henry, and co-starring Diana Dors and John Gregson.

The movie is a first-rate women-in-prison melodrama: powerful, realistic, and not without humour; Diana Dors, up until then more famous for being famous than her acting, was a revelation, and it was Thompson’s best directing work to date. The movie was a big hit at the box office and put Thompson in the “A” leagues: the Rank Organisation offered him As Long as They’re Happy, and Associated British gave him a big budget for An Alligator Named Daisy (Diana Dors was in both, incidentally).

Thompson wanted to make a story about a man on death row. Henry suggested they do it about a woman, so that she could draw on her personal experience; she wound up writing a novel called Yield to the Night (1954), about a woman who is executed for committing murder.

Thompson succeeded in setting up the film version at Associated British; Henry co-wrote the script, Thompson directed, and Dors starred. The result was a masterpiece, a stunningly good drama, where Dors plays a character who never asks for sympathy but gets it anyway: she’s guilty of the crime, isn’t friendly to her family or death penalty protestors, still loves the louse who drove her to murder. The movie is full of little touches that speak volumes for Henry’s personal experience in prison – the routine of changing guards, the conversations, the way the seconds drag on by, the visiting officials, the small privileges, the overwhelming pressure of the longing for a reprieve – and the final moments are devastating: it’s one of the best British movies of the decade. Lazy critics claimed the film was inspired by the case of Ruth Ellis, who turned out to be the last woman hung in Britain (she was played by Miranda Richardson in the 1985 film Dance with a Stranger); the novel was actually published a year before Ellis committed her murder. Overlooking this fact served to downplay the skill of Henry’s contribution to Yield to the Night – her story did have parallels with Ellis’ case, but that was due more to Henry’s own insight, which predicted the future with such accuracy.

Joan Henry had provided the material for Thompson’s two best movies to date – smart, passionate, tense, beautifully done. The two clearly had rapport on a personal level as well: Thompson left his wife of twenty years and two children to be with Henry, who he married in 1958. It was not the first time a director had fallen in love with his screenwriter; it may have been the first time one did so after reading that screenwriter’s memoir about being in prison, which he turned into a movie.

The next few years were the golden period of Thompson’s career – he went on to make The Good Companions (1957), a jolly musical; Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), a tough drama about adultery, from a script by Ted Willis; Ice Cold in Alex (1958), a brilliant war suspense tale;  North West Frontier (1959), an exciting Imperial adventure movie starring Kenneth More, shot in India; Tiger Bay (1959), a thriller that introduced Hayley Mills to the screen; No Trees in the Street (1959), a social realist melodrama, again from a script by Willis; and I Aim at the Stars (1960), a biopic of Werner Van Braun. Then he received a call from producer Carl Foreman to replace director Alexander Mackendrick on The Guns of Navarone (1961), an expensive all-star action movie based on a novel by Alistair Maclean. Thompson’s work at such short notice impressed star Gregory Peck, who hired the Englishman to direct Cape Fear (1962).

It was an incredible run: few filmmakers had a hot streak like J. Lee Thompson from 1956 to 1962. All the movies were well-reviewed (on the whole); Robert Mitchum gave one of the all-time iconic performances in Cape Fear; ditto Hayley Mills in Tiger Bay, Yvonne Mitchell in Woman, and John Mills and Sylvia Syms in Alex. Commercially, things were even better: Cape Fear, Tiger Bay, Northwest Frontier, Woman and Alex were all solid hits, and Navarone a box-office phenomenon. J. Lee Thompson had become one of the most in-demand directors in the world.

The success seems to have come at a domestic cost. By 1962, the director was being seen in the company of actor Susan Hampshire, and Thompson was telling the press he was unable to make up his mind between Hampshire and Henry (seriously, he told the press this). Later that year, it was reported that he had broken it off with both women and was dating actor Shirley Ann Field. Thompson would eventually divorce Henry and marry a third time in the late 1960s.

Coincidence or not, the overall quality of J. Lee Thompson’s films declined sharply after things ended with Joan Henry. He made two bloated epics with Yul Brynner (Taras Bulba and Kings of the Sun), two bloated comedies with Shirley Maclaine  (What a Way to Go, John Goldfarb Please Come Home), two patchy thrillers (Return from the Ashes, Eye of the Devil), two bloated reunions with Gregory Peck (Mackennas Gold, The Chairman), two attempts at returning to more intimate dramas (Before Winter Comes, Country Dance), two solid sequels to The Planet of the Apes (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Battle for the Planet of the Apes), two TV movies (A Great American Tragedy, Widow), and a musical (Huckleberry Finn). There were some excellent moments in all these movies – I’m a particular fan of Eye of the Devil and the Apes films – but his overall average had dropped. He certainly never reached the heights of Navarone, Yield to the Night, Cape Fear, or Tiger Bay.

Thompson at least found his commercial niche again in the mid 1970s as a director of Charles Bronson vehicles, starting with St Ives in 1976. The two men would make eight more movies together, of decreasing ambition: The White Buffalo, Capo Blanco, 10 to Midnight, The Evil That Men Do, Murphy’s Law, Death Wish 4, Messenger of Death, and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects. Amidst this run, Thompson also tried his hand at a Europudding war movie (The Passage), a fake biopic (The Greek Tycoon), a slasher (Happy Birthday to Me), two comedy adventures with stars not used to making them (King Solomon’s Mines with Richard Chamberlain, Firewalker with Chuck Norris), and Rock Hudson’s last theatrical feature (The Ambassador). Most of his later films were financed by Cannon Pictures.

Thompson was aware of his artistic decline. In 1992, he said “I have certain regrets now. I would rather have stuck to making films like Yield to the Night which had some integrity and importance. But the British film industry caved in. I suppose I sort of sold out.” In 2000, two years before his death, he warned young directors, “Don’t make a film for the sake of making it. Make it only if you really believe in it. Then success will eventually come to you.” He rarely mentioned Joan Henry in interviews.

Joan Henry’s subsequent career wasn’t as well publicised as Thompson’s, but she still kept active. She wrote the screenplay for Passionate Summer (1958), a film for the Rank Organisation starring Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers that had little impact. She wrote for the stage with Look on Tempests (1960), the first play dealing explicitly with the subject of homosexuality to be passed by the Lord Chamberlain (possibly because the gay characters are discussed, not seen on stage – which might be why the play was not a hit). She wrote some TV plays, Rough Justice and Person to Person, but neither had had the impact of her first two novels. She died in 2001, one year before Thompson.

How influential was Joan Henry to J. Lee Thompson’s career?

It’s easy to gauge in the case of The Weak and the Wicked and Yield to the Night: neither would have existed without her.

It gets harder for the other movies made during their marriage: she’s not credited on any of them.

But one can look at patterns.

The female roles during his 1956-62 period were incredibly strong – giving career-high roles to actors like Glynis Johns, Diana Dors, Yvonne Mitchell, Hayley Mills, Polly Bergen, Barrie Chase and Sylvia Syms. After Thompson’s marriage to Henry ended, the quality of female parts in his movies dropped away. He continued to be interested in young actresses – at different times he put Samantha Eggar, Shirley Ann Field and Talitha Pol under personal contract – but none of them had the opportunities of his ‘56-62 posse (Pol, one of the most stunning actors of the sixties, which is saying something, later married John Paul Getty, quit acting and died of a heroin overdose).

An interesting contrast is Thompson’s treatment of rape in Cape Fear (Henry period) and The Passage (non-Henry). The former is a terrifying examination of that crime, with a particularly memorable subplot involving the impact of assault on a victim played by Barrie Chase (giving a superb performance); in the latter, the rape of a woman (Kay Lenz) at the hands of an SS Officer (Malcolm McDowell) is treated in an exploitative, camp way (McDowell wears underpants with a swastika on them, Lenz is shown topless in a shower)… it seems like a movie directed by an entirely different person.

Daily Mail 2 March 1962 p 3

Thompson never had the same run of strong scripts that he did from ‘56-62 either. “I freely admit I’ve done some pretty bad stuff,” he said in 1969. “It’s entirely my own fault. The trouble was I accepted some dismal scripts. I wasn’t tough enough… Writing is the fundamental thing.” He tried to get out of action, making risky films like Before Winter Comes (a tale of post-war refugees), Country Dance (incest), A Great American Tragedy (middle aged unemployment), Widow (about a widow), and The White Buffalo (Charles Bronson as Captain Ahab out west) – but he couldn’t get there.

What happened?

My theory: if you were a director married to a talented writer, it makes sense that you would get her to look at scripts, ask her opinion about things. If you cheated on that wife with starlets, it makes sense that that option may no longer be available.

In his memoir One Man Tango, Anthony Quinn says that when Thompson started work on The Guns of Navarone the director refused to read a script and “his direction consisted of one arbitrary decision after another: Gregory Peck would smoke a pipe; I would grab a knife and look menacing; David Niven would tinker with dynamite… Thompson had a tossed-off piece of business for each of us.” Was this tossed off? Or were they suggestions from Henry to make sure the lead characters in an ensemble piece were all distinct and easily identifiable? Because there is a notable lack of similar bits of business in something like The Passage, where it is hard to tell the characters apart.

Quinn went on to write that on Navarone Thompson “Never read a scene until he had to shoot it and approached each shot on a whim. And yet the cumulative effect was astonishing. Lee Thompson made a marvelous picture but how? Perhaps his inventiveness lay in defying convention, in rejecting the accepted methods of motion picture making and establishing his own. Perhaps it was in his very formlessness that he found the one form he could sustain, and nurture, the one form that could, in turn, sustain and nurture him. Perhaps he was just a lucky Englishman who pulled a good picture out of his ass.”

Or perhaps he had a wife at home giving him script advice which he could pass off on set as his own wisdom.

Maybe Henry’s input was limited.

But maybe it wasn’t.

My own take is that Henry’s relationship with Thompson was analogous to Harrison Ford’s with the screenwriter Melissa Mathison (she wrote ET, among others). The latter duo were married from 1983 to 2004, Ford’s peak years of stardom, where he seemed to go from hit to hit (a few stumbles, absolutely but the average was high). You would consistently read interviews with directors from this time who would comment on Ford giving “excellent notes on the script”. From the early 2000s onward, his record becomes a lot more patchy. Now, there could be plenty of reasons for this (and my definition of “patchy” may be different from yours) – but I would argue a contributing factor might just possibly be the fact that Melissa Mathison wasn’t giving him script advice anymore. And the same could be true for Joan Henry and J. Lee Thompson.

The one Latin phrase I remember from my law days is “Res ipsa loquitur” which means “the thing itself speaks”. It’s used in negligence cases and means you can infer negligence from the nature of an accident or injury in the absence of direct evidence on how any defendant behaved.

Look at the films J. Lee Thompson made when he was with Joan Henry.

Then look at the ones he did without her.

I believe, it’s a case of Res ipsa loquitur – the thing itself speaks.

He was never as good without her.

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Comments

  1. Pingback: A Tale of Two Blondes: Diana Dors and Belinda Lee | FilmInk

  2. Matt

    During his ‘hot streak’ Thompson also got the best out of two top male leads: John Mills as the drink-prone captain of Ice Cold in Alex, and Kenneth More as the resourceful officer of North West Frontier, the best humorously stoical British hero since Robert Donat.

    1. Stephen

      Agree those are career high performances from both actors. I would also add Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear, Hayley Mills in Tiger Bay and Sylvia Syms in Ice Cold

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