“Alexander Mackendrick was born on 8 September 1912, 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 died of influenza as a result of a 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. Mackendrick never saw or heard from his mother again.
Mackendrick had a 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. MacKendrick wrote his first film script with his cousin and close friend, Roger MacDougall. It was bought by Associated British and later released, after script revisions, as Midnight Menace (1937).
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 Roberto Rossellini’s early neorealist film, Rome, Open City (1945).
After the war, Mackendrick and Roger MacDougall set up Merlin Productions, where they produced documentaries for the Ministry of Information. Merlin Productions soon proved financially unviable. In 1946 Mackendrick joined Ealing Studios, originally as a scriptwriter and production designer, where he worked for nine years and directed five films made at Ealing; Whisky Galore! (US: Tight Little Island, 1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), Mandy (1952), The Maggie (US: High and Dry, 1954) and The Ladykillers (1955), the first two and the last being among the best known of Ealing’s films.
Mackendrick often spoke of his dislike of the film industry and decided to leave the United Kingdom for Hollywood in 1955. When the base of Ealing studios was sold that year, Mackendrick was cut loose to pursue a career as a freelance director, something he was never prepared to do…
The rest of his professional life was spent commuting between London and Los Angeles…Mackendrick directed several television commercials in Europe for Horlicks. Mackendrick was replaced on The Guns of Navarone for allegedly being too much of a perfectionist for spending more time than planned on scouting Mediterranean locations and insisting on elements of ancient Greek literature in the screenplay…
In 1969 he returned to the United States after being made Dean of the film school of the California Institute of the Arts, giving up the position in 1978 to become a professor at the school…Mackendrick suffered from severe emphysema for many years and as a result, 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.
“Imagination after all is the making of images. In the case of dramatic imagination it means the capacity to see an image from this point-of-view and then switch to another point-of-view. Without that playfulness of leaping points of view, you don’t have somebody who has the impulse to become a dramatic writer”
Getting an actor to do what you want
Once a student persistently asked him, “How do you get an actor to do what you want?” After persuasion he replied, “You don’t. You get an actor to want what you need. What the director must do is, provide the actor with the encouragement to be what the director needs him to be. There is a reason why you are doing this. It is simple, almost too simple.
“What you do as a director is that you fall in love with the actor in the role. Note that I say, in the role. You’ve got to get yourself infatuated, to a degree that you find yourself besottedly adoring the actor while he is inside the role, as you feel it… If the actor moves outside [the role], what you do, consciously or unconsciously, is you dim the beams of your love, and the actor feels cold and they move back into your love. It is emotional blackmail, on a very good cause. [Hence] before you can control an actor, the thing that you have to control is your self and your own feelings.” “