Born in 1916, Roy Baker was the son of a Billingsgate fish merchant. He was educated at a French lycée, and at the City of London School. In 1934, Baker began work at Gainsborough Pictures, where the legendary Alfred Hitchcock’s career began. Within four years, Baker had risen from humble gopher to assistant director on Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.
During World War II, Baker served in the British army, and from 1943 onwards was involved in making military documentaries. One of his supervisors was Eric Ambler, the popular author of a string of English spy novels. Baker’s debut feature as director, The January Man (1947), was scripted by Ambler.
But it was a naval adventure starring John Mills, Morning Departure (1950), that brought Baker’s directing skills to an American audience. He was hired by Darryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century Fox, and spent the next few years in Hollywood. His first film for Fox, I’ll Never Forget You (or The House on the Square), with Tyrone Power, was made in England.
Baker’s next project was an adaptation of Charlotte Armstrong’s novel, Mischief, about an estranged couple who come to the aid of a disturbed young woman, Nell. Joe Schenck, founding partner at Fox, wanted his protégée, Marilyn Monroe, to take the part of Nell, but Zanuck considered Monroe a lightweight, and Baker thought that at 25, she was too old to play a girl of nineteen.
However, Schenck prevailed. A disgruntled Zanuck vowed to make the production as cheap as possible. ‘I went into the history of Marilyn’s adventures up to that time,’ Baker told Mike Evans, author of The Marilyn Handbook, in 2004. ‘She’d actually acted in fifteen pictures. She’d been around, so in many ways it was the last chance saloon for her.’
Baker’s first meeting with Monroe was at a costume fitting, along with her designer friend, Bill Travilla, in the first of their inspired collaborations. ‘We made her look as plain as possible at the beginning of the story,’ Baker recalled wryly, ‘with little make-up and wearing an ill-fitting cotton dress – all of which made her look, if anything, more attractive.’
‘She was very overwrought and very nervous,’ Baker said of Marilyn, ‘and frightened to death and all that, the usual thing, and it was a very difficult job.’ It was 1951, and Marilyn had already been working in films for five years, mostly in small, undemanding parts which capitalized on her beauty and sex appeal.
The role of Nell Forbes would be Monroe’s most challenging to date, and the character’s fate echoed her own troubled background. Marilyn’s mother, Gladys, had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic fifteen years earlier, and would spend much of her later life in psychiatric hospitals. Furthermore, Nell is obsessed with a former boyfriend who had died during World War II, while Gladys had separated from Marilyn’s father while pregnant.
Given the weight of expectation, it is perhaps unsurprising that Marilyn relied heavily on her drama coach, Natasha Lytess. ‘(Monroe) was bedeviled by her coach who was a …well, she was not the right person,’ Baker told Mike Evans. ‘(Lytess) bored on about Stanislavsky and all that stuff long before the Method got going…she had Marilyn absolutely under her spell, and Marilyn couldn’t move or breathe without her. ‘
Eventually, Baker banned Lytess from the set. Marilyn complained to Zanuck, who wrote back, ‘I think you are capable of playing this role without the help of anyone but the director and yourself. You have built up a Svengali and if you are going to progress with your career and become as important talent-wise as you have publicity-wise then you must destroy this Svengali before it destroys you. When I cast you for this role, I cast you as an individual.’
Even without Natasha’s interference, Baker found Marilyn difficult to work with. ‘The other actors were marvellous,’ he said. ‘I mean, they were bored witless by her continually fluffing and missing the moves…’ Actor Richard Widmark once said, ‘We had a hell of a time getting her out of the dressing room and on to the set. At first we thought she’d never get anything right…But something happened between the lens and the film, and when we looked at the rushes she had the rest of us knocked off the screen!’
‘Marilyn was not obstreperous or difficult like some of them can be, the prima donnas,’ Baker admitted. ‘She was not a prima donna at all, far from it, and she had her own interests at heart.’ And though he considered her ‘miscast’, Baker came to appreciate Monroe’s screen charisma. ‘That really was the basis that I arrived at after about a week,’ he concluded, ‘that I’m not directing any actress, I’m directing a film star.’
Anne Bancroft, who made her film debut in Don’t Bother to Knock, believed that Marilyn was a better actress than many gave her credit for. Of their scenes together, Bancroft said, ‘It was a remarkable experience. Because it was one of those very few times in all my experiences in Hollywood when I felt that give and take – that can only happen when you are working with good actors. There was just this scene of one woman seeing another woman who was helpless and in pain, and she was helpless and in pain. It was so real, I responded. I really reacted to her. She moved me so that tears came into my eyes. Believe me, such moments happened rarely, if ever again, in the early things I was doing.’
Don’t Bother to Knock was released in July 1952. Some critics thought Marilyn was out of her depth in this dramatic vehicle, while others praised her performance. It became one of Baker’s most successful films, and over time it has grown in stature. Don’t Bother to Knock cited as a late example of film noir and while Marilyn’s later, comedic performances are more popular, many fans consider it to be among her best work.
In retrospect, Baker conceded that Marilyn was more suited to the role than he first thought. ‘Her background fitted,’ he reflected, ‘and I think she knew what she was talking about. I think that’s why she – or whoever it was discovered this book – she probably thought “That’s for me.”’ Shortly after the film’s release, Marilyn told journalist Aline Mosby, ‘I’m trying to find myself now, to be a good actress and a good person. Sometimes I feel strong inside but I have to reach in and pull it up. It isn’t easy. Nothing’s easy. But you go on.’
In 1958, three years after returning to Britain, Baker directed A Night to Remember, based on the Titanic disaster of 1912. The film was an international success and won a Golden Globe award. The Singer Not the Song (1961), a western starring Dirk Bogarde, was an unhappy experience. Baker did not get along with Bogarde, whom – unlike Monroe – he considered ‘a prima donna’, and the film flopped in Britain, hastening the demise of Rank Studios.
With cinema on the wane, Baker moved into television, directing episodes of The Avengers, The Saint, The Persuaders, The Irish R.M. and Minder. He returned to the big screen in 1967 with a memorable venture into science fiction, Quatermass and the Pit. Baker continued working until 1992.
‘Roy Ward Baker has been described as a technically proficient director, but not a particularly artistic one,’ Terence Towles Canote stated recently on his blog, Shroud of Thoughts. ‘I have to disagree with this. In his best films, such as Don’t Bother to Knock, A Night to Remember, and Quatermass and the Pit, Mr. Baker utilised a naturalistic, almost documentary like directorial style that was particularly effective not only in heightening realism, but in increasing suspense.’