ERIC PORTMAN: THE PORTMAN CONNECTION
A re-consideration of the work of 1940s British movie star Eric Portman – his work, Yorkshire roots, career and legacy.
For a brief shining moment in the 1940s, Eric Portman was one of the biggest of England’s film stars.
Born in Halifax in 1901 he was 40 before he experienced his breakthrough as a bona fide movie star. And what a breakthrough. His performance as a fanatical Nazi leading a rag-tag band of submariners across land to hoped-for sanctuary in neutral America in Powell & Pressburger’s propagandist flag-waver 49th Parallel was so powerful it led to his fellow actors campaigning for him to be afforded star status. Given that the stars included Leslie Howard and Laurence Olivier Portman was instantaneously in very good company.
Throughout the 1940s he enjoyed a career that allowed him to evolve from character actor to leading man in films as diverse as ‘… one of our aircraft is missing’, A Canterbury Tale, Daybreak and Dear Murderer.
Neither as conventionally handsome as James Mason nor as characterful as Charles Laughton, both fellow Yorkshiremen, Portman nevertheless acquired a reputation for impactful performances. He was a flexible actor, equally at home as heroes and villains. And he retained the ability to revert back to his northern roots as evidenced by his factory foreman in Millions Like Us, his RAF co-pilot in ‘… one of our aircraft is missing’ and his blue collar diplomat in His Excellency.
It is puzzling today as to why Portman does not carry the same weight as contemporaries such as Michael Redgrave, Trevor Howard, James Mason and John Mills. Maybe the answer lies in his devotion to the stage.
From his beginnings in theatre in the years immediately after the Great War through to his final stage role in John Galsworthy’s Justice in 1968, the year before he died, Portman was a formidable performer. Had he dedicated himself to movies he may well have enjoyed a comparable career to Redgrave, Howard et al.
Portman made 44 film appearances over 35 years. Several of his movies are worthy of revival and would remind audiences of the power and importance of an actor who shone so brightly so briefly. He died in 1969.
Most recent date: Holmfirth Film Festival, May 30, 2014, plus screening of 49th Parallel.
Halifax Festival, July 6 2012, launching Driving Integrity, a season of Portman films. Titles included 49th Parallel, ‘… one of our aircraft is missing’, A Canterbury Tale, The Colditz Story and Deadfall.