Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Hal E. Chester RIP

Hal E Chester obituary
Shrewd film producer behind School for Scoundrels and Night of the Demon

Joel Finler
Hal E Chester, who has died aged 91, was a juvenile actor, then a producer of low-budget movies in Hollywood, before he moved in 1955 to Britain, where he set up his own production company to take advantage of the lower costs of filming. Over the next 15 years he turned out a wide range of pictures, which often featured American stars such as Mickey Rooney, Dana Andrews, Yul Brynner and Paul Newman. For a period he specialised in British comedies. The first and best of these was School for Scoundrels (1960), loosely based on the popular Gamesmanship books of Stephen Potter. The impressive cast included Alastair Sim, Terry-Thomas and Dennis Price, with Ian Carmichael as the intrepid hero trying to impress Janette Scott.

Small, dynamic and fast-talking, Chester was perhaps a typical example of the shrewd and ambitious Hollywood producer. He was born Harold Ribotsky in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest of seven children of Polish-Jewish parents who had arrived in the US in the 1890s. Enterprising and hard-working from an early age, he was a delivery boy, a magician's assistant, a newsboy selling subscriptions, a runner on Wall Street and an enthusiastic amateur painter before turning to the theatre. When he first went on the stage he took the surname of his new stepmother and called himself Hally Chester.

His performance in the popular play Dead End led to an offer from Hollywood to appear in a sequel to the 1937 film of that play. This follow-up was entitled Crime School (1938) and starred Humphrey Bogart; Chester appeared as one of the Dead End Kids. Continuing to play tough, streetwise juveniles as part of the popular, but short-lived cycle of teenage gang movies, he was one of Monogram's East Side Kids and was among Universal's Junior G-Men.

After a break from filming during the second world war, when he toured the country making personal appearances, Chester returned to Hollywood, where he produced a number of musical shorts. Still only in his mid-20s, he co-wrote and produced Joe Palooka, Champ (1946), the first of a series of Monogram movies loosely based on the popular comic strip.

The best of Chester's early low-budget features were The Underworld Story (1950), a hard-hitting gangster flick directed by Cy Enfield and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), most memorable for its stop-motion monster effects created by Ray Harryhausen. Chester maintained a steady output of around one picture per year, and collaborated on the story or script for a number of his most interesting projects such as Crashout (1955), an atmospheric thriller about a group of ex-convicts on the run.

The Bold and the Brave (1956) starred Rooney, Wendell Corey and Don Taylor as American GIs fighting in Italy. The Two-Headed Spy (1958) provided Michael Caine with one of his early roles. In between came a memorable horror movie, Night of the Demon (1957), starring Andrews as a psychologist caught up in a series of deaths. After The Double Man (1967), a typical cold war spy thriller, and The Secret War of Harry Frigg (1968), starring Newman, Chester made one more film – Take a Girl Like You (1970), based on the Kingsley Amis novel – before retiring, just as most of the American studios were severely reducing their overseas commitments.

Chester, who was married three times, continued to live in London until his death. He is survived by two sons.

Hal E Chester (Harold Ribotsky), film producer, born 6 March 1921; died 25 March 2012

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