Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge: 4: Fiddlers Three (1944)

Now, this one is a real curio - a British romantic comedy science-fiction / fantasy musical. Starring one of Ealing's early comedy 'stars' - Tommy Trinder (probably most famous these days for the 1944 Champagne Charlie) - this is a fun but lightweight time travel film with two sailors and a Wren sent back to Nero's Rome during a thunderstorm on Midsummer Night at Stonehenge.

It's a shame I saw this too late to include it in my new book (Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction) because it does play with most of the standard time travel conventions (most of which existed before there was anything that could be described as a 'science fiction' genre): the time travellers survive by offering prophecies of the future (here, about Nero fiddling while Rome burns - a concept that this Nero rather approves of), they inadvertently cause famous events to occur (because of Trinder, Nero accidentally chops the arms off the Venus des Milos statue), and comparisons are made between 'now' and 'then' (Nero scolds his wife for using up too much milk for her bath, says they can't have an expensive funeral during wartime). In this sense, comic fantasy might be a more appropriate term than 'science fiction,' if only because of the obvious debt the film owes Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889).

The film is constantly playful, even if doesn't offer the most successful blend of comedy and musical. The songs are solid but forgettable - the stand-out probably by Poppaea (Frances Day), whose 'Caeser's Wife' is a list of her conquests of famous Roman emperors - but one of Trinder's better numbers offers nice time travel lyrics comparing Rome to London ('There's a Hippodrome in Leicester Square, and a Circus in Piccadilly'). There are also flashes of postmodern fourth-wall-breaking: a Roman tailor, nonplussed when Lydia (Diana Decker) and 'the Professor' (Sonnie Hale) announce they are from the 20th Century, notes that they (Rome) had Eddie Cantor visit a few years earlier (in the 1933 Cantor film Roman Sandals, Cantor's character falls asleep and wakes up in Roman times).

The cast are strong, but there are few stand-outs: Trinder is charming and a good lead, but perhaps not best served by this script; Hale is a decent straight man, but Decker is a strange inclusion: playing a Wren but obviously American, was she on loan to Ealing at the time? Day is also American, but the character of Poppaea is described as a 'glamour girl' by Hale early on, and the film plays up to this - her hair and make-up are more 1930s Hollywood than ancient Rome, and her overt sexuality seems a direct continuation of that characterisation. Nero (Francis L Sullivan) is never as conniving, jealous or villainous as the script demands although, as noted, his childish glee on recognising his potential behaviour while Rome burns is well-played.
Much of the comedy appears like an early draft of Carry On Cleo - there is a slave auction, male cross-dressing, slapstick antics around a milk bath, servants more intelligent than their masters, and terrible puns both visual (the Roman tailor has a stone sign with a scissor motif on it) and verbal (one of the attractions at Nero's orgy is 'Lisa, the strip-teaser, from Pisa'). Like the Carry On series, the script also revolves around the promise or allure of sex - not a topic that Ealing Studios was ever that comfortable with - and which is diffused here through Trinder and Hale dressing in woman's clothes wherever possible, or the tamest Roman orgy scene in cinema history. As the film's strongest sexual figure, Poppaea's attempted seduction of Trinder points out the irony of his supposed ladies man persona - he's reluctant to get his toga off, and ends up hiding inside a vase when Nero appears.

The film is notable in other ways - the set design is impressive, with Ealing's studios being transformed into various spacious Roman sets; there is (again) solid use of back projection (most notable in the final scene, when Trinder is dangling over a lion pit); and it gives a whole musical sequence over to black character Nora (Elisabeth Welch, an American singer whose career included several British productions), although visual aspects of 'Drums of My Heart' do also pander to particular African native stereotypes.

Like many time travel films, however, the narrative reaches a curious (and unsatisfying) conclusion. Given the fantasy elements of their transport back to the past - lightning striking a druid's altar at Stonehenge at Midsummer causes them to go back to Stonehenge in ancient Britain - their return to the future is caused... by lightning striking a metal spear in a lion pit in Rome which sends them back to Stonehenge in 1944, with their old navy uniforms on. The change in location and costume seems to suggest the old 'it was all a dream' option, but their memories of Rome are fresh and accurate - the lightning has, apparently, sent them back to the moment they went back in time (the complexity of temporal mechanics in time travel narratives obviously not the main aim here).

The most curious element, however, is that - after running away from Stonehenge to avoid the lightning strike - the film itself offers a visual metaphor for time travel. The film literally rewinds the original footage, so that all three (in reverse) hop back onto the bike, ride (in reverse) down the country lane, and end up back on the main road - at which point the film moves forward again, and they head off, avoiding the route to Stonehenge completely. It is a small note, and it was no doubt a cost saving measure, but using the reversal of film stock to suggest the effects of time travel links the film to the earliest 'trick' films and to later bigger budget science fiction movies.

Friday, 26 August 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 3: A Run for Your Money

With the less than auspicious poster tagline (visible on the left) 'A Spree with a harp and a harpy,' this is one of Ealing Studios' lesser known comedies, a light farce that relies too heavily on awkward stereotypes and thinly drawn characters, and never feels coherent or convincing.

When two naive Welsh miner brothers win a competition (for coal shovelling, no less), they leave their small mining town for a trip to the bright lights of London, to collect their £200 prize and see the England-Wales rugby game. Hi-jinks, naturally, ensue, but they are largely predictable and not surreal or different enough to raise this film above the crowd. There's plenty of mileage in a good fish-out-of-water narrative, but this squanders a strong cast (including an energetic lead in Dai Jones, played by Donald Houston, and strong support from Moira Lister and Ealing stalwart Alec Guinness) in a tale of Welsh cliche, con artists and inconclusive running around.

The film also doesn't look particularly different from many low budget British films of the period (late 1940s/early 1950s): the lighting is mostly flat, only really coming to life in the early underground pit scenes, where cinematographer Douglas Slocombe uses shadows and the dark angles of the coal face and machinery to offer real depth of image. In fact, the night scenes towards the end of the film also contain more interesting composition, but don't reach the creativity of those opening images. As ever - and this is a recurring feature in all three Ealing films I've watched to date (and others I can think of) - the location work is impressive, featuring Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, Fleet Street and Twickenham. There's also some nice back projection work going on, an impressive (if largely ignored) technical side to Ealing's films.

Despite my criticism of the film overall, there are some good ingredients: the two central performances (the brothers) are solid, but the plot doesn't really have a lot for them to do. They are Welsh largely because it allows the film to throw some Welsh (and English) stereotypes around - leeks, drinking, singing etc. It's not a negative depiction - the brothers are innocent, not stupid, and they technically *win* the day - but it lacks any nuance and often feels like a lot of pointless movement without purpose. Equally, Alec Guinness isn't given much to work with as the reporter Mr. Whimple - he does what he can with Whimple's growing sense of frustration, the only sane man in the midst of mayhem (a gardening columnist asked to chase around after two Welshmen). His initial introduction suggests a more interesting laconic, callous figure, but that disappears in the face of misunderstandings and chases. He is simply a figure to be buffeted by the winds of the plot, a position summed up by his closing line, requesting a quiet police cell for the night so he can write up his story.

Continuing my focus on female performance from Train of Events, the stand-out performance here is probably Moira Lister, who brings a lightness of touch to Jo, the female con artist trying to fleece Dai. Her performance is energetic, bright, and works well opposite Houston, but is laden with one of those abrupt character decisions that is motivated by plot, and has little justification on the screen or in dialogue. This hard-as-nails schemer spends a day with Welsh innocent Dai, then suddenly decides to abandon her life of crime? That this turn isn't entirely risible is largely due to Lister's performance, particularly her transformation when trying on an outfit in an expensive dress shop and, later, in her flat with Dai (who tells her of the wonders of Wales) - Lister lets some of Jo's hard edge drop and seems to reveal a softer side... but still manages to leave the audience questioning how much was real, and how much was an act for dopey Dai.

In terms of the comedy, there are some nice visual and verbal gags: most notably when older brother Twm (Meredith Edwards) and Huw (a Welsh harpist friend he meets in London) drunkenly attempt to board a Piccadilly line tube train. At separate doors, they dart forward and back, in and out the doors, trying to spot each other and stopping the doors from closing - it runs long enough to be funny, particularly as Huw is dragging a huge harp around with him. This also leads to a strong moment of community bickering where, on the tube train, Twm asks for directions to Twickenham. The various representatives of different classes offer advice, which descends into full-blown argument about the best route (the upper class woman suggests a taxi, which is met with much venon and discussion of bus routes). Given Ealing's interest in community (seen in films such as Whisky Galore! and Passport to Pimlico - the poster for which has a cheeky cameo towards the end of the film) it might be important that this temporary London community is more about chaos and disagreement than the loving, supportive community of the Welsh village that Dai and Twm long to return to.

All in all - I haven't even mentioned the final act running around or the strange effect Twm and Huw's talent show double act has on the London audience - this is an interesting curio, but its individual parts just don't add up to anything coherent or significant.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 2: Train of Events (1949)

It's a bit of a cliche to note the link between classic British cinema and trains: A Kiss in the Tunnel, The 39 Steps, Brief Encounter, The Titfield Thunderbolt, The Ladykillers, Murder on the Orient Express, Trainspotting (even if only vaguely)...the train (and the train movie) has been to British cinema what the car (and the road movie) was to America.

Which brings me to today's entry in the Great Ealing Film Challenge: the 1949 portmanteau Train of Events. The most obvious link to Went the Day Well? is the use, again, of a flashback structure - starting with a train crash and then winding the clock back three days to introduce a range of characters who may - or may not - be on the doomed train. This narrative conceit is, apart from a few slips, successful, because it allows the audience to guess which of these characters will end up buying a ticket, and why they're on the train in the first place.

Of the four parallel narratives (which only cross-over at the very end, fatally for two characters) my favourites remain the murderous actor and the philandering conductor. The train driver and family narrative is a bit uneventful (though Jack Warner as the father is solid as ever, and there's some not-so-subtle anti-Americanism going on in it) and the prisoner-of-war plot remains curiously one note (though with good performances and a nice downbeat denoument): but the attraction with the other stories is the strong female performances from Mary Morris and Valerie Hobson, despite being saddled with (what seem like) stereotypical roles - the philandering wife/femme fatale and the loving wife.

Although only in the film for four-five minute, Louise (Mary Morris) is the heart of that story, not least because (echoing Poe) the wicker basket containing her corpse continues to haunt her murderous actor husband, Philip (Peter Finch). Her drunken, sexual and dismissive presence mocks Philip throughout her main scene (beautifully counterpointed with the lyrics from 'their song': 'These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)' - and then her demeanour switches, as she realises the war has changed her husband, made him harsher, more dangerous...perhaps more attractive because of that. Her rekindled interest in this new side of him is ultimately punished (as, later, is he) but Morris's nuanced and memorable performance informs the rest of the film.

Valerie Hobson, by contrast, is the perfect wife in her segment - but, again, there is a nice switch in performance where she explains, over tea and scones with her husband's mistress, that the mistress is simply one in a line of conquests. A scene mirrored in many other films (including, most recently, in the BBC's The Hour), here it is a moment of comedy and regret, and reveals Hobson's control of the scene (and, in fictional terms, the marriage). It is a great comic performance, lighthearted but with a steel edge. It is a shame the film feels the need to show the husband catching the eye of another potential mistress at the end of this segment - however, Hobson remains omnipresent, in her own box at the theatre, and arguably still with a degree of control.

The film also features an early dramatised view of television: the philandering conductor caught up in a strange TV magazine feature called 'On the Mat' where he is asked to defend his musical composition about Lancelot being in love with two women. The clunky metaphor aside, the sequence is fascinating for simply showing television functioning - there is no sense (yet) of this new medium as a competitor to be dismissed or debunked.

And, finally, there is the train crash itself. A quick-fire montage of images, some of them obvious model shots, sells the concept without lingering on it, or creating it as spectacle. It is, like Went the Day Well?, more visceral than I expected - the engine and carriages are wrenched apart, we see walls buckling, fires breaking out - and it leads to an impressive piece of set design of the post-crash train wreckage, where the various story codas play out.

Alongside some great visual flourishes (great use of location filming, dimly lit back streets and train yards that wouldn't look out of place in a film noir, canted angles to convey Finch's increasing mental deterioration) there is also a strong use of sound: the train whistles and noises constnatly interrupt and punctuate scenes, and there is a brief aural flashback to Nazi Germany (loud Germanic voices and speeches) that suggests the history haunting the prisoner-of-war.

All in all, another strong entry - not as well known as Ealing's other 1940s portmanteau film Dead of Night but entertaining and enjoyable nevertheless.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 1: Went the Day Well?

At the recent BFI Town Hall meeting, there was an audio-visual presentation about the BFI and its (valuable) contributions to British cinema. Part of this presentation featured what, with apologies to whomever put it together, might be the worst trailer I've ever seen (and I've seen more than a few!): a modern trailer advertising a re-release of this very film, Went the Day Well?

Watching the film again, I am agog that they managed to cock that trailer up quite so badly: I mean, this is a film stuffed full of good scenes, great character performances, some fun lines, and a fantastic central concept - what would a small (and quaint, naturally) English village do if undercover German troops invaded during WW2?

With a hook that strong, the film doesn't disappoint. Although lumbered with a rather clumsy flashback structure, this is harsh, rarely predictable, filmmaking - and I suppose I'd better signal [spoiler warning]... the home guard are massacred in a machine gun ambush, the post-mistress is bayoneted (though not before killing one of the German soldiers with a pepper pot and an axe, and attempting to raise the alarm), the vicar is shot, and the local policeman is stabbed by the vollage's secret fifth columnist. There are a few cliches - the Germans are resolutely evil (although occasionally dim at keeping their secret), there is the requisite plucky young lad who breaks through the enemy lines to the next village - but even here, the film earns itself some narrative latitude by shooting said lad in the leg, half-drowning him in a river, and merrily knocking off his poacher friend and dog.

The film isn't showy, but its crisp black-and-white photography is solid, and the editing creates a strong pace throughout. Some great location work adds to the atmosphere being created, and these elements combine to give the final battlescenes (in the fields and the manor house gardens) a real sense of urgency.

I think what impressed me most, however, was the playful black humour running through the film's drama: the aforementioned pepper pot incident, the German plot almost uncovered through a huge bar of Viennese 'Chokolade' in the commanding officer's kit bag, the hastily scrawled secret message for help being used, unwittingly, to prop open a dodgy car window, the home guard (pre-slaughter) noting innocently (and wrongly) that they can't have heard the church bells ring twice because that would be the code for enemy paratroopers having invaded... these little moments both lighten and add to the growing tension of the film. While it is never in doubt that good (i.e. England) will prevail, the willingness of the film to bump off its supporting cast does keep you guessing longer than you might expect.

I know not all Ealing films will rise to this level, but this was a great start to the Great Ealing Film Challenge...

The Great Ealing Film Challenge

This last week, the BBC, Channel 4 and other news organisations joined in celebrations for Ealing Studio's 80th anniversary.

Which is all well and good, except Ealing Studios already celebrated a 100 YEAR anniversary back in 2002 - - to commemorate the actual founding of the studio. As Catherine Grant at Film Studies for Free ( pointed out, the rather obscure anniversary that has just been celebrated was 80 years since the establishment of Ealing's sound stages in 1931.

(curious also how this 'anniversary' occurred at the same time as cinema and Blu-Ray DVD releases of several of the famous 'Ealing Comedies' - among them, The Lavender Hill Mob and Whisky Galore!)

Now, this blog has no desire to dampen such celebratory spirit - Ealing is, after all, a stalwart part of British cinema history and deserves renewed attention. So it is in that spirit that ths blog has decided to conduct its own obscure 80th anniversary celebration... and attempt to watch all of the Ealing Studios films.

Of course, there are some provisos - the list of 95 films I am working from comes from Charles Barr's Ealing Studios book, and is therefore focused entirely on the Michael Balcon years (1938-59. Given the difficulty of seeing much of the studio's output (either before 1938 or, in some cases, after), seeing all of those 95 is already something of a challenge (they're not all available on DVD ). I may also decide to throw in an occasional 'new' Ealing film (although they've been a bit quiet of late, apart from the revived St. Trinian's franchise), but the main reviews/comments will be from that initial list of 95.

The order in which I watch the films is largely going to be decided at whim, steered by the DVDs already in my collection and the vagaries of Lovefilm - the initial batch will include some of the well-known titles (commentary on Went the Day Well? and The Man in the White Suit will likely appear in the first week) and those lesser known titles that I realise I've never seen (the likes of The Love Lottery (1954), Nine Men (1943), The Feminine Touch (1954) and Train of Events (1950).

Normal blog service will continue as normal - i.e. when I see a film/TV/media related story I want to comment on, I'll still write something - but this is an experiment that is (a) related to other (off-line) Ealing work I'm doing and (b) designed to see if I can keep a more regular schedule for blog posts.

Look for the first commentary - on Went the Day Well? - later today...

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Shhh.... contains [spoilers]

Spoilers are in the news a lot at the moment...

Earlier this week, I saw a piece by Daniel Bettridge in The Guardian ( It's a rather glib piece about a research survey that suggests that book readers (the medium seems to et lost in most commentaries, but could be important) get more pleasure from the reading experience if they know where the story is going.

Or, as everyone who has jumped on the bandwagon has reframed it, audiences love spoilers.

Now, just to be clear (although if you're online and reading this blog, it seems unlikely you won't know this), a spoiler is a piece of information about a major twist, plot development, or character appearance in a forthcoming TV show, film, comic book, book... any mass media narrative piece, really.

So, this week, critics have also been posting "spoiler free" reviews of next week's Doctor Who episode 'Let's Kill Hitler' - yet, despite this spoiler-lite approach, I already seem to know [spoiler] that the Daleks will be back this season after all because, lest anyone forget, Steven Moffat is both a great writer and a big fat liar. Like Russell T. Davies before him, Moffat enjoys peppering interviews with spoilers, fake spoilers, and bits of information that look like spoilers but could, frankly, just be the ravings of a talented Scotsman...

According to the research survey, however, (and presuming it applies to audio-visual media as well as it does short stories - that is outside the scope of the survey) most of us would prefer to know. We don't necessarily want the suspense, shock, or surprise, we'd rather know if it all ends well, who survives, and then settle back to enjoy the journey.

This interests me - particularly because of my work on film trailers. The cliched complaint about trailers (and, when you've had as many conversations as I've had about trailers, you don't need a spoiler warning to tell this point is going to come up) is that they reveal too much information. Now, that's always seemed like a pointless and stupid thing to say - because (as an audience) we can't know whether a trailer has spoiled the film being advertised unless we subsequently see the film, go back to the trailer, and go "Ohhh, that really was a spoiler." Or unless we've read the book/TV show/comic that the film was based on - in which case, that's not the trailer's fault, it's your fault for already knowing the story. You've spoilt yourself - suto-spoiling? - rather than the trailer doing anything.

Since the 1930s, surveys on movie audiences and movie advertising tend to come back saying the audiences are interested in stories and stars. So, not surprisingly, trailers have focused on story and star images. The best trailers, yes, tend to be those that keep us guessing a little bit - most trailers focus on Acts 1 and 2 of the movie and, if they give us any glimpse of Act 3, it tends to be brief and elusive (often as part of one of those glorious end-of-trailer 'throw everything at the screen in one big loud montage moments). The Independence Day teaser trailer, for example, concludes with the White House blowing up. Now, that comes at the end of Act 1 in the film, and was featured in almost all the advertising - so that's hardly a spoiler. But, even if it had shown more images of the final dogfight - or even of the alien spaceship blowing up - would that have reduced its audience? Or are we so immersed in blockbuster narrative convention and generic plotting that we already know the good guys are going to win, and that the aliens are going to blow up. A lot. At that point, surely the trailer is promising us expected pleasures, rather than spoiling anything?

Of course, the reason why everyone is jumping on this particular research is because it's only a short jump from it to blaming everything on our modern, Internet-enabled age. But, lest we forget, spoilers have always been a part of the media business: when I was a kid, there was a novelisation and a comic book adaptation of Star Wars out months before the film debuted; I knew [spoiler warning] Spock died at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan because I had a photo-book version of it (anyone remember those? They told the whole story in stills from the film, with dialogue etc. added in. Kind of a faux comic book?) Anyway, the point is: spoilers aren't new. They're just easier to access.

Yes, we live in a world where Jane Espenson can 'live tweet' during episodes of Torchwood: Miracle Day (but at least she politely waits until the UK broadcast, which comes 6 days after the US one). You can read a seemingly innocent website article about one film, and have a completely different one spoiled for you. And in this Sky+ and iPlayer catch-up age, we have to accept that some conversations are going to be punctuated by people clamping their hands over their ears, chanting "Don't tell me, I haven't seen it yet..."

But, does any of this spoil our enjoyment of the actual movie / TV show / book / whatever?

I'm not sure - but I think I agree with the survey results. Maybe it's about enjoying the whole journey rather than just one (often rather predictable) twist at the end...