Saturday, 24 September 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 10: Trouble Brewing (1939)

Reaching this mini-milestone (the 10th blog post) deserves a little treat: and what better treat than my first full George Formby film? Not the first time I’ve seen George Formby in film – I’ve seen clips of most of his ukulele-ful exploits from various mid-30s to mid-40s films – but definitely the first full 83 minutes in his company. Obviously, this won’t be my last, given the presence on the GEFC list of Come on George, Let George Do It and others. In many ways, sliding this disc into the DVD player felt like a British cinema initiation that’s up there with your first Will Hays, Tommy Trinder, Gracie Fields or Carry On film.

I have no way of knowing (yet) whether Trouble Brewing is a strong or weak entry in the Formby oeuvre, but the highest recommendation I can offer is that it feels like a live-action Wallace & Gromit film, although (presumably) without the postmodern commentary. There is action, inane comedy, fun slapstick, and unlikely romantic couplings: most notably the notion that Mary Brown (Googie Withers) would fall for George Gullip (Formby). And, yes, a bit of ukulele action, in three routines that are entertaining, even if they have little or no relevance to the actual plot (the third song, Fanlight Fanny, about “the nightclub queen,” is particularly guilty here).
The plot, for other Formby virgins, is solid and well written, given it exists purely to showcase the star. Formby is a printer at newspaper The Daily Sun, who is more interested in deduction and Withers than his actual job. When he and friend Bill (Gus McNaughton) win big at the races, they’re ripped off by crooks passing counterfeit notes; George, intent on capturing the crooks (largely because he fancies himself a detective; Bill is in it for the cash reward), pursues them through a wrestling match, upper class soiree, detective’s home, and finally to the crook’s hideout (a brewery, hence the film’s title). Withers’ secretary, the Sun’s proprietor and editor, and a police detective all get drawn into the plot, largely as foils for Formby’s brand of slapstick and chaos.
On the evidence here, Formby fits nicely in the earnest fool model of British cinema stardom: there are shades of Tommy Trinder (though not as cocky or streetwise), Kenneth Williams (though nowhere near as intelligent or snide), or Eric Morecambe (though without the straight man of Ernie Wise to play off). However, I think Wallace (from the Wallace & Gromit films) might be the best comparison: Formby is constantly getting into unlikely scrapes, most of his own making (although often geed on by mate Bill), but succeeding through sheer athleticism and dumb luck. The final chase and slapstick scenes in the brewery are beautifully staged and performed here, and recalled nothing more than the end of A Close Shave (1995).
While on the subject of the production, the film features a lot of British cinema talent early in their careers: alongside Formby and Withers on the acting side, this is filmed by Ronald Neame (cinematographer for Powell & Pressburger and David Lean, then director of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and, in 1972, The Poseidon Adventure), directed by Anthony Kimmins (who would go on to direct David Niven in Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948) and Alec Guinness in The Captain’s Paradise in 1953), and co-written by Angus McPhail, scriptwriter for over twenty Ealing films including Fiddlers Three (1944), Dead of Night (1945) and Whisky Galore! (1949). An impressive team for this small comedy.
There is little that is showy about the film, but it has a precision about it that is impressive. The musical sequences aren’t complex, but rather than static images of Formby and ukulele, there is subtle camera movement to follow him through a room, or allowing him to move forward and backward in frame. True, the ukulele solos tend to be in static mid-shots (and visibly mimed to a backing track in places), but they show off the film’s strong editing skills, cutting between images (often Googie Withers’ watching Formby admiringly) and keeping the rhythm of the scene going.
The best example of that isn’t the musical numbers, but the final sequence at the brewery. Building nicely from some initial physical gags, the sequence is an exercise in economical filming and continuity editing: from our initial introduction to the first brewery set (where George and Bill hide behind crates of beer) to the final denouement as George and Mary collapse into a vat of beer, the film races through seven or eight different sets and set-ups but never confuses the viewer or contradicts its internal logic. The filmmakers introduce each space quickly, as Formby and Withers run up stairs (throwing bottles and crates to stop the pursuing crooks) – we follow them to the roof, where Withers is lowered to the ground. Formby, unable to lower himself, then revisits the same sets in reverse, before ending up in the vat room where more slapstick violence and chaos ensures. Yet at no point is the film chaotic: it sets out the spaces of this ‘building’ and the physical relationships between those spaces.
But what of Formby the star? Well, as noted above, his image seems to based around the meek accidental fool that is central here, blown around by plot contrivance and into sillier and sillier scrapes. Slightly camp and feminised in places (there is a scene in a swimming pool / wrestling arena with him using a flotation aid that appears to give him breasts), he’s a prototype geek figure in many ways – he invents a new form of fingerprint ink, likes detective fiction, and playing an obscure musical instrument (there are also hints of a Harold Lloyd influence, in his inching around the outside of a building, many stories up – all done via some shaky matte work). The relationship between him and Withers, supposedly romantic, never feels likely, partly because Formby appears both feminised and immature, while Withers appears to be strong and mature: a big sister rather than a romantic opposite. Despite a maid referring to Formby as ‘beautiful’ at one stage, it never seems a likely match.
Withers is one of only two central female characters (the other is a vamp-ish European Madame Berdi (played by Martita Hunt) whose short appearance relies on stereotypical notions of sexualisation) but rarely gets to play anything beyond secretarial or damsel in distress. At one point, a character says to Withers’ boss ‘You’ve got your typewriter with you’ – a reference to Withers presence – and it is a shame the film doesn’t give her more to do. Towards the end, when she discovers the real crook, and gets involved in the slapstick brewery chase, it is better material for her, but the film remains focused on Formby.
All in all, this is a broad comedy with nicely judged slapstick, performances, and solid production skills: it has made me eager to see how well it matches up with the other Ealing / Formby films...
Next time: we jump forward to 1950s and The Magnet (1950)

Monday, 19 September 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 9: Nicholas Nickleby (1947)

Film adaptation, particularly of a ‘classic’ novel, is a tricky business. A period adaptation is even more so. In adaptation studies and in general discussion about such films, the talk (rightly or wrongly) tends to turn to issues of fidelity, authenticity and the ability of film to translate or transform literature into something visual in nature. Although they produced several adaptations, Ealing was never a studio that focused on period films, perhaps preferring to leave that to the melodramatic experts over at Gainsborough.
If you look at Ealing’s output between 1938 and 1959, few of their productions are set in the distant (i.e. pre-World War One) past. By my count, only eight meet that criteria: Champagne Charlie (1944), Fiddlers Three (1944), Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947), Nicholas Nickleby (1947), Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), Scott of the Antarctic (1947), and Eureka Stockade (1949). Of that eight, only two (Fiddlers Three and Saraband) travel back further than a hundred years.
The above list of eight period films has a curious clustering of films: between 1944 and 1949, Ealing made more period films than at any other stage in the studio’s existence. It is tempting to link that to the alleged late WW2 preference for entertainment films rather than the realistic war-centred films that Ealing had made their own. Indeed, the head of Ealing Studios Michael Balcon talked about the ‘dangers in this formation flying’ of relying on the realist cycle of filmmaking and a need for ‘the post-war British film... [to] widen its horizon.’ He dismissed the ‘historical film of the past’ and ‘its puppets in period costume, its zounds, its prithees, and its od’s bodkins’ and believed that a range of new artistic approaches were needed for Ealing (and British cinema) to succeed. (Balcon 1948)
Nicholas Nickleby has to be seen, and understood, in relation to that push for a wider range of Ealing films. It also stands as the most famous adaptation of the selection discussed above, a free adaptation of Charles Dickens’ sprawling serial of Victorian Britain. Of course, I am using the word ‘adaptation’ a lot here, but (upon viewing the film) I realised I have never read the source novel. So, what follows is not directly about fidelity or translation (although both concepts will recur) but more about the film’s status as film.
Perhaps because of that lack of source knowledge (and I’ve deliberately not searched out additional narrative information here) the film is an often frustrating watch, episodic, with a schizophrenic tone that applies across performance, set design and cinematography. In one sense, that narrative structure suits my experience of some of Dickens’ other stories (most of which were serialised fiction, so given episodic structures), but here it works to rob the film of any consistency. Characters appear for a sequence, then never appear again (a suggestion the film was targeting Dickens’ fans); barely glimpsed characters suddenly become key to narrative development (the triple wedding at the end is a strong example of this – the third couple having no place in the preceding events); the more enjoyable performances seem to be stitched together from different films; or the points where the enjoyably claustrophobic, gothic set design of the film abruptly shifts to bright, sunny happy location work.
Despite this, the film does hang together, but it doesn’t necessarily make much sense (though, again, I could level that charge at Dickens’ other writing so I am unsure who to apportion the blame to here). The highlights are not narrative-based, but around aspects of performance and design: as Nicholas, Derek Bond is solid but rarely gives any sense of doing anything other than reacting to plot events; the stand-out performances (though, again, for very different reasons) are evil uncle Ralph Nickleby (Cedric Hardwicke), sister Kate Nickleby (Sally Ann Howes) and Vincent Crummles (Stanley Holloway). Hardwicke is subtle rather than overtly evil, and is able to give the character a murky grey moral status, all the more impressive given that in the final ten minutes his performance has to deliver utter villainy, deepening regret, and unbearable loss. During that busy denouement, there is a time for a confrontation between Hardwicke and Howes, told through a series of tight close-ups that allows both actors to shine. Given Howes is given little to do for much of the film, she makes the most of the scenes she is given (she is equally strong in an earlier scene as the lone woman at a dinner party where she visibly swallows her disgust at being verbally pawed by obnoxious drunk older men). The same could be said for Stanley Holloway, whose appearance in the film lasts all of seven or eight minutes: his is the comic relief, and he plays up to that with great aplomb, giving vent to the character’s theatricality – it is a moment of pure entertainment, a brief pause from the narrative’s hurry to cram in as much of the original plot as possible.
The film also looks good, in some places offering strong black and white compositions that sell the darker, gothic nature of the piece. The sets of Dotheboys Hall, the ‘school’ where Nicholas goes to work, are draped in shadow, from which the noxious owners emerge and browbeat their charges. Perhaps because of the period nature, much of the film is studio-bound, but the filmmakers use that to their advantage, giving much of the Victorian design a cramped, gloomy feel. That does, however, mean that when the film does switch to outdoor filming, the difference can feel abrupt: as mentioned, whenever the film cuts to the Nickleby’s seemingly idyllic cottage life it pulls you out of that darker Victorian world into something more clean and light-hearted. While an argument could be made that this shift in tone also represents a narrative shift (it is the first time Nicholas and his family are together and happy), the two pieces of the film still feel too distant, too distinct from each other.
So, this is a film of interesting parts, but one that is also somewhat disappointing when taken as a whole. As always when watching this Ealing films, I'm reminded of Charles Barr's statement that Ealing Studios' style of cinema was 'profoundly empirical and naturalistic,' more at home 'with the solidly realistic, not the abstract or stylised' (Barr, 77) Given Dickens' preference for the realistic, and the naturalistic, he would seem a natural author for Ealing's attempt at period adaptation. Given the parallel success of David Lean's Dickens' adaptations, and the elements that work well here, it is a shame that Ealing did not attempt to adapt this author again.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 8: Nine Men (1943)

An interesting companion piece to Went the Day Well?, where a small village was under attack from superior external (and internal) forces, in Nine Men the stakes are even higher: nine soldiers, stranded in the desert, make an apparent ‘last stand’ in a old desert fort as Italian troops surround them on all sides. As with that other Ealing war film, it is possible to read this as larger wartime metaphor (English village = Britain; small British fighting force taking on larger odds = the first few years of the Second World War), but, as Charles Barr has pointed out, the film can also be seen as one of the few successful British contributions to the Western genre.

Apart from opening/closing sequences in a modern army training camp where new recruits hear the story from Sgt Jack Watson (Jack Lambert), the bulk of the film is set in the desolate desert landscape (not Egypt, but filmed in Wales, apparently). The nine men (quickly whittled down to seven, with Sgt Watson in charge) know they are cut off, with little chance of support: their only hope lies in repelling the Italian attacks and pretending to be a larger force. And if The Long Arm and The Cruel Sea were about exploring day-to-day activities aboard a ship, or in a detective investigation, this departs from the Western template by sharing that behind-the-scenes interest in modern warfare as Sgt Watson organises his men, counts his ammo, and lays his plans.

But the plot really isn’t the point here: the emphasis is on character, ability and survival. This isn’t a ‘getting the band’ together kind of film – the soldiers have already worked together, they are a trained and a coherent unit who are comfortable both mocking and taking orders from their commanding officer (both behind his back, and to his face). At first glance, it’s the standard working and middle class mix of such WW2 films, but look closer and there’s a definite Scottish dominance about this group: Watson, Scott (Grant Sutherland) and ‘Young ‘Un’ (Gordon Jackson) are all Scottish characters, and there are regular discussions about Edinburgh and Glasgow, with reference to the 1935 book No Mean City, which depicted Glasgow’s slums as rife with razor gangs. London and other regions feature as well, but the make-up of these seven men features a distinct Scottish note. (perhaps due to Harry Watt’s own Scottish ancestry, given he is both writer and director here)

The joking and camaraderie is well played, and feels suitably naturalistic (overlapping dialogue, some obscured) but the film has its share of action and dramatic sequences as well, cramming a lot into its 65 minute running time. While I’ve backed away from focusing on directors too much in these posts, Watts’ background in documentary is clear from the film’s production. Allegedly made for £20,000, Nine Men features a lot of sequences featuring post-production sound rather than on-location sound recording – a traditional approach of the British documentary movement. The first four minutes of the film, a sequence of new recruits put through their paces on an assault course, is slickly edited to upbeat, lightweight music; equally, scenes of the men struggling through sandstorms, or crawling through the sand, is set to Lambert’s voiceover, rather than diegetic sound. Soundtrack becomes a key element of the plot: scenes in the night-time desert are largely silent (Lambert’s VO points out the way that sound carries in that landscape), until interrupted, first by clanking noises (Italians trying to get a disabled tank working, and chatting loudly), then explosions and gunfire as the British repel an Italian attack. Given the use of layered sound editing here, Watts’ training in the GPO film unit seems relevant.

Strong though the film is, a modern viewer has to allow for some choice contemporary references, most notably the range of terms applied to the Italians (there is no room here for The Cruel Sea’s note that the enemy looks just like them: here, the enemy are faceless hordes to be shot, bayoneted and verbally ridiculed) and an early comment that may sound homophobic to modern ears. The title is also a clue to how many women crop up in the film: unlike Went the Day Well? this Ealing war film is an all-male affair.

None of those should be reasons not to rediscover it, however. It is well-paced, solid drama: there is no excess material here, the film gets into the action quickly, and barely lets up once the soldiers reach the fort. Barr is right that there is definitely some Western in this film’s DNA, but it also functions as a stepping stone to other heroic last stands, from Ealing’s own Scott of the Antarctic to later British films like Zulu.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 7: The Long Arm (1956)

This entry follows Jack Hawkins from the under-whelming The Cruel Sea to the solid and (for me) more enjoyable The Long Arm, a police procedural that avoids feeling like a by-the-numbers effort through good casting and fun plot twists.
First, though, we need to talk about that poster. It’s eye-catching and more than a little disconcerting: Hawkins’ anguished face as he grips on to a car bonnet, as a mysterious woman tries to shake him off. There has been good work written on the ways in which film ephemera like posters, trailers, press books etc help set up audience expectations – and this is a strong example of that. The DVD makes good use of those images, continuing the same intrigue across box art and on-screen menus. From that poster, through the opening scenes at the information room at New Scotland Yard, stabs of dramatic music, dimly lit offices, shadowy figures and talk of automatic alarms, and W cars, the genre is set up nicely.
There’s a point at the beginning of the film that reminded me of The Cruel Sea (and Tynan’s comment about male professional narratives), where Detective Supt Tom Halliday (Hawkins) goes back to his wife, Mary (Dorothy Allison) and small son, and where the talk is almost all about his job, and how he isn’t on the front lines but ‘directs, controls and administers from an office chair.’ Like Captain Ericson in the naval drama, however, Halliday leads from the front, involved in every aspect of the investigation of a series of robberies. Unlike Ericson, this film is interested in the interplay of home and work, rather than focusing entirely on work.
The final Cruel Sea echo is the presence of Halliday’s new officer, Det Sgt Ward, played by John Stratton (Ferraby in the earlier film): but the characters are markedly different, with Ward an encyclopaedia of criminal behaviour, willing to challenge and talk back to this boss. There is that classic convention of what we’d now call the ‘buddy film’ as the two policemen learn how to work together, with both learning lessons from each other: there, for example, a great moment where Ward leaves the train to phone his girlfriend; Halliday is scornful of the idea, then sneaks off the train to make a call to his wife. Her reaction – assuming he is injured – tells us so much about his usual attitude to marital communication, and his excitement over learning about a possible scholarship for his son almost makes him miss the train – here, the Ealing hero cannot be defined simply as a distant professional, but a family man struggling to balance work and home.
Hawkins is impressive again: while Supt. Halliday is less dramatically complex than Captain Ericson (there is no anguish or haunted questioning of actions here), Hawkins shows an ability to balance the drama and comedy that the film requires, barking orders to Ward and others, but also tetchily amused by a Welsh garage owner who holds a crucial key to the mystery (played by Meredith Edwards, from A Run for Your Money). It is hard to watch the relationship that develops between Hawkins and Stratton and not think of Morse/Lewis or other great police partnerships. Halliday is the more driven of the two, while Mary notes that Ward will have to get used to not seeing his girl as often if he follows in Halliday’s path. The film is happy to make such comments on a humorous level, but it is clear that dedication is what solves cases.
The film’s police procedural focus, the emphasis on the routines of detection and investigation, is one of its stronger aspects: a 1950s CSI with forensics pulling finger prints, comparing swatches of material, looking at documents under microscopes and in different light filters, checking physical filing systems full of criminal photographs and descriptions of their physical type.  There’s even a scene that ‘demonstrates’ how a single newspaper can be traced to the location it was sold based on the presence of certain numbers, late stories and type-setting on the front page – a stretching of credibility that would feel perfectly at home in any of the CSI franchise. Alongside that, however, there is an element of 1950s day-to-day policing, where Hawkins and Ward, while out and about, comment on various crooks they pass, noting they’ve put on weight, or just got out of prison. It shows the need for humanity as much as science.
Narrative concerns aside, the film looks great – as one of the final Ealing films made at the classic studio location in Ealing itself, the art and lighting departments really excel. The file room at Scotland Yard has real scale to it, stacked with drawers and racks of files, while stretching way back into the background of the scene (and achieved by physical set size, rather than optical illusion – policemen bustle back and forth); while the shadowy design, particularly in a series of otherwise plain offices, sells this as a crime thriller. The location work builds on this, particularly during an early hit-and-run, and then the climactic chase scene in and around the Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. This is where the fateful ‘Hawkins on car bonnet’ moment happens – not entirely worth the wait, but a good dramatic end nevertheless.

Like A Run for your Money and The Cruel Sea (other films directed by Charles Frend), there’s nothing particularly showy about the filmmaking: most of it is solid, with some subtle camera movements that allow for reframing of important information (the burglar climbing the stars). There is a moment of point-of-view camera from a hit-and-run victim: we ‘see’ his view of Hawkins waver, dim and fade, with similar rising and falling effect on the soundtrack, but it is a momentary flash of something different. As noted above, some of the set pieces work well largely because of their choice and use of locations – the South Bank at night looks very different from modern times.

Another solid entry here, and one that demonstrates how strong Hawkins can be – a good thing, given his presence in so many of the later Ealing films I’ve still to watch. On that note, one line of dialogue stands out here: Halliday notes that his son wants to be either a policeman or a test pilot. Given Hawkins' next film for the studio would be 1957s Man in the Sky, and saw him play a test pilot, was this a little Ealing in-joke?

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 6: The Cruel Sea (1953)

Kenneth Tynan famously described Ealing producer Michael Balcon as being interested in films about ‘men at work, men engrossed in a crisis, men who communicate with their women mainly by post-card.’ (quoted in Barr, 77): however cynical, it is a description that is particularly apt for The Cruel Sea, which is two hours of naval officers acting professional or learning how to be professional.

The Cruel Sea is Ealing’s (arguably triumphant) return to the genre that helped define much of their early 1940s work – a war film about courage under fire, camaraderie and national spirit. Its depiction of naval warfare is reliant on some of the documentary-inspired elements that fuelled Ealing films such as San Demetrio London (1943) and non-Ealing projects like The Way Ahead (1944), expertly mixing actual battle footage, location shooting on a decommissioned ship, and some impressive model work. To this is added a note of world-weary commentary on the futility of war and its effect on men and their relationships – largely with the ships they sail on, actual women coming in a distant second.
But the reason for that ‘arguably triumphant’ note above is that the film, despite its canonical and popular status (the version I watched was the recent Blu-Ray release, one of the first Ealing films to get that technological make-over), never really gets beyond solid and reliable, with the occasional flash of creative and thematic interest. I can't imagine, for example, revisiting this the way I might Fiddlers Three. That may be because I have, over the years, seen my share of war films where British officers are strong and resilient, in love with the service and respectful of their fellow men, and willing to give their all to the war effort – this one ticks all those boxes, but it can feel desultory at times.
For those who haven’t seen it, a brief recap: Captain Ericson (Jack Hawkins) takes command of a corvette-class ship, the Compass Rose. Given largely untrained men such as Lockhart (Donald Sinden), Ferraby (John Stratton) and Morrell (Denholm Elliot), he has to mould them into professional naval officers fit to fight the German U-boats who keep attacking British convoys. The film tracks the officers and crew through the war.
In one sense then, this follows the pattern of British wartime films like Millions Like Us (1943) and The Way Ahead, with a group of people from different backgrounds brought together who, through personal bickering and wartime adversity, find a way to work together for the common good. But this film isn’t really interested in the wartime myth of a classless British war machine where working, middle and upper class could mingle and fight together; The Cruel Sea’s heroes are solidly middle class – Ericson comes from commercial shipping, Lockhart was a journalist, Ferraby a banker – and their stories take precedence over the lower ranks. When the Compass Rose is sunk by a torpedo, the film shows a mass of sailors jumping overboard, but it is the fate of 1st Lieutenant Lockhart and Captain Ericson that it is concerned about.
[You wouldn’t have to dig far to posit a queer reading of this film around Lockhart and Ericson, as their relationship far outweighs anything between Lockhart and his Wren girlfriend (Virginia McKenna) or Ericson’s never-seen wife. Yet as the film states, this is largely about men and their machines – the concern and stress that plays over their faces when the ship lies dead in the water, their shared grief when she sinks, makes that clear]
Hawkins is the more interesting of the two main actors, largely because Sinden (although good) has the thankless task of playing the uncertain learner to Hawkins’ gruffer, complex captain. Hawkins gets to play a maudlin drunk, a stern professional, a man of action, and a man haunted by his actions. He also gets the meatier dramatic scenes: having to decide whether to sacrifice survivors in the water in order to destroy a U-Boat with depth charges, listening to the screams of men dying in the engine room when the Compass Rose in torpedoed, stubbornly insisting that the Saltash Castle continue to hunt for a second U-boat when all signs point to its destruction (and when even Lockhart begins to question him). Hawkins is also given leave to perform most of this through close-ups rather than dialogue: the more frenetic pace of editing during the depth charge sequence continually cutting back to his anguish as he makes the decision to sacrifice a small number of men for the greater good of stopping a U-boat. Focused on his eyes and face, the film gives away nothing until he barks the order to fire. It is as vicious in its way as Went the Day Well? was, and does more to show the morality of wartime than any of the film’s speeches on war’s dehumanising nature. Equally, later on, as Ericson boards his new command, he ‘hears’ the screams of the dead men from the sinking of the Compass Rose – and Hawkins gives a brief hint at the real man hidden inside the stern captain’s figure.
It is with moments such as the first depth charges, or the torpedo attack, that the film feels alive – editing, performance, and soundtrack pull together with common purpose. The sound editor deserves special mention for the film’s use of sound effects: at certain points, scenes are scored almost entirely by the noise of the sonar blips; when the Compass Rose lies dead in the water for essential repairs, the slightest noise is amplified (a pencil rolls across a table; a dropped glass, the engineers hammering) and gives the scene added tension. (this scene also benefits from a brief moment of tension-releasing humour at the end, where one officer tells the chief engineer that there were U –boats popping up to complain about the noise)
However, the strength of such sequences reveals one of the problems of the film: because of its episodic narrative (the film is based on a book, so may feature the highlights of that original story), the film only really comes alive (in that way) three or four times: around major sequences involving a U-boat hunt, the ship being targeted, or a new mission. In between, there are activities on ship and, more often towards the end of the film, scenes in civilian life where small dramas play out around the romantic relationships. Yet these are never as convincing, or as compelling as the drama around them, and the balance between the two is never met.
Yet these scenes remain fascinating in another way because it is the only time we see any female characters – even if they are sketchy, half-formed characters whose job is to appear, look pretty, then wait around until the next lull between action sequences. Virginia McKenna gets the most to do, convincing Sinden’s character that it is better to have something to lose than to have nothing to look forward to (she also complains that women don’t get to have the same professional relationships as men in wartime: a brief comment that is never pursued), but apart from that, the women are place-holders: Morrell’s glamorous actress wife (played by Moira Lister) who is having an affair behind his back (a brief but noticeable dig at glamour and media over hardship and the professions), Tallow’s sister (reliable wife material, but killed in an air raid), and Ferraby’s wife June who (if memory serves) has one line, at a party onboard ship.
Given the vocal and often dominant women in the other Ealing films watched to date, the absence of stronger female characters in the home front narrative (or, at least, minor characters who are more interestingly drawn) is particularly noticeable here. Given one of those characters is played by Moira Lister, who was so impressive in A Run for Your Money, it points out the vagaries of roles for women in the time period but also, possibly, across Ealing films more generally. As this blog continues, I imagine more of those comparisons and recurrences will occur.
Thematically, the film also makes a few veiled comments about men and technology in war, specially around the use of sonar and radar. Initially, these technologies are doubted (at one point, the ship receives a message that there may be 11 U-boats in the area, but the sonar cannot spot any), but the battle and the U-boat search becomes increasingly reliant on such technology. However, the final U-boat is only caught because of Ericson’s ‘hunch’ that the submarine is still out there – something confirmed by sonar, but only made possible by human intuition. Technology remains an uncertain tool, never entirely positive.
The film ends as it began, with a series of episodic events around another U-boat hunt and Lockhart and Ericson comparing notes on the last six years. But as 'The End' appeared on screen, and although I could see the elements of this film that have given it a classic status, I couldn't help wishing for the more focused and spontaneous Ealing of Fiddlers Three or The Love Lottery than this solid but largely forgettable film.

Monday, 5 September 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge: 5: The Love Lottery

There were many things I expected when I started watching The Love Lottery. But comparing the film to the James Bond series wasn't really one of them. Okay, I know the Niven connection is there, but there are strong narrative and design elements in this film that call to mind the heyday of the Bond series (i.e. the Connery years). As this is an Ealing comedy (and an under-rated one, in my view) no-one is planning world domination from inside a volcano. Instead, they're planning world domination from inside an ornate Italian villa, and nothing can stop them... not even David Niven.
For those that haven't seen the film - and I counted myself among that number until the weekend - The Love Lottery is a satirical 1950s look at media celebrity and the fanaticism of fan cultures. In it, David Niven (as Rex Allerton) becomes the prize in a worldwide 'love' lottery run by a sinister gambling organisation. Before watching it, my only knowledge of the film was Charles Barr's dismissal of it as 'a second stillborn comedy about the media' (Barr 1980, 192) but this is a sharp, and often funny, diatribe on celebrity culture, and media manipulation, that feels even more relevant today than it likely did in the 1950s. Now, I'll be the first to admit it doesn't fit neatly into the popular understanding of Ealing Studios - there is little in the way of cosy community, individual effort, 'projecting Britain' or documentary realism here. In its place the film adds capitalism gone mad, global domination, and our inability to fight against it. And some great visual gags.

I admit I'm a little biased - I've already published one article on Ealing's colour films (on their 1948 costume drama Saraband for Dead Lovers), and have another one planned that will deal with films such as The Love Lottery. I'm a believer in looking at such overlooked elements of Ealing's output and maybe challenging some of the assumptions around the studio. However, I've had disappointments with Ealing's colour films before - at some point soon, I will revisit Touch and Go, not a great contribution to the Ealing canon, colour or otherwise - so there are never any guarantees.

While on the topic of colour aesthetics, the film (although the print is a little weary) looks great, and features some stunning Technicolor cinematography that, if restored, could rival some of Powell & Pressburger's colour work. That comparison may seem unlikely - the Archers and Ealing don't seem like traditional bedfellows - but The Love Lottery boasts a great balance of fantastic and realistic imagery. Utilising the full scope of the Technicolor palette, these flights of fancy bloom on screen through a series of dream sequences. The male dreams are frequently about female fan violence against his person (the film opens with Rex Allerton - Niven - literally ripped apart by passionate fans at a film premiere) while the female dreams feature more classic fantasies of romantic dining and dancing, though again in a dreamlike world of blue and green hues.

While pretty pictures and compositions are a perfectly good reason to enjoy this film, the comedy / satire offers enjoyment at the narrative and thematic level. As Barr identifies, the theme is fandom, particularly female fandom around Hollywood stars. However, it would be wrong to dismiss this as simply a male attack on hysterical femininity - it is also a pointed commentary on how media corporations (notably film, television, magazines and advertising) develop, stoke, target and commercialise female fan worship. It is, at its heart, an attack on commercialisation and capitalism.

The satire is often broad, but blackly comic - that opening image of Allerton being ripped apart by fans, for example - and that tone balances out the more slapstick moments. For those moments where the characterisation doesn't convince (Allerton's initial - and sudden - announcement that he will auction himself off feels too cavalier) there are others (Allerton's ego punctured by the fact he is constantly playing second fiddle to the studio's real star, Fang the Wonder-Dog; Niven's subtle performance of malaise as Allerton derides the carbon-copy Don Juan roles he is stuck in) that deepen the broader narrative developments.

As for that Bond reference? Well, it is another of the ways that the film feels prescient: the sinister International Syndicate of Computation (the villains of the piece, who run the public lottery to 'win' Allerton) feels like a blueprint for SMERSH or SPECTRE from the Bond series, down to a Ken Adams-esque splendid meeting room, where the boss (Herbert Lom) is dwarfed by a huge map of the world. He rules over representatives from Hungary, China and elsewhere - a suggestion of eastern bloc attempting to achieve dominance over the capitalist west?

The film's focus on computation and mechanisation also links it to larger cultural anxieties over technology and its potentially dehumanising effect on society. Most often seen in works of science fiction (which, despite Fiddlers Three and The Man in the White Suit, was never Ealing's forte), this romantic comedy also develops similar ideas: particularly around the character of Jane Dumois (Anne Vernon), an ICS mathematical genius who can work out gambling odds faster than a computer.

For all this interest in computers, gambling and evil international syndicates, the film's central concern rings true today -  why do people treat those with a degree of celebrity in a different way? And what does this constant publicity do to the people who are "stars"? Aside from Rex, the main character who achieves fame is the winner of the 'love' lottery, Sally (Peggy Cummins): yet after one public occasion, where she is confronted by a mob of celebrity-hungry fans who tear at her dress and hair, she is ready to return to a 'normal' life. Rex is also shown as constantly hounded by fans, resorting to (unconvincing) disguises and secret routes into hotels to lead anything resembling a 'normal' life (although, given this normal life includes a manservant, Jennings, it is hard to feel 'too' sorry for him). Rex also has to live with the knowledge that his star image has restricted his life and career choices - a British talent agent tells him no one will accept him in "ordinary clothes" again after all these years as a dashing screen adventurer. (again, a note that remains relevant today)

Yet for all its interest in this topic, however, the narrative wants its satire and its cake too: Rex gains a wife who rejects his screen persona, but still retains his stardom (the aforementioned 'brain', Jane, who - and this is one of the film's worrying contentions - loses her mathematical abilities by falling in love?!); while Sally returns to her solid, reliable Scottish boyfriend (Gordon Jackson, doing good work in another, largely thankless, small Ealing role). The 'star' continues to be famous; Peggy's celebrity lasts for around 15 minutes: in some sense, normalcy is restored.

Interesting, and timeless, though its musing on celebrity is - and given the narrative seems down on the whole concept throughout - the film's theme is skewed by its coda, where Herbert Lom (head of ICS), having succeeded in making a fortune with the Allerton lottery, recognises Humphrey Bogart leaning on a railing on London's South Bank. The film, obviously in awe of this authentic Holywood star deigning to appear in the closing scene, ends up as much as fawning fan as any of the rabid examples it has populated its narrative with.

Overall, this is a bit of a gem. Its sexual politics are very 1950s, but its colour compositions and its attempt to engage with debates over celebrity culture, mean this has been unfairly overlooked.