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.

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