Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 11: The Magnet (1950)

A strange little film that, although featuring some interesting flourishes, does tend to fulfil Charles Barr’s assessment of it as ‘unworkable, featuring an ‘elaborate whimsical plot which resists economical summary.’ (Barr 190) This is a light and largely insubstantial film, which (given its intended comic nature) doesn’t sit comfortably with the early Formby/Trinder/Hays slapstick or the slier, satirical ‘classic’ Ealing comedies of the late 1940s and 1950s.
The ‘whimsical plot’ isn’t quite as complex as Barr makes out, but it does require extreme suspension of disbelief. Young Johnny Brent (William Fox – later to grow up as actor James Fox), quarantined from school because of a possible outbreak of scarlet fever, coaxes a small boy out of his magnet (swapping it for an ‘invisible’ watch) and runs away when accused of being a crook by the boy’s mother. Almost run over, and then accused of being a thief a second time, Johnny is eager to get rid of the magnet and finally gives it to Harper, a mad scientist figure (played by Meredith Edwards, making his 4th appearance in 11 films). While Johnny is away at boarding school, the inventor’s story of this act of generosity reaches epic proportions during its retelling at various charity events to raise money for the local hospital’s iron lung. When the money is raised, the magnet is mounted on the iron lung (which doesn’t sound medically useful, but anyway...) but a search for the generous boy is unsuccessful. On Johnny’s train journey home from school, he spots the small boy’s mother, misunderstands her conversation, and believes the boy died as a result of meeting Johnny. Stricken with guilt, he hears the whole town is looking for ‘the boy with the magnet,’ and runs away after being spotted by the inventor. Ending up with a gang of lads, Johnny helps rescue their leader when he falls off a pier, then ends up back in hospital where the gang leader’s life is saved by the iron lung, and the inventor reveals Johnny to the world. Later, back on the beach, he sees the small boy again, and his guilt is lifted.
(okay, so that is still quite complex for an 80 minute film)

Part of the problem, obviously, is the number of chance encounters and logic-defying decisions that all the characters have to go through to ensure the narrative progresses. Despite being at the heart of it all, Johnny never seems that bothered, or as guilt-ridden as the story requires. There are some nice visual flourishes around the initial appearance of the magnet (it looms large, dominating the foreground of a deep image with Johnny a distant observer; then frames Johnny as he races closer, intrigued), and in a dream sequence where it appears to glow in the air near Johnny’s bed, but the magnet is only really the macguffin for lots of running around and farcical miscommunication.

While trying to build up artificial tension and concern around Johnny, the film is also eager to mock the professional figure of Mr Brent (Stephen Murray), Johnny’s psychologist father. Despite his education, and social position (he and his wife are shown at a number of civic events), he appears incapable of comprehending the world around him, or his own son. When Johnny starts behaving oddly (unwilling to go outside incase he is spotted or identified), his father asks Mrs Brent (Kay Walsh) to keep notes on Johnny’s behaviour. Using those notes (and a trial of ‘Jung’s associative word test’), he ‘diagnoses’ Johnny as resisting his move towards becoming a grown-up (signalled by wearing his first pair of long trousers) by returning to earlier models of maternal affection and comfort. That the film is mocking this as psycho-babble is clear, on both narrative (the audience knows what Johnny’s problem really is) and visual levels: when Mr Brent claims ‘everything’s as clear as daylight,’ the house is plunged into darkness (a fuse is blown). Most of the conversation on Johnny’s ‘condition’ is, therefore, undertaken as the Brents fumble around in the dark trying to fix things (a fun but unsubtle visual metaphor). Just as the lights come on again and Mr Brent says ‘I’ve never been so thankful for my training as I am at this moment,’ the (supposedly fixed) lights go out again. Such visual puns tend to suggest director Charles Frend (or screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke) were more interested in the comedy potential of the father as the more dramatic elements of the son’s story.
Unlike Ealing’s earlier film Hue & Cry (1947), where the children are more aware, intelligent, and ultimately outwit the adults, this story represents the male half of the Brent household as equally stupid (albeit in different ways). Mrs Brent is a less obviously comic figure – although she plays along with her husband’s requests to keep note of Johnny’s behaviour for his ‘analysis,’ she also casts unconvinced glances at his theories and pronouncements, and is particularly scathing of him at a bathing beauties pageant. Still, like many Ealing films, the interest in the (often foolish) male characters does tend to reduce the focus on the female ones.
Aside from characterisation, there are strong visual and aural elements to the film that maintain interest even when the plot sags or becomes increasingly unbelievable. As I’ve noted in relation to several of the Ealing films seen so far, the location work is exemplary: under the film’s opening titles can be seen several stately pans across the city of Liverpool and the Mersey (images that move the camera closer and closer to the domestic home of the Brent family); the ruined streets of Liverpool itself (in the latter half of the film) show how important on-site filming can be to create atmosphere; and the work around the Mersey (on the pier and beach) show a different side to the city. There is also an amusing visual gag where Harper retells his story about a young boy giving him a magnet: each time, the appearance of the boy switches as he changes tack for different audiences, or to increase the sympathy level required – this imagined Johnny goes from angelic choirboy to proto-Dickensian urchin.
Aurally, the film is standard fare throughout, but is one of the few areas that convincingly ratchets up Johnny’s increasing worry about being identified as ‘the boy with the magnet,’ with phrases and lines of dialogue echoing around Johnny whenever he is alone. It is also nice to hear authentic regional accents, particularly the little Chinese boy in the street gang with the broad Liverpudlian dialect.
Overall, while I enjoyed the fact the film is peppered with little moments that stand out, and found the visual composition and humour enjoyable in places, ultimately it feels like a shame that they aren’t brought together in a more convincing manner.
Next time: wartime spy capers in Against the Wind (1948)

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