This Dublin-set story of fate/kismet contains several elements that could form a strong comedy but it is almost fatally let down by casting. It would be unfair to put all the blame for this film on the shoulders of Robert Beatty but, after this and Against the Wind, I’m ready to call him as Ealing’s least convincing recurring leading man. (it will be interesting to see if that continues in Out of the Clouds, 1955, and The Gentle Gunman, 1952)
Here his performance hamstrings the film from the start by playing against the inherent whimsy of the central concept. Gulliver Shields (Beatty) is an ex-civil servant who dreams of living the easy life on South Seas island Raratonga: instead of saving money to fund this dream, Gulliver has decided that fate (the ‘wings of circumstance’) will provide, and has taken to sitting on a park bench in the hope of becoming a good Samaritan to an old wealthy person. After learning that someone had already achieved this aim using the exact same park bench, Gulliver moves his pitch to a corner of busy Grafton Street, in hopes of helping out at a traffic accident. Even describing that scenario points out the absurdity at the heart of the narrative, but Gulliver’s quirks could work given the right actor, particularly someone who could elicit sympathy for the character’s inherently unlikeable scheme or offer a more surreal take on Gulliver’s eccentricities.
Beatty is, however, adrift and appears to have had little guidance from director Charles Crichton. He plays Gulliver as short-tempered, aloof and distant, obsessed with Raratonga, but without the edge of eccentricity or charm that the part calls for (although, given the film is an adaptation, it is possible this is a perfectly solid interpretation of the character: for the film, however, the performance never achieves the lightness of touch that the comic moments seem to call for). While he conveys the rootless, lonely aspects of Gulliver, Beatty cannot reveal the character’s supposed charms. Because this is not simply a comedy, but a romantic comedy, where (it is assumed) the audience is supposed to root for the central relationship between Gulliver and Jennifer (Moira Lister).
This romantic focus is signalled in a cute title sequence that sums up many of the film’s central conceits: after the film’s title, a female hand writes ‘A Comedy,’ and a male hand crosses that out and writes ‘A Tragedy’; next, both hands write at once (already signalling that some romantic rapprochement is possible), and reveal the film is ‘A Tragi-Comedy of Dublin Life.’ Yet the tragic tone is offset here (as it is elsewhere) by an upbeat orchestral version of Irish tune ‘Molly Malone’ (more commonly known – to me, at least – as ‘Cockles and Muscles’).
To move away from Beatty towards the film’s more positive attributes, the most obvious is his better half in the romance and comedy departments: Moira Lister. I said earlier that The Ship That Died of Shame was the kind of Ealing film I had hoped to find, surprising and challenging my idea of the studio’s output. Lister has been a similar ‘find,’ in that her performances have now brightened several films on the list that, otherwise, didn’t quite work for me: Jo in A Run for Your Money (a role I described as the ‘stand-out performance... energetic [and] bright’), and Elaine Morell in The Cruel Sea (brief but memorable as Denholm Elliot’s unfaithful actress wife). I’m only sorry to note that she only appears in one other Ealing other film on the list, Pool of London (1951), but I can imagine searching out some of her other roles in the future, notably White Corridors (1951) and the Norman Wisdom comedy Trouble in Store (1953).
In Another Shore Lister is, again, the highlight of the film: her flighty but determined Jennifer is a society girl who meets Gulliver on a beach and, intrigued, proceeds to pursue him through the streets of Dublin. In the absence of any real arc for Gulliver (he is an inactive character, waiting for events to happen to him), Jennifer instigates most of the action, romance and comedy of the film. Lister enhances what could be a thin role – the posh society girl who takes a shine to an unlikely man – and makes Jennifer a fallible but engrossing character. She is independent, regularly tipsy (though happy and in control), and gleefully seductive when faced with the problem of Gulliver – forcing him to accompany her home, laying her head in his lap (a fairly brazen act in an Ealing film), accusing him of being ghoulish, initiating the first of several kisses (‘can islands kiss like that?’), and taking control of his life when fate thrusts them together in exactly the kind of car crash he’s been waiting for. Perhaps the only negative perspective on Jennifer is that she pulls Gulliver away from his dreams and back to the real world – she is always the voice that intrudes on his daydreams – but the film as a whole suggests this is necessary. Given her earlier claim that he should ‘marry a rich girl instead, it’s simpler,’ there is no suggestion that Gulliver’s life is tragic by losing out on Raratonga, given the headstrong and attractive charms of Jennifer.
[Actually, given how hard I’ve been on Beatty, I should note that the scene on New Year’s Eve between him and Lister does go a long way to selling the transition in Gulliver: it is also a visually strong scene, with cinematographer Douglas Slocombe opting for dark shadows and graphic compositions as they walk through darker alleyways and through a carnival replete with spinning carousels and rides. The mix of camerawork, editing and soundtrack (there is little dialogue, the growing relationship between Gulliver and Jennifer is sold mainly through the acting), particularly the rising pace that is created, suggests a passion being awoken in Gulliver that challenges his earlier ideas of what fate and kismet could bring him. It is a solid piece of acting from Beatty – and Lister – which further suggests light comedy is not his forte]
Visually, the film features other strong moments: at various points, Dublin’s statues (normally a montage of Molly Malone and others) loom over the narrative, seeming to comment on Gulliver’s actions like a silent chorus; alongside the expected Ealing strength in location filming there are strong fantasy images where Gulliver’s dreams of Raratonga are given life (pristine beaches, palm trees and (for some reason) Gulliver in a loincloth with a spear); and a nice creative use of soundtrack – the traffic noises of Dublin are used early on to show Gulliver’s distaste for the city and desire for island life, they become central to his plans (waiting for an accident) and, by the end, those same traffic noises confirm that he is still in Dublin, and still with Jennifer.
Overall, then, like some of the other less successful Ealing films I’ve watched, there are moments that work well but the comedy cannot grasp the inherently surreal and whimsical notions that lie at the heart of the narrative. With The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) and The Love Lottery (1954) ahead in his Ealing filmography, director Charles Crichton would obviously become more capable of combining strong performances with whimsy and character.
Next time: the start of a Will Hays double bill in The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942)...