Friday, 28 October 2011

The Great Ealing FIlm Challenge 16: The Ghost of St Michael's (1941)

Not a film about Will Hay haunting a branch of Marks and Spencer’s (which could have been amusing) but a more standard comedy-thriller that, after The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942), makes it clearer to me why Hay had a following in the 1940s (and in decades since). This film offers a stronger sense of his particular star image and appeal, and is, I think, a better example of the humour Hay was known (and popular) for with British audiences.

Here, the set-up is that retired schoolteacher Lamb (Hay) has come out of retirement during wartime to take up a position at a boy’s school that has relocated its students to a remote Scottish castle. At the castle, Lamb has to deal with spooky servant James (a fabulous performance from John Laurie), and his pronouncements about ghostly spirits and apparitions (particularly the tragic figure of the Mad Mackinnon), a class of unruly and intelligent boys led by Percy Thorne (future Carry On stalwart Charles Hawtrey), and the murder of several of his teaching colleagues. The denouement of who the killer is, and why they did it, is immaterial (and, frankly, feels like a tagged-on wartime necessity) but – unlike Black Sheep – that doesn’t get in the way of Hay’s comic turn as a bumbling, blundering idiot.

Like Black Sheep, there are several strong comedy set-ups but the down-side to that is that the film is visually quite basic, with the emphasis on Hay’s visual/verbal performance (and that of the supporting actors) rather than any distinctive camerawork or editing. The film is, however, completely set-bound with no external shooting, but the range of sets are, frankly, astonishing in their scale and range – if Ealing built these castle sets just for this film (rather than using pre-existing sets from another film – and there is no obvious contender in the films produced in 1941/42) it suggests a priority given to Hay’s star vehicle that wasn’t evident in Black Sheep. The size of the sets is impressive, with little apparent use of matte work or back projection (apart from some early shots on board a ship which emphasise, again, the strength of Ealing’s model work). Although initially the deserted castle / remote-island setting seems immaterial to the plot, it becomes more central in the final section, with hidden passages, booby-trapped rooms and battlement-set denouement.

The ‘Scottish-ness’ of the film (for wont of a better term) is up for grabs, but it is an early example of Ealing using Scottish actors and locations in their comedies (even if this fictional creation has little resemblance to the actual Isle of Skye – particularly the court case being held in an animal-infested barn – later Ealing ‘Scottish’ films such as Whisky Galore! and The Maggie are more subtle comic portraits and much more reliant on location shooting than the artificial Scotland created here). As mentioned above, John Laurie is a stand-out performance here, with his doom-laden pronouncements of supernatural horror and dread offering a potent link to his later appearance in Dad’s Army. It is also interesting to see another Ealing film (after The Ship That Died of Shame and Dead of Night – predictably scheduled to appear in the blog around Halloween) flirting with the supernatural – even if the supernatural elements ultimately have a prosaic wartime explanation. It also links the portrayal of Celtic nations to larger thematic conventions around fate, ghosts and fantasy elements that are clear in other British films of the period (most notably I Know Where I’m Going (1944).

Despite all these other elements, the film is obviously all about Hay, as his attempts at teaching cause chaos, misunderstanding, and (after several murders), disastrous attempts at crime-solving. However, Hay’s performance works largely because of the competent straight men he bounces off: Hawtrey feels like a cross between a St Trinian’s girl and his later Carry On persona and, like John Mills in Black Sheep, is largely there to move the plot on (and, given Hays largely plays the fool, to offer relevant links and clues to the audience). Hawtrey also feels like an early example of the ‘Ealing kid’ – the self-aware, confident, cocky youngster who (in later films such as Hue & Cry and The Magnet) is capable of driving their own comedy-thriller plot). Traditionally a male role (there are few strong female children in Ealing’s films), the class of public schoolboys in Black Sheep inevitably save the day despite the best efforts of their teachers. Hawtrey, as the most plot-driven character, also has a nice line in mocking American crime offerings – his inspiration for crime-solving is a pulp fiction paperback My Aunt Lies Bleeding – while there is some sub-CSI comedy forensics when he tries to demonstrate to Hay and friends how to use science to investigate crime.

Mr Humphries (Raymond Huntley) offers an early interpretation of his later Passport to Pimlico character, officious and pompous in equal measure (although his character’s murder does unfortunately take away some of the stronger character work between him and Hay). As in Black Sheep, the script (written by Angus MacPhail and John Dighton), is at its best when it doesn’t get in the way of Hay’s comedy business, and flounders most when it tries to create coherent plot motivations or mystery – the revelation of the wartime context of foreign spies and secret submarine rendezvous feels unnecessary, but does tie the film into contemporary awareness of using film as a propaganda weapon – if this double-bill has proven anything, it is that popular Will Hay films were as likely to deal with ideas around the ‘enemy within’ and the notion of a unified Britain (where everyone was capable of pitching in to fight the war) as any government sponsored documentary or the more artistically inclined work of Powell & Pressburger.

The film has one final, curious note, one that offers a convenient gender-based link to the next film for the blog, The Feminine Touch (1956). Like Black Sheep, Ghost of St Michael's is a very male-driven film, with almost all characters teachers, schoolboys, faithful retainers and legal types. The school matron, Mrs Wigmore (Elliot Mason), therefore, is immediately incongruous, given her female status among all those men. That (and consider this your spoiler warning) she turns out to be the traitor betraying the country to the Germans (instead of the obvious red herring 'foreign accented' teacher) is curious for a number of reasons: she's barely in the film (there is an early scene of her treating Hay), we learn nothing about her (apart from the fact she is obviously evil, being a traitor), and (as noted above) the whole secret submarine signalling sub-plot seems so immaterial I doubt audiences would care who the traitor was, just so long as Hay fell over a lot en route to unmasking them.

It is a strange, jarring, narrative detail that lingers after the film is over and (as evidenced in other posts) continues to make me curious about the larger role of women in the Ealing Studios canon... something we will continue to explore in The Feminine Touch...

1 comment:

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