At some point during this Challenge, I knew I would find an Ealing film I just didn’t like, and which I might struggle to find anything interesting to write about. While that isn’t quite the case with Pink String and Sealing Wax, this is the film that has most tested my patience while watching it, partly because of the film it is, and partly because of the film it could have been. My main knowledge of the film was that it starred Googie Withers, whose Ealing appearances I’ve only yet scratched the surface of (the female lead in Trouble Brewing (1939), a small appearance in Dead of Night (1945). Yet while Withers gives a strong performance around which much of the film revolves, she is also frustratingly sidelined for increasingly tangential subplots.
Withers plays Pearl Bond, a fascinating and flawed portrait of a character whose desires and mistakes set the plot in motion yet ultimately doom her: a working class woman in Victorian times, working in the Brighton pub owned by her drunken husband Joe (Garry Marsh), her infidelity a constant source of gossip among the pub regulars. From the moment Withers sashays onto screen, with an array of low-cut tops, bushy black hair, quick put-downs and an eye for Dan Powell (John Carol), it is clear this is a character the film will struggle to contain.
But perhaps this entrance is so compelling because it comes after ten minutes spent in the company of the Sutton family, led by stern patriarch Edward (Mervyn Johns), with his wife Ellen (Mary Merrall), eldest son David (Gordon Jackson), and daughters Victoria (Jean Ireland) and Peggy (Sally Ann Howes). The Suttons are (some might say unfortunately) the focus of the film, its alleged moral centre, and the pivot around which most of the narrative revolves. While it often appears the film is mocking the family (most notably the moral binaries expressed by the father), it also celebrates them by showing their successes and their ability to overcome problems – problems like Pearl Bond.
The Suttons run a chemists, although Edward also serves as ‘public analyst’ (equivalent of a forensic expert) for the local courts. He is a proud, religious and unwavering man, whose children largely live in fear of him, while his wife appears to suffer him. He mocks David’s love poetry, chastises his son for writing letters to a girl he is not engaged to, forces his daughters to recite scripture, dismisses Victoria’s hopes of being a singer, and punishes Peggy when she feeds the guinea pigs he plans to experiment on. In any other film, Edward would be an ogre – and at times the film delights in showing how his children misbehave and ignore his strictures. David gets drunk in the local pub (where he meets Pearl); Victoria performs for a famous singer and gets an audition in London; Peggy steals money from the church collection plate to fund Victoria’s train ticket.
The film constantly underlines how awful Edward’s behaviour is, and how his children have to deceive him to move on in life. When he states that if Victoria accepts the scholarship from the music school, she won’t be allowed to stay in ‘his house,’ his wife (for the first time in the film) stands up to him, threatening to leave (there is a bald statement she stays for the children, not for him), unless Edward relents.
But if we are supposed to hate Edward, or reject his view of the world, how does that sit with the film’s ultimate vindication of him, as the man who saves David and sends Googie Withers to her death?
Because Pearl, while the Suttons were bickering over music schools and guinea pigs, has been cultivating David’s friendship, largely to make her lover Dan jealous. When David explains about the qualities of strychnine poisoning (obviously an appropriate romantic chat-up technique when you are the son of a pharmacist), Pearl sees a way to use him as an unwitting accomplice (she manoeuvres him out of the pharmacy after establishing where the poisons are kept) to get rid of Joe. The film thrives on this melodrama and, as already noted, Googie Withers plays Pearl as a force of nature: fun, conniving, and a survivor. With Joe dead, and her plans unravelling, Pearl goes to Edward and threatens to implicate David: and here, despite the unbending portrayal to this point of Edward as a figure to be mocked, the film celebrates him. Confronting Pearl, he becomes a minor-key Sherlock Holmes, stripping away all the elements of her story, revealing her lies, and laying out what he will tell the police. Johns comes into his own here – so often the film has forced him to play Edward stiffly, all crisp dialogue and doubting frowns. Here, although those traits are still visible, the challenge of duelling with Pearl makes those qualities heroic – because he finally comes to the aid of one of his children.
Despite this last minute denouement, however, the film has made it impossible to accept Edward as a hero. The performances point to this (Johns is uptight and repressed; Withers is cocky and full of life) and even though they are both cruel and unforgiving at points in the narrative, Pearl’s sequences are dramatic and broadly comic, where Edward is monotone and stoic. The film ends with Pearl dead (having thrown herself into the sea), David married to a suitable girl (his letter-writing sweetheart), Victoria an acceptable singing star, and Edward’s view of the world at least partially confirmed. David and Victoria have had minor rebellions, but Edward’s patriarchal view of the world has been reaffirmed. (there is also an unmotivated narrative framework of a stuffy newspaperman at the Brighton Herald and Southern Weekly News – the title is emphasised in both the opening and closing shots of the film – reciting the ‘official’ version of Edward’s life as pillar of the community to his secretary)
Narratively, the film eventually promotes Edward. But visually and thematically, Pearl is the heart of the film. If Pearl and Edward are competing forces in David’s life, then they are also involved in a tug-of-war over the film’s purpose and interests. What remains unknown is whether there was a similar struggle between writer Diana Morgan and director Robert Hamer (who is also credited with ‘script contributions’) as they adapted this play for the screen...
Coming Soon: get your drinks order in for Saloon Bar (1940)...