Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 22: Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)

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)...

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 21: The Gentle Gunman (1952)

Another minor revelation when approaching my survey of Ealing films: they made this film about ‘the Troubles’ that included an attempt to present both sides of the conflict, and which cast cherub-faced John Mills as an IRA terrorist! Despite the odds (and there are several, including the presence of my Ealing bĂȘte noire, Robert Beatty), the film is a fascinating and enjoyable piece of thriller fiction that rarely lets its politics get in the way of the more genre-based pleasures. Based on a play (that had previously been produced for the BBC in 1950), the story’s stage roots are quite obvious at points in the film: most notably in several long scenes set in an Irish garage. Yet the film also expands out into tube station bombings, night-time shootings, and rooftop chases that give the film a fluidity and tension beyond what a theatrical production would (likely) have been able to convey.

The film is focused on Terry (Mills) and Matt Sullivan (Dirk Bogarde), both members of the IRA, and both involved with the same woman, Maureen Fagan (Elizabeth Sellars). The film opens with Matt arriving at a republican cell in London, looking for Terry, whose behaviour has aroused suspicion among their brethren. The London sequences are really strong, mostly filmed on location, with the darkened wartime lighting, wet streets, and people huddled in houses and in tube stations. Matt is tasked with placing a bomb on Camden Town tube platform, before catching the last tube. Despite the presence of women and children sheltering from an air raid, Matt places the bomb and is about to get on the tube – when a group of kids notice his abandoned case is ticking. Matt freezes, misses the train, then panics – running off the platform. Terry, who has been watching him, throws the bomb into the tunnel, and heads after Matt.

This tube station sequence (and the following arrests of the Irish cell, and Matt and Terry’s rooftop confrontation where Terry confirms he’s been working with the English, doubting his role as ‘an anarchist in the middle of an air-raid’) is suitably tense, and strikingly shot and edited. There are nice compositions – Matt and Terry sit in adjacent phone booths, talking on the phone to avoid being spotted; Bogarde in the background spots Mills, lighting up a cigarette in the extreme left of frame; the two actors on the roof, faces obscured by hats, occasional bursts of light from below illuminating them – and the editing, particularly in the tube sequence, builds to the explosion through quick cuts to Bogarde’s face and the playing children. This opening really sets the tone for the film, and I felt a tinge of disappointment when it became clear the bulk of the film would actually be set in a garage in Ireland rather than in this shady and dangerous wartime London.

The plot becomes a little tortuous here, as Matt reports Terry as a traitor, we learn he is now sleeping with Terry’s old girlfriend Maureen, meet local republicans Shinto (Beatty) and Murphy (Michael Golden), as well as Maureen’s mother Molly (Barbara Mullen) and brother Johnny (James Kennedy), and a plot is set in motion to recapture the men captured in the London raid. Most of this, as I said above, takes place in the garage – with occasional cuts to Belfast docks, where Johnny works. The night-time city scenes are more atmospheric (the garage is largely shot during the day, or on well-lit studio sets) and play to the film’s generic interests in the shadowy world of crime thrillers. Johnny is shot, Matt tries to get him back over the border, Terry returns, and the three of them are captured by Shinto. The denouement of the film returns to similar issues from the tube station: a tense ambush at the docks (in daytime), innocent people under threat of guns and grenades, and Matt forced to choose his path. Although not as successful a sequence as the opening, it is brutal in its dispatching of minor characters and does set up a nice double-cross from Terry that ends the film.

Despite its narrative content – and even with the wartime setting allowing some distance – the film does go to some lengths to avoid taking sides in the Troubles (or, at least, to avoid being seen to take sides). Despite the criminal and terrorist past of the two brothers, who in most films would have to be caught, killed or morally rebuked, Matt and Terry wander away at the end, with no sense of punishment, and with their fraternal bond stronger than ever. Terry, of course, has represented a dispassionate logical view throughout (his riposte to Shinto’s statement that a man had died for Ireland is ‘better had he lived for it.’): the film obviously shares this sentiment, and Matt’s realisation of this truth is likely what ensures he survives to the end.

Yet despite Terry’s centrality here, there is an issue over the casting of John Mills. Given his other appearances for Ealing (The Big Blockade and The Black Sheep of Whitehall in wartime, playing Captain Scott in Scott of the Antarctic, then returning for a late Ealing appearance in Dunkirk), there is nothing that suggests he is capable of playing an IRA traitor, even if the character is actually helping the British at the same time. He is the cool-headed older brother and man of action (no longer ‘a boy’), able to impart grown-up advice to his younger brother (a strong performance from Bogarde, but in the tough rebellious role he was already known for) and lead him away from the path of violence. Yet Mills, although solid, rarely feels threatening: he is supposed to have been a stalwart republican until he sees the ‘error’ of those ways, but Mills largely ambles around the film being avuncular and chatty – we rarely see any sign of an underlying steely resolve or determination.

At the same time, as the images through the article show, the film’s producers and distributors seemed intent on drawing a female audience – the appeal of Mills and Bogarde might accomplish that on its own, but the film moves beyond the idea that violence (and this genre) as a man’s game, by making an explicit link to the central female character, Maureen. Sellars plays her as strong, passionate and opinionated, but that passion gets her brother shot and her mother rejecting her: when Terry takes Matt away at the end, it is as much away from Maureen as it is the IRA (Terry notes: ‘if Maureen ever had a child it’d be born in uniform with a tommy gun for a rattler’). Although there is a feminine anti-violence view through Molly, Sellars’ performance tends to dominate, and elevates Maureen within the film.

It might be obvious that although I liked much of the film, it does struggle in the middle to balance the melodrama of the Matt/Terry/Maureen relationship with its interest in being a tense crime thriller. One of the most curious additions, given that generic focus, is the bookends provided by the characters Dr. Brannigan (Joseph Tomelty) and Henry Truethorn (Gilbert Harding), elderly gentlemen (one Irish, one English) engaged in a seemingly interminable argument/squabble over the Irish-English relationship. These are comic characters – the film opens with them blustering and bickering over a chess game – but they are pulled into the action when Matt, Terry and an injured Johnny burst in on Brannigan’s surgery (during another round of the same argument). Even when taken prisoner and locked in a storehouse, Brannigan and Truethorn continue their comic bickering and, at the end, the film returns to them, still debating, still playing a game of chess. The film has come full circle to these men, and ends with the following salutation:

T: ‘To England, where the situation may be serious, but is never hopeless'
B: ‘To Ireland, where the situation is always hopeless, but never serious’

So, the film ends on an indecisive political note (matching the balance it has tried to maintain throughout), and an uncertain generic one, stuck between drama (serious) and comedy (never serious): as the comic banter of Brannigan and Truethorn continues, the camera switches back to Terry and Matt, two brothers fading away into the Irish countryside, walking away from the garage, from the IRA, from Maureen, and (presumably) from any solid answers to the English/Irish question.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 20: The Man in the White Suit (1951)

At the end of my last blog, I claimed this film was one of Ealing’s contributions to the ‘science fiction’ genre, a claim I also make (albeit in passing) in my new book Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction (Berg 2011). Given I didn’t have space to pursue that argument in depth in the book, I want to explore the film’s relationship to genre in this post, and think how some of its choices might challenge easy generic assumptions around this supposedly classic ‘Ealing comedy.’
I note at the start of Science Fiction Film that a ‘concrete, unyielding definition’ can be reductive when dealing with SF, a genre as ‘notable for its flexibility and... hybridity as it is for a series of conventions around developing technology or science.’ However, it is clear that many a genre film ‘engages with (and visualises) cultural debates around... the future, artificial creation, technological invention... [and] scientific experimentation.’ (Johnson 2011, 1) To my mind, The Man in the White Suit fulfils several of those categories, as a film whose narrative constantly returns to technology, its products, and the wider cultural reaction to new discoveries.

Take Sidney Stratton’s (Alec Guinness) laboratory equipment: a twisting, coiling series of glass tubes and beakers, through which shoot spurts of liquid, which eventually come to rest as a bubbling and pulsating viscous form in the largest container. Every appearance of this apparatus is hailed by a beautiful piece of sound design: a burbling, electronic, throbbing sonic presence that suggests whatever is in those beakers is unusual, alien, ‘other,’ in some way. The film knowingly borrows aural and visual design elements from existing film portrayals of the ‘mad scientist’ figure and those scientist’s laboratories, familiar locations to audiences au fait with Frankenstein (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933) (films that tend to be referred to as ‘horror,’ however broad and inaccurate that definition might be here). Indeed, many of the films of this period that present a mad scientist joyfully bounce between science fiction, horror, thriller, gangster and comedy genre identities: the likes of The Invisible Ray (1936), Frankenstein vs. the Wolf Man (1943) or The Perfect Woman (1949) are generic hybrids that foreground ‘mad’ science and similar complicated laboratory set-ups (from which chaos, inevitably ensues).

Stratton himself shares generic similarities with earlier scientific figures such as Dr. Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll or Dr Griffin, all of whom had been regularly brought to cinematic life. Committed and driven, conscious only of his work (and associated experiments), socially inept, and unaware of larger issues (moral, economic or personal), Stratton is blind to anything but the laboratory and the big idea. Yet this naive and innocent persona can also switch, in the same scene, to cocky and pompous, a quality also shared by his generic predecessors: it is to Guinness’ credit that Stratton remains likeable throughout much of the film, despite this mercurial personality. Those moments where the naive mask briefly drops remind us that a film about black and white has a central figure who is himself morally grey.

These science fiction themes – and the obvious parallel to stories such as Frankenstein – occur through visual/aural display, character and narrative. The story of The Man in the White Suit is familiar to anyone who has watched earlier genre films: the brilliant, but driven, scientist creates something new; his creation threatens to disrupt the social order (often physically, as in the case of Frankenstein’s Monster, or Metropolis’ robotic Maria); forcing the representatives of society gather to try and control the scientist and his creation. The end of this film features (quite literally) a rampaging mob of villagers racing through the streets of Wellsborough in pursuit of the mad scientist and his creation, the suit, which threatens all of their lives. Stratton is creator and creation, mad scientist and monstrous figure by the end, a luminous glowing presence in the dark and mean streets of Wellsborough (and which offer another potential generic thread – of film noir – through Douglas Slocombe’s gorgeous cinematography): it is no accident that the mob that chase and corner Stratton literally tear the monster to pieces, shredding his suit in their hands and destroying the ‘other’ that has upset their social situation. It is also firmly hinted that Stratton, like all great mad scientists, is still concocting new, more advanced, creations – the film’s coda has him walking out of Birnley’s mill, struck by a thought, and striding down the street, while the sonic laboratory noises rise to dominate the soundtrack.

Author John Wyndham felt the science fiction genre imagined ‘a technology, or an effect of a technology... such as humanity, up to the time of writing, has not in actual fact experienced.’ (Wyndham The Seeds of Time, 1968, 7) The Man in the White Suit takes that idea – the effect of a new (as yet undiscovered) technology as its central issue: what would the effect be if someone created a miraculous new artificial fabric that couldn’t be destroyed, wouldn’t ever get dirty, or wear out? As Charles Barr has pointed out, it means the film engages with industrial relations, wealth, and the obstructive nature of big business, but at its heart, this remains a story about technology. The film opens on shots of an electric weaving machine; its camera glides across scientific workbenches full of Bunsen burners, test tubes and electric equipment; the lingering shots of Stratton’s workbench, both small and (once mill owner Birnley (Cecil Parker) employs him) larger and more impressive renditions of the same equipment. Telephones play an important role in the comic misunderstandings that power much of the narrative; while Stratton’s new cotton thread is presented as the most technologically advanced element known to man.

Despite the presence of all these strong generic conventions, the film is rarely discussed in these terms, but more in relation to its comic and political roots. Barr sets the tone by seeing the film as ‘a statement about England... governed by consensus’ and a ‘story of frustration, blockage and stagnation’ (Barr 1980, 134-5). To me, however, this reading is too reliant on Barr’s overarching narrative of Ealing (and Britain) stagnating through the 1950s to focus on the visual and thematic content of this one film. His sense of the film as a dramatisation of Alexander Mackendrick and Michael Balcon’s relationship is fascinating, but does appear to ignore the broader generic and intertextual world highlighted above (and often the evidence of the film) in favour of anecdotal evidence of Balcon’s leadership.

The film challenges aspects of Ealing’s ‘small is good, big is bad’ comedic world (seen in Passport to Pimlico (1948) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) by ridiculing big and small: the business of Birnley Mills and the bigger business of the British textile industry (represented in gothic fashion by Ernest Thesiger as Sir John Kierlaw, a cadaverous spider at the centre of the textile web) is satirised as first desperate for, and fearful of, this new fabric. Yet the ‘small’ (here represented by both trade unionism and individual labourers such as Stratton’s landlady, Mrs Watson – Edie Martin) is also anti-Stratton, because his invention threatens their livelihood: the main representative of this position, Stratton’s friend Bertha, tells him off for not taking a tea break which ‘we had to fight for’ and, upon hearing he has a new (unpaid job) retorts ‘I don’t care whether you want to get paid or not – you’ve got to get paid.’ Like the trade union representatives (and the Ministry) in Titfield, neither side understands the central character’s obsession: big and small eventually join forces (a curious echo of Metropolis where labour and management come together) to hunt Stratton down.

As noted above, the film features a tour-de-force performance from Alec Guinness as the guileless but arrogant Stratton, but the film has several other strong performances: Cecil Parker is smug and scared in equal measure by the change in his mill’s fortunes; Thesiger is presented as evil incarnate, cocooned within a voluminous cloak, or sinking into high-backed chairs, offering to prostitute Birnley’s daughter, Daphne, if it will get him the result he wants.  Daphne (Joan Greenwood) is more problematic as a character – and, as Barr notes, disappears from the film when her role is fulfilled. She appears as fiancĂ© to Michael Corland (Michael Gough), head of a another mill (where Stratton initially works) but is drawn to Stratton’s equipment and experiments well ahead of any male character. The relationship with Corland largely disappears, Daphne spots Stratton at her father’s mill, but then becomes interested in his work, showing an aptitude for the science, and supporting his ideas (she is, as Barr notes, the person who actually explains what Stratton’s invention can do). Daphne acts as a voice of optimism in the film: she sees the possibilities of the material, where Stratton only sees the science, and the textile industry/union only see the problems it will cause.

Daphne is also both sexualised by the men in power, and blithely aware of the power of her own sexuality. In a sexually charged scene with innuendo-laden dialogue, Kierlaw offers Daphne money to seduce Stratton and convince him to sign a new contract: she is aware of what is being asked, and demands more money for the job. Greenwood is particularly strong here as, in the course of five minutes, she has to go from conniving femme fatale with Kierlaw, through seductress (with Stratton), to idealistic crusader when she gets Stratton to agree to reveal his story (and material) to the world.

The comedy elements of the film are obviously not inconsequential: there are some great verbal exchanges (Stratton declares ‘I won’t stay in your house another minute’ just before Birnley’s butler succeeds in throwing him out) and visual touches (Stratton, in his luminous white suit, tries to hide below an advertisement for raincoats that promise to hide ‘a multitude’). This is a film of multiple generic pleasures: science fiction (and aspects of horror) in its topic, themes, character and visual aspects; thriller or film noir in the rain-soaked dark streets and alleys where Stratton hides from the mob, or the appearance of the textile barons like gangsters in their overcoats and matching black cars; comedy in its dialogue and physical slapstick. To insist the film sits within one category lessens the film and its place within the Ealing canon.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 19: The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)

Eighteen films later, we’re back playing with trains in The Titfield Thunderbolt. The very image of this film has come to stand from something essential about the Ealing comedy and Ealing Studios – a quaint cosy little village community standing up against consumerism by doing things ‘their way.’ As such, the film has been seen less as about trains and more about a view of Britain as stuck in tradition, unable to understand the possible benevolence of progress. The plot of the film is straightforward: when a local branch line is threatened with closure, a group of villagers group together to save the train line, and battle the ‘big business’ replacement (the Pearce & Crump omnibus service).

Charles Barr’s Ealing Studios (a common reference point for this blog) berates the film for allying itself with amateurs and parasites: ‘mainly from the church, the squirearchy, and the idle rich’ rather than the wider community, creating a backward looking world ‘with no dynamism.’ (163) Barr’s reaction has to be understood in the broader scheme of the book, which celebrates the ‘ironies and ambiguities of the Hamer and Mackendrick comedies’ (little of which he finds in this film, or the other TEB Clarke ‘community’ comedies), and it works to reduce the impact (and scope) of his analysis of what remains a popular and oft-cited Ealing film. Along with Passport to Pimlico and Whisky Galore!, this film sets out many of the characteristics that define terms like ‘Ealing-esque’: films that focus on community over faceless bureaucracy, small versus large, quality versus quantity, which many commentators have seen influencing later films such as Local Hero (1983) and The Full Monty (1997).

It is true that The Titfield Thunderbolt is a broad comedy that revolves around particular stereotypes of small village life and commercialism. It is also, however, a clever and wryly intelligent film that mocks those stereotypes rather than blindly accepting them. It is particularly disingenuous for Barr to suggest that the three central ‘amateurs’ in the film (the vicar Weech (George Relph), squire Gordon (John Gregson) and rich alcoholic Valentine (Stanley Holloway) demonstrate the lack of an actual community. Such a reading fails to address the additional characters who are involved in the railway, from driver Dan (Hugh Griffith) and local businessman Blakeworth (Naunton Wayne) to housekeeper Emily (Edie Martin) and barmaid Joan (Gabrielle Brune): characters that are not part of the religious, landowning classes that Barr identifies. The wider community of the film is largely depicted through extras (notably scenes such as the crowds coming to wave them off, or the cricket team rushing off the pitch to see the train and cheering its passage), but that is equally true of the communities in Passport to Pimlico or Whisky Galore!, where certain individuals are more prominent in the narrative. The novelty of the train is certainly focused on, but it is far from being Barr’s ‘tourist train,’ given characters like Blakeworth rely on it to get to work, and Gordon uses the train to take his produce to market (not quite the act of the idle rich squirearchy Barr tries to construct).

The bureaucrats from the Ministry of Transport, and the owners of Pearce & Crump are painted with broad strokes, but there are subtle touches: one of the ministry men drives an unfeasibly small motorbike to work; the inspector is officious but ultimately charmed by the train; Crump is willing to use muscle to make his point (and happily cheers ‘why are we waiting’ when he is stuck on the train at the end), while Pearce is more cowardly, confessing everything to the police. The men at the heart of the narrative are not one-dimensional either: Weech is a particularly passionate religious figure (even if that passion for steam trains blinds him to the realities of life), while Valentine’s comedy drunk nevertheless steps up and (with Dan) tries to steal a replacement engine to keep the train line running. (Holloway is obviously having fun with the performance, particularly his overawed/childishly happy reaction in the bar when Gordon – cunningly – reveals the train could start selling alcohol first thing in the morning)

Yet the most interesting characters in the film are arguably Blakeworth and Hawkins (Sid James), because they exist in the grey area between the passionate villagers and the businesslike Pearce & Crump. Blakeworth is in the initial meetings with Weech and Gordon about taking over the railway, but then voices his concern over safety at the public meeting; he takes the train to work most days, but also tries out the omnibus; he frets about not being involved (after overhearing a conversation between Pearce and Crump about sabotaging the train) and then is arrested when he attempts to stop them. If Weech, Gordon and Valentine are the heart, Blakeworth is the head, constantly aware of issues around money, safety and timeliness (with the latter two, it turns out, exactly what the Ministry is assessing the line on).

Hawkins is different again (and interesting because of that difference): a local worker who doesn’t seem to care about either mode of transport (arguably because he is normally seen on the back of a steam roller). We first see him holding up Gordon’s motor car through narrow country lanes (possibly another example of steam power delaying more modern progress), then he is roped in by Pearce & Crone in a stand-off between steam train and roller (which the roller loses), before he joins in on full-blown sabotage and destruction. (James’s performance of Hawkins’ look of loss when he thinks the roller is broken, and his angry desire for retribution, is particularly strong and not as broadly comic as his later Carry On fame would suggest) Yet Hawkins is also a character who helps save the day, by allowing the train crew to cannibalise the roller for spares on the final run, with the ministry inspecting them (Hawkins has ulterior motives, notably Joan’s announcement she’ll do anything if he helps, include getting married).

Hawkins is also in two of the film’s more interesting narrative and stylistic moments. In the local pub, after the face-off with the train, he is watching a black-and-white western on the television (and dropping glasses off the bar): the western shows a chase scene with Indians chasing a train, then cuts to a saloon where three outlaw cowboys discuss the failure. At the same moment, Pearce & Crump walk in, and gesture for Hawkins to join them: the camera pushes in on the TV screen, then cuts to Hawkins et al., in similar positions (as the outlaws) in the pub. Even the saloon girl in the western becomes a prim lady with a charity collection tin. Then, just as the three begin to make plans, we cut back to the TV, which flickers, then goes off, before a ‘Normal Service will be resumed’ sign flashes up (Ealing wasn’t above a little inter-screen rivalry – as Meet Mr Lucifer (1954) would prove).

Hawkins is next seen lying in the grass, firing a rifle. The link between the western and the narrative becomes clearer, particularly when the film cuts to Weech and Dan on the train, seemingly under fire. Dan picks up a gun, and starts shooting, and the film intercuts between the two scenes. But then we realise Hawkins is shooting at the water tower, and Dan is taking the opportunity to bag himself a pheasant: it is a nice piece of (genre-led) comic misdirection that shows particular skill on the part of Crichton and editor Seth Holt.

As ever with these films, there are more elements than I have time to really list here: the curious, often mocking, attitude the Ealing films take towards trade unions (the trade union representative here, Cloggett (Reginald Beckwith) is confused when he realises the proposed train crew would be management and labour at the same time); the float that Pearce & Crump produce that depicts a hospital operating theatre with ‘A victim of amateurism’ painted on it (which suggests a comment on the NHS?); the accuracy of the future imagined in Gordon’s impassioned plea of more concrete roads, traffic light, zebra crossings and houses with numbers and not names...

And, just to engage with Barr on this one more time, I’m not convinced the film is ‘slow, uncomplicated, and picturesque’ (Barr 1980, 162): the race between the bus and the train to the inquiry is fast-paced; the rush to collect water to prevent the train exploding is madcap and chaotic; while Valentine and Dan’s stolen train chase (crashing through a Guinness sign) is briskly edited (even if it does feel a little tangential to the main plot). The use of colour is also strong, and has firm narrative purpose, distinguishing between the bland cream bus and the gleaming red, green and gold of the Titfield Thunderbolt.

Next time: we go on the run with Alec Guinness in Ealing's science fiction-comedy The Man in the White Suit (1951)

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 18: The Feminine Touch (1956)

Director Pat Jackson made this, his only Ealing film, as the studio faced uncertain economic and creative straits, having sold their Ealing base to the BBC in 1955 (moving to Borehamwood instead), and with a new distribution agreement through MGM (not the more traditional Rank deal that had sustained them through the 1940s and early 50s). Ealing had also lost many of its established creative personnel, with Basil Dearden, Michael Relph, Charles Crichton and Alexander Mackendrick moving on to other projects, in British cinema and beyond. Jackson, a refugee documentarian who had flirted with Hollywood, had already explored similar health topics in White Corridors (1951), but this film differs from that earlier treatment by being more focused on the female experience of nursing. Yet despite its credentials as one of the few Ealing films to deal directly with a range of contemporary female issues (or, at least, those that relate to women in nursing and related work) the film arguably suffers from conflicting ideological positions around women, the workplace, and domestic responsibilities.

[As with Nicolas Nickleby, some of the following points and criticism may come from the source material, Sheila Mackay Russell’s book A Lamp is Heavy]

The film follows five student nurses from their arrival at St. Augustine’s Hospital (filmed at the real life Guy’s Hospital), through training, to their experiences in the first year of nursing. The film opens strongly, with Susan (Belinda Lee), Pat (Delphi Lawrence), Maureen (Adrienne Corri), Ann (Henryetta Edwards) and Liz (Barbara Archer) all thrown together in a dormitory. This section of the film has echoes back to British wartime films such as The Way Ahead (1944) and Millions Like Us (1943), with people from all walks of life (and class) forced to work together and find common ground. There is a strong scene of them arriving that defines their central characteristics: Susan is reliable and sensible, Pat is flighty and open, Maureen is Irish and loud, Ann is public school, Liz is working class. Watching them meet, unpack, unselfconsciously undress and put on their drab nurses’ outfits, demonstrates a solid core of burgeoning comradeship that the film will return to, albeit with less effect, throughout the plot.

The film is most interested in Susan, and her role within this group of women. She is often presented as a leader, but the film never offers any reason for this (beyond her being the main character). At times, she is visually isolated from the others, most notably in a scene where Ann and Pat threaten to resign: among a room of nurses, all bathed in the strong red-orange light of sunset, Susan is alone, sitting in a window, while the rest are gathered together on chairs and sofas in the centre of the room; the same scene shows she is uncertain about quitting, while the rest are aggrieved, protesting. However, she can also be shown within the group: a scene of the five women sitting on the edge of a bathtub, soaking their feet after another busy day on the ward, reemphasises how they draw on each other for support (the visuals are also strong here, with the camera occupying a point at the end of the bath that suggests the viewer is a sixth member of this group, part of the gang rather than an outsider).

The film has an obvious need to pair the female characters up with good-looking male doctors. The three male figures shown here (bar patients) are Dr. Jim Alcott (George Baker, from The Ship That Died of Shame), Dr. Ted Robinson (Christopher Rhodes), and the older hospital porter (Newton Blick) – whose role is largely to be a father figure who’ll help the girls and turn a blind eye to them going out partying beyond curfew. In many ways it seems churlish to complain about the romantic sub-plots, given the nurse-doctor romance narrative was hardly new in 1956, and has echoes in later hospital drama from er to Casualty. But here it actually takes away from any sense of the film dealing with the experience of female workers – rather than being a female version of, for example, Nine Men or The Cruel Sea, the central group is interesting less because of their interest in being strong and resourceful at their jobs and more about finding a man to marry, thus allowing them to quit their jobs.

And this isn’t my reading too much into the film: the final scenes of the film feature the Matron (Dian Wynyard), a character whose role throughout has largely been to give firm but understanding lectures, offering a homily to Susan and Pat that states they should leave nursing and abandon their qualifications, because finding love (particularly with a doctor) is a better option than finishing training and having a fulfilling career. After seventy minutes showing these young women struggling to overcome their obstacles at work, it feels glib to offer the solution that love trumps work. The film roots this denouement in nursing policy: married nurses are presumed to neglect their duty ‘because of a divided loyalty’ – although Susan does question the merit of nurses being allowed to have as many affairs as they want just so long as they are discreet and don’t get caught – but it does mean the film ends with Matron advising these two nurses (whom the film has asked us to invest in) to quit and – quite literally in the case of the final scene – end up in the arms of the doctor they love.

The film’s uncertainty over the place of romance is most plainly seen through Susan’s experience. Her relationship with Alcott moves in traditional romantic-comedy fits and starts: the victim of apparent competition with more experienced nurses, a missed date due to work, misunderstandings when Alcott is seen with another woman, disagreements over his treatment of patients, before eventual realisation and declaration of their feelings. This realisation pivots around two extended sequences: the first occurs in the children’s ward, where Alcott and Susan are looking after Jessie, a young girl with chronic heart disease. The debate here is around religion, notably Susan accusing Alcott of destroying Jessie’s faith in God because she knows ‘Uncle Jim’ (Jessie’s name for Alcott) doesn’t believe. Alcott initially rejects Susan’s concerns, but her intervention (and frankness) changes his mind, leading to a talk with Jessie on God and religion that suggests he does actually believe in something (which thus also paints him as suitable husband material): ‘we don’t understand radio and television, but they exist too... they only work if we let them, by turning on the sets.’ Yet this is also a scene that pulls its punches – Alcott’s lack of belief is never truly explored – and Susan is sidelined in the serious conversation, reduced to handing out orange juice to the kids while Alcott chats to Jessie. Susan is more central to the second pivotal scene, set during a nightshift, where she recognises a patient in trouble and calls Alcott to help him. Here, Susan and Alcott are presented in a more equal relationship, by her having proved her medical abilities: from this scene on, they are a couple, and Susan is planning to leave the service.

Yet the film has one last, curious, ‘romantic’ note to strike: Susan, writing her resignation letter on nightshift (this is a beautifully lit scene: a darkened ward of deep blue shadows, Belinda Lee sitting in a pool of light cast largely by a blue-shaded desk lamp), is called to an emergency case. The patient – bluntly described in the credits as ‘The Suicide’ (Dorothy Alison) – tells Susan her story of being in love with another man, running away from her husband (who gave her money when she left), and then being betrayed by her lover, who left her penniless. This long scene – largely shot in one take, with occasional cut-aways to close-ups of Susan – presents the moral, conservative, point of view (Susan states that going back to the husband is the only choice, not suicide), helps convince Susan to stay in nursing (for a few scenes at least, until Matron’s intervention), but also suggests the film’s larger theme that love or death are the only options open to women in the mid-1950s (with career a distant third).

Susan and Alcott are usefully contrasted with Pat and Dr Rhodes, where the emphasis appears to be on fun and sex, rather than medicine and romance: Pat (who notes early on that you can’t learn anatomy from books) regularly returns home late from dates, she is the most glamorous and outspoken of the girls (particularly in relation to men and sex), and on the one occasion when we see Pat and Rhodes out of the hospital, it is at a hectic and busy nightclub, with black musicians playing in the background, and native tribal designs painted on the walls. The broad strokes of the film show their relationship as unconventional and physical, while Susan and Alcott are all about unrequited glances and picnics on the riverbank: yet both women end up in the Matron’s office, giving up careers for their men.

Away from narrative and thematic concerns, The Feminine Touch does demonstrate some interesting (if subdued) uses of Technicolor. As with The Love Lottery, the quality of the print doesn’t really allow a comparison with how it might have looked in 1956, and often reduces rooms, costumes and ambience to brown-beige tones, with occasional colour highlights (notably red tones, or the blue uniforms of the nurses) breaking through. Yet there strong colour elements are still visible: bright red towels covering the trolley taking a sick boy to theatre, the blue tones of the night-time ward scenes, the red stripes on the sister’s uniforms. The film is also visually striking, using the kind of shadows the cinematographer Douglas Slocombe had previously identified as a strength of Technicolor. One scene in particular stands out here, when Susan is on nightshift and a patient is in trouble: the images of the ward are bathed in dark shadows, with only occasional highlights in lighter blues. Susan and Alcott walk to and from the bed in these shadows, only illuminated when the patient’s bedside lamp is switched on – and even then, they are half-lit, faces half or three-quarters in shadow.

The Feminine Touch, coming at a crossroads for Ealing Studios, may not have opened up a new successful strain of dramas, but it stands as one of the few Ealing films that engaged with female experience outside of supportive wife/daughter roles (we shall see some of the others in later blog posts). While that representation may be problematic in places, it shouldn’t take away from the fact that the film is dominated by strong, confident women in positions of authority, who are able to rely on each other, are seen as independent, and demonstrate skill at their profession.

[UPDATED April 2014: The Feminine Touch is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 8, from Network]

Next time: more colourful action in The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)...