Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 23: Saloon Bar (1940)

Bouncing back to an earlier point in Ealing’s filmography, Saloon Bar can also be seen as a throwback to lower budget British filmmaking of the 1930s with its reliance on studio-based production, limited sets, small cast and reliance on genre. The film, with its script written by Angus Macphail and John Dighton (regular Ealing contributors, who also worked on The Black Sheep of Whitehall, The Ghost of St Michaels and The Next of Kin; while Dighton contributed stories to Dead of Night) and direction from Walter Forde, fits the mould of those early Ealing efforts. However, the film also links to broader ideas of what Ealing films encapsulated, with its emphasis on a small community fighting against larger bureaucracy (here, attempting to acquit a wrongly convicted man), some strongly drawn characters, and a strong combination of elements from crime, detective and comedy genres.

Set among the regulars who inhabit the saloon bar of the Cap and Bells, the film follows Joe Harris (Gordon Harker), a bookie who returns to the bar on Christmas Eve after months away and decides to investigate the murder of Mrs Truscott, for which Eddie Graves (Alec Clunes), a regular at the bar, and boyfriend of barmaid Queenie (Elizabeth Allan), is about to hang. Joe, with help from bar staff Ivy (Anna Konstam) and Fred (Al Millen) and customers Charlie Wickers (Ealing stalwart Mervyn Johns, as stoic and logical as ever) and Sally (Joyce Barbour), investigate various clues and ultimately uncover a story of bigamy, blackmail and intrigue. Meanwhile, there is a thin subplot involving the bar owner’s wife, who is about to give birth in an upstairs room.

Where the film works is in drawing out the different characters that make up the bar’s staff and customers. Broadly drawn in places (notably Queenie and Harry Small), the actors are able to give these characters life, particularly Harker as Joe and Barbour as Sally. Most of these performances contribute to the film’s ability to suggest camaraderie among the characters, and a reason why they would band together in this way. Even characters like Sally and Doris, who only appear in a handful of scenes, contribute to the working class milieu and focus of the film, and show how the film rarely takes sides on what is acceptable and what is not. For example, Harry Small’s bigamy is a problem, but Doris’ paying ‘gentlemen friends’ are less so: when she asks ‘Are you saying I take money from men?’ Joe replies ‘It doesn’t matter to me what you do in your spare time.’ Equally, Sally’s job managing a chorus of dancing girls is barely commented on, just another job. It is obviously too much to suggest the film is celebrating female independence here (Doris may have more than ‘one umbrella in her hatstand’ but she also works in the rival bar, the Shakespeare, and blocks Joe’s investigation) but it appears to lack any strict moral perspective on those professions.

The film is obviously shot on a tight budget: much of the film’s narrative takes place in the saloon bar of the title, with only five or six other locations being used through the film. There is little real tension built up: the film makes it clear Eddie is innocent, most obviously through a subjective flashback sequence that shows Eddie packing a case while the murder is committed. While this could be seen as unreliable narration, given it is Queenie’s retelling of Eddie’s story, the film constantly refers to his appeal, and the bar regulars (whom the audience get to know best) stress their belief in his innocence. The film’s pleasures largely comes from their attempts to solve the mystery, particularly the haphazard investigative style (Joe pretending to be a psychic researcher to check a man’s alibi; Sally discovering a relevant scrapbook in the theatre’s prop room) and Wickers’ continual rejection of each new clue (there is a brief moment where the film suggests Wickers could be the murderer, but his character is obviously too gloomy and despondent to ever commit anything)

The film’s comedy stems from some off-beat humour – for example, a young couple sit in the corner of the bar, largely oblivious to the whole investigation. The film occasionally eavesdrops on the (largely one-sided) conversation where the girl, a wannabe starlet with brash (and misplaced) confidence, offers increasingly bizarre stories about her attempts to break into show business: starting with worrying that a strange man wanted to take advantage to her, through having her skirts gathered around her neck, to being naked and performing a fan dance. These snatches of conversation build to the girl exclaiming that she’s shocked that the regulars are discussing murder in front of her! However, there is also a recurring joke around a group of young lads singing / ruining Christmas carols outside the bar that is painful first time round (and does not improve with repetition) and very broad comedy around a series of drunken toffs unable to start their cars. There are also some obvious gags around sandwiches past their sell-by date, a blind man beating Joe at pinball, the maid mishearing Joe and claiming he was from the Bicycle Institute (rather than the Psychical Institute) etc.

The film has some interesting visual tics: the bar itself is a blandly lit area, but when the film ventures outside (notably to scenes set in Gabbot’s garage, or the final chase through the shadowy, but studio-bound, streets), there are more interesting visual compositions. This sequence – like the introductory scenes that play up the importance of Graves about to hang –uses a faster-paced editing style than the more casual approach found throughout. The camera also prowls around various scenes, framing and reframing characters or aspects of set design (the frosted windows of the bar, Joe’s car). Set design also works to confirm audience understanding of class difference in the film: the saloon bar is old fashioned and snug, while The Shakespeare public house is a modern, brightly lit and fashionably designed area with (modernist) ideas above its station (possibly signalled by Joe’s treatment by the bouncers, or the fact that Doris – the main barmaid – is revealed to be a working girl on the side)
In a nice moment, the epilogue of the film returns to the idea of community: the young starlet appears to have mislaid her date (she is now regaling Wickers with her stories), but she has joined the cast of bar regulars just as Charlie announces the birth of his baby boy, and a ‘lock in’ for everyone – including the local policeman on the beat, who turns up just as the doors are being closed. It is a moment of reunification – the small community has identified and got rid of the unwelcome elements (mainly Harry Small, but Doris is also absent), and is now reassembled around traditional patriarchal and gender roles of marriage, children, domesticity and Christianity, as Christmas music plays over the credits. While not perhaps a classic, Saloon Bar offers an early sense of Ealing community and genre-hybridity that would inform some of their later comedies.

[UPDATED April 2014: Saloon Bar is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 10, from Network]
Next time: wartime propaganda with The Next of Kin (1942)...

1 comment:

  1. the concept of the blind man being a 'whizz' at pinball may well have been the original idea behind Tommy, written by those who may well have seen Saloon Bar as children/teenagers and absorded the idea.