Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 30: Return to Yesterday (1940)

A minor entry in the Ealing canon (still technically a CAPAD production), this feels like one of the transitional films that was produced as Michael Balcon (and others) figured out what kind of films Ealing Studios (as a production company) should, and could, produce. Like The Gaunt Stranger (1938), Trouble Brewing (1939) and Saloon Bar (1940), it is mostly studio-based with a few brief location shots of the pier and a remote island, but unlike the latter two films, the plot is rarely strong enough to hold the attention.

Based on a stage play (‘Goodness How Sad,’ by Robert Morley) this is a largely unconvincing and thin slice of romantic drama that features a few interesting character performances, but is dominated by three largely unappealing leads. Despite opening on a young couple (playwright Peter (David Tree) and his girlfriend / actress Carol (Anna Lee) and the play they are about to open at the Pier Theatre, the film is more focused on the nostalgic (and initially incognito) journey of Robert Maine (Clive Brook), a Hollywood star, back to his roots.

What follows is strictly by the numbers: the play’s leading man drops out, Maine (in disguise as ‘Manning’) is convinced to take the role, the producer pulls the funding, the cast decide to put it on themselves, Maine is revealed, and he and Carol fall in love. The play gets a huge opening night, and publicity, and Maine leaves Carol behind, after realising her life is just beginning. While none of this is badly presented, the execution lacks any life or passion: there is no visual flair, the comedy is forced (Captain Angst (Ludwig Stossel), an eccentric Germanic professor type at the lodging house keeps a seal in a bathtub), and the performers appear to be going through the motions (ironic, in a film about doing exactly the opposite and being passionate about the play you are in).

Clive Brook is solid, but the film doesn’t give him much to do – and there is little he can do to sell the frankly ludicrous love story between Maine and Carol. Even though the age difference between the characters is a story point, Brook cannot help but look like a leering older man next to Anna Lee, who bounces through the film like a teenager who’s had too much sugar. If it is important that he look old enough to be her father, it is perhaps unfortunate that he acts like that around her too, and never like a potential lover. Anna Lee is stronger bouncing off Tree, suggesting Carol’s passion and optimism, but that may say more about his acting than hers. (she does have a great line about everyone assuming the – platonic – evening spent with Maine alone on an island was some kind of orgy – not a very Ealing word!)

The supporting players are amusing, and offer hints of the ensemble playing that later Ealing films would become known for: the other actors in the play, notably Mrs Truscott (Dame May Whitty), are strong, while Grace and Sambourne provide some comic villainy and pomposity that gives the film some (partial) bite. Yet, ultimately, there is little to recommend here: a thin and unbelievable plot, solid acting and no real visual or aural flair to lift it higher in Ealing’s filmography.
[UPDATED April 2014: Return to Yesterday is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 11, from Network]

Next time, Robert Donat faces the grim reaper in the East Riding of Yorkshire, in Lease of Life (1954)...

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