Thursday, 20 December 2012

The Twelve Days of (Ealing) Christmas

A suitably festive contribution to round off my year (and a bit) of Ealing viewing - the blog will be back in 2013 with more musings on cinema and TV...
Twelve Crichton’s Directing
Not counting his contribution to Dead of Night (1945), Charles Crichton directed twelve Ealing films, including comedy classics Hue & Cry (1947), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), as well as lesser known dramas like Dance Hall (1950) and The Man in the Sky (1957). Despite this, he still lags behind Basil Dearden (21 films) and Charles Frend (13), but ahead of Robert Hamer (7), Harry Watt (7), Walter Forde (6) and Alexander MacKendrick (5).

Eleven Pipers Piping
Before becoming famous for TV roles in Upstairs Downstairs and The Professionals, a young Gordon Jackson made eleven appearances in Ealing films, stretching from Tommy Trinder’s mate Alastair ‘Jock’ McFarlane in The Foreman Went to France (1942) to Peggy Cummins’ jealous boyfriend Ralph in The Love Lottery (1954). His distinctive brogue provided a Scottish perspective for war films, Australian epics and Victorian melodrama.

Ten Lads a Leaping
Aside from Gordon Jackson, the top ten leading actors who appeared in Ealing films include Mervyn Johns (12), Jack Warner (8), Jack Hawkins (6), Alec Guinness (6), Stanley Holloway (6), George Formby (5), Will Hay (5), John Mills (5), John Clements (5), and Raymond Huntley (4).

Nine Ladies Dancing
The top nine leading actresses include Googie Withers (6), Joan Greenwood (4), Moira Lister (4) Sally Anne Howes (4), Katie Johnson (4), Elizabeth Sellars (3), Kay Walsh (3), Adrienne Corri (2), and Patricia Roc (2). However, although never a lead, they are all beaten by Gladys Henson, who appeared in 10 Ealing films.

Eight Alec Guinesses-a-killing
One of Ealing’s best known films, the dark comedy of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) is most famous for Alec Guinness’ appearance in eight different roles, as the members of the artistocratic D’Ascoyne family that Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) kills off, one by one... Guinness would try and recreate the effect in Barnacle Bill (1958), but to less acclaim.

Seven Awards a Winning (kind of)
Ealing films were nominated for Academy Awards seven times, but T.E.B. Clarke proved victorious, winning ‘Best Original Screenplay’ in 1952 for The Lavender Hill Mob. The other six nominations were for:
  • 1949: Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Colour), Jim Morahan, William Kellner, Michael Relph, Saraband for Dead Lovers
  • 1949: Best Original Screenplay, T.E.B. Clarke, Passport to Pimlico
  • 1952: Best Actor, Alec Guinness, The Lavender Hill Mob
  • 1952: Best Adapted Screenplay, John Dighton, Roger MacDougall, Alexander McKendrick, The Man in the White Suit (nominated) – from play of same name by MacDougall
  • 1953: Best Adapted Screenplay, Eric Ambler, The Cruel Sea (nominated) – from Nicholas Monsarrat novel
  • 1956: Best Original Screenplay, William Rose, The Ladykillers

6 Six Googie Withers
The inestimable Googie Withers appeared in six Ealing films: she had a low-key start as the love interest for George Formby in Trouble Brewing (1939), before starring in some of Ealing’s strongest 1940s dramas: They Came to a City (1944), a supportive wife in Dead of Night (1945), a calculating Victorian femme fatale up against stern patriarch Mervyn Johns in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), a female farmer challenging tradition in The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947) and, perhaps her strongest performance, as Rose Sandigate in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), struggling to reconcile her past life with criminal and her new domestic life in the East End of London.

Five Aussie Things
Between 1945 and 1959, the head of Ealing Studios Sir Michael Balcon, followed through on his plans to develop and expand Australian film production, with The Overlanders, Ealing’s first film to utilise Australian stories, cast and location filming. Followed by Eureka Stockade (1949), Bitter Springs (1950), The Shiralee (1957) and Ealing Film’s swansong, The Siege of Pinchgut (1959), these films represent the more globally focused side of Ealing that looked (often eagerly) beyond Britain’s shores for stories and audiences.

Four Just Men (1939)
The fifth Ealing film under Michael Balcon’s stewardship of the studios, this confident and briskly paced crime-spy thriller lingers on some of the darker and dramatic strands of Ealing’s output, elements that would thread through later films as diverse as Went the Day Well? (1943), Dead of Night (1945), Against the Wind (1948), The Blue Lamp (1950), The Gentle Gunman (1952) and Nowhere to Go (1958).

Three French Locations
Many of Ealing’s films feature French protagonists, but three in particular use their French locations to set up a Britain-French narrative contrast: The Foreman Went to France (1942) strands its British hero in the middle of an invasion; David Farrar fakes his death before escaping back to Herbert Lom’s glamorous and sexualised Parisian club in Cage of Gold (1950); while Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway engage in a madcap trip to Paris to retrieve their misplaced golden Eiffel Towers in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951).

Two Audrey Hepburns
Before Roman Holiday (1952) and Sabrina (1954), Audrey Hepburn appeared in two very different Ealing films: a brief part as ‘Chiquita’ in the South American scenes that bookend The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and a major role as Nora Brentano in spy drama Secret People (1952).

And a (solitary) Partridge in the Studio’s Pear Tree
Several stars made singular appearances in Ealing’s film output: Humphrey Bogart (The Love Lottery, 1954); Mai Zetterling (Frieda, 1947), David Niven (The Love Lottery, 1954); Harry Secombe (Davy, 1957), Simone Signoret (Against the Wind, 1948)and Benny Hill (Who Done It? 1956).

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 95 (and FINAL): Passport to Pimlico (1949)

And so, it came to an end. Not with a whimper, but with a bang: Passport to Pimlico, one of the best known ‘Ealing comedies’, one of the films that (it is claimed) speaks for the whole of the studio’s output and thematic interests, and one of the films that first sparked my love of Ealing many years ago. It remains a film of its time and place but, watching it during a time of British recession and austerity, it is also a film that can still provide a satirical edge to events, over sixty years on.

When an unexploded bomb (which is supposed to be the final one in London, until another one is found: a small comment on the fragility of fame/notoriety that echoes through the rest of the film) reveals a hidden treasure trove, the inhabitants of Miramont Place, Pimlico discover the land they live on is actually owned by the Duke of Burgundy. The local’s realisation that they are now Burgundians (and not bound by British law) is a beautifully structured piece of cinema that starts with the individual realisation of bank manager Mr Wix (Raymond Huntley), which spreads through other characters, ending up in a communal ‘knees up’ around the piano in the local, a ripping up of ration booklets, and a rejection of traditional authority figures. Because this is Ealing, such excesses are not without their problems: as the bureaucracy of Whitehall rolls over them, Miramont Place suffers from an influx of spivs and black marketeers, the imposition of strict border controls and immigration, and the cessation of basic amenities (water, electricity, food).

One of the things that this Challenge has revealed is that Ealing Studios was fascinated with the world beyond Britain’s borders: whether that was expressed through literal border crossings in Johnny Frenchman (1945) or Against the Wind (1948), or completely foreign-set narratives such as Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948) or His Excellency (1952). Here, the introduction to the film suggests a continental or Latin setting, with salsa music playing, a fan turning: a seemingly foreign location. That this turns out to be England in a heat-wave (revealed through a camera shot that pulls back over Molly Reeve (Jane Hylton) sunbathing on the roof, tilts down to reveal the fish shop beneath, pans across past the pub door, and gazes down the street) is just one of the visual and thematic misdirections that the film offers to its audience. It also points to the inherently playful nature of this film, and of the studio more broadly.

The film moves along swiftly, developing new ideas quickly and never stopping, a testament to the combined skills of director Henry Cornelius, writer T.E.B. Clarke, director of photography Lionel Banes and editor Michael Truman. Narrative details are referenced in passing, not shoehorned in or signalled far in advance. The heat-wave, for example, is rarely mentioned directly in dialogue, but is alluded to visually: in the opening few minutes, we see Molly in a bikini; a few minutes later she slaps some fish into a newspaper with a weather-related headline. The end of the heat-wave is also narrated visually with a sudden rainstorm and mercury plummeting in a thermometer. The skill of the pacing is also seen in the Whitehall scenes: although featuring the star turn of Ministers Gregg (Basil Radford) and Straker (Naunton Wayne), they are brisk and rapid, short digs at bureaucracy that don’t overstay their welcome (unlike Gregg and Straker, who are slow and dogmatic).

The scene in the pub also quickly and succinctly develops key characters: Wix’s rational approach, the more enthusiastic and communally minded Arthur Pemberton (Stanley Holloway), and bossy Edie Randall (Hermione Baddeley). The jealousy that Molly feels over Frank Huggins (John Slater) continually trying to impress Shirley Pemberton (Barbara Murray) is expressed musically, as Molly uses her singing to lure Frank’s attention away (the lyrics, ‘I don’t want to set the world on fire, just start a fire in your heart’ reaffirm this) It offers a strong example of the film’s focus on this community, but it also stands as a marker for how efficient the script, editing and direction can be.

As I suggested above, Pimlico still feels relevant today: the austerity measures of post-war Britain fit well with 2012 Britain, there is no money for public works (the Pemberton lido) only private development (blocks of flats), and there is no escaping the circuitous bureaucracy of Whitehall. In Miramont Place, public ownership of (and control over) the banks, democratically elected people’s councils, and pulling together is the response to such a crisis. Of course, that ignores the one fly in this socialist ointment: the need for a feudal overlord, in this case the current Duke of Burgundy (Paul Dupois). He may be charming, but he has little real role to play in this film: that said, the sequence of him attempting to romance Shirley under a night-time sky is beautifully undercut by the noises of a true London street (cats howling, men gargling).

With its strong location work, including shots in Piccadilly Circus (where several Pimlico kids go to watch a Gaumont-British newsreel about their street), the use of Whitehall, and the Underground (the scenes where the Pimlico brigade stop the tube to check passports and to check food stocks is a particular highlight), there is little doubt this is one of Ealing’s most obviously ‘London’ films. But the comic treatment of more universal themes of British community, identity (‘it’s because we are English that we’re sticking up for our rights to be Burgundian’) and democracy (a sign reading ‘3% For, 3% Against, 94% Don’t Know’ seems particularly apt to the film’s national vision) shine through, and reassert the film’s claims to classic status within Ealing’s 95 films, and British cinema more generally.

[Passport to Pimlico is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time... some final thoughts on the Great Ealing Film Challenge...

Friday, 10 August 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 94: Nowhere to Go (1958)

Nowhere to Go was the second-last Ealing Film produced and, suitably, is also the second-last film to be viewed and written about for this Challenge. Erstwhile Ealing editor Seth Holt made his directorial debut in a crime thriller which he scripted with Ealing script editor (and theatre critic) Kenneth Tynan (from a book by Donald MacKenzie). The hiring and influence of Tynan is covered in more detail by Charles Barr in the new collection Ealing Revisited, but of the seven films Balcon produced after selling the physical studio in Ealing, this is often seen as the film that offered one potential (and unfulfilled) new route for Ealing Films in the late 1950s.

Canadian thief Paul Gregory (George Nader) pursues Harriet P. Jefferson (Bessie Love) in order to steal her rare coin collection. Having sold the coins, he puts the money in a safe deposit box and waits to be arrested, expecting to be out in five years. Sentenced to ten years, and with the help of Victor Sloane (Bernard Lee), Gregory breaks out of prison and plans to collect the money, and leave the country. A series of accidents and double-crosses sends Gregory spinning through London’s criminal underworld, before he ends up on the run with socialite Bridget Howard (Maggie Smith) through the Welsh countryside.

There is a visual confidence on display in the film from the opening images, underpinned with a jazz soundtrack (by Dizzy Reece), that makes it feel like an early 1960s film rather than one from the late 1950s. Given its interest in interior spaces, and cool London locations, the film resembles later films like The Ipcress File (1965) more than earlier Ealing crime thrillers The Blue Lamp (1950) or Pool of London (1951). There is no dialogue in the first nine minutes of the film, as Victor arrives at the prison, throws a rope over the wall, climbs in and sets in motion Gregory’s escape; Gregory, in reverse, heads over the wall, changes his clothes, and takes the car Victor left for him, before ending up in a borrowed flat. It is a meticulous and well-staged sequence and, perhaps because of Holt’s work as an editor, there is little excess fat here or, indeed, elsewhere in the film.

Camerawork and set design remain strong throughout, with composition in depth that sets up complex scenes that reward extra attention. The apartment where Gregory stays for the first half of the film, for example, is a precise and controlled environment: we see it shot almost exclusively from one direction (a decision that could – unfairly – influence accusations of theatricality), but this is a complex and deeply layered space, with layers of information and narrative detail built on top of each other. Some images are dominated by the white telephone that sits on a side table, or his bag: both act as barriers to our ability to view the action, with Gregory often relegated to the background of the room. Given this isn’t a space Gregory is familiar with, but a borrowed location, it sets him adrift in a supposedly safe place: the idea of lacking roots or a solid base recurs throughout. (Bridget’s apartment, by contrast is a lived in space, more bohemian, with classic statues and arched window frames).

Gregory is not the only character to be trapped or positioned through such camera compositions: after being attacked, he lies unconscious on the floor, his head taking up the bottom left of the foreground of the frame, while Victor, in the deep background of the image, searches the apartment for the money. In each case, the space of the apartment, and the arrangement of the characters, is a bravura attempt to use location thematically. Forced perspectives also crucially link character and event: Gregory in the background of the coin dealers, with the bag (containing the coins) looming large in the foreground; or an image outside Rosa’s flat, with a cat in extreme left of image, and police cars pulling up in the mews below (the cat, disturbed, wakes Gregory, who is able to escape across the roof). Some of these effects also suggest generic identity: when Victor enters the apartment, the film uses canted camera angles, and a streaming light from outside that casts diagonal venetian blind shadows across the ceiling: both hark back to American (and British) crime films and film noir from the past two decades, an acknowledgement of how crime thrillers had changed since the 1940s.

The narrative remains solid and well-paced throughout, with Gregory running from club to apartment, to the apparent safety of Bridget’s flat and, later, her family’s country house. Yet Bridget remains an opaque character, a narrative prop as much as a strongly psychologised (or even thematically useful) presence. Maggie Smith gives a solid performance, suggesting an occasional wildness or ingénue quality (most obvious when talking to Inspector Scott – Geoffrey Keen – in the final minutes of the film) but the film fails to explain why Bridget would be attracted to, never mind help, Gregory. She also appears at useful moments for the narrative (arriving at the flat Gregory is staying in, within hours of him escaping from prison; leaving the club that Gregory’s criminal connection runs) but these coincidences are seemingly explained away by a line that she is a home for lost causes and lame ducks: neither of which Gregory falls into, as a thief and murderer.

There is a claim here that the film is interesting because it lacks the moral centre of previous Ealing productions, but is Gregory any better / worse / different than psychotic Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness, The Ladykillers, 1955), Irish terrorist Matt Sullivan (Dirk Bogarde, The Gentle Gunman, 1952), or German spy Davis (Mervyn Johns, The Next of Kin, 1942)? Gregory is ultimately punished – shot while committing the minor crime of stealing a bicycle – but as his actions devolve from meticulous planning to kneejerk responses, he becomes a less fascinating character, and Nader’s performance is largely one-note. Most of the time he is surrounded by characters actors like Bernard Lee or Maggie Smith who disguise the lack of personality in its star.

Nowhere to Go opens with the shriek of a steam train as it rumbles past camera, and ends with Bridget walking down the hill, with a cloudy sunset in the distance, jazz drifting over the imagery. It is tempting to read more into those images than Holt (and cinematographer Paul Beeson) intended. A sunset on Ealing Films, perhaps, given their final film would be the Australian-set The Siege of Pinchgut (1959)? A shift from the traditional (steam trains, moral certainty, metropolitan, jazz) to regional British spaces that the British New Wave and rock ‘n roll would soon begin to colonise? Ealing Films would never contribute to that version of British cinema, but Nowhere to Go suggests they might have had interesting things to add...

[Nowhere to Go is not currently available on DVD from Studio Canal]

Next time, the Great Ealing Film Challenge finishes with one of the studios' best loved productions, Passport to Pimlico (1949)...

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 93: The Ware Case (1938)

When discussing Young Man’s Fancy (1939), it was noted that these early Ealing films act as a bridge between the Basil Dean / Associated Talking Picture films produced at Ealing and the Balcon-produced films that the production company called ‘Ealing Studios’ would become known for. Yet even using that framework to approach these films, The Ware Case is an odd and generically unstable contribution to the Ealing back catalogue.

Told through a flashback structure that begins with a murder court case, the bulk of the film follows immature man-about-town Lord Hubert Ware (Clive Brook) as he leaves a litany of angry creditors across London and the continent. Ignorant of the feelings of his wife Meg (Jane Baxter), Hubert is presented as an amusing cad who spins lies and half-truths to get out of a variety of problems, including imminent bankruptcy and a string of mistresses. Hubert’s friend and barrister Michael Adve (Barry K. Barnes) is secretly in love with Meg, while Meg’s rich brother Eustace (Peter Bull) resents Hubert’s attitude to life and money. Meg puts Hubert’s country mansion up for sale, in order to stave off bankruptcy, but while all the major characters are staying there, Eustace’s body is found floating in the lake. The Ware’s money problems are solved, but the testimony of Ware’s ex- gamekeeper (John Laurie) suggests foul play, leading to a high profile murder trial.

It is hard to know how to take the film’s central character: the initial whirlwind of creditors, conspicuous consumption, casinos and women suggests a likeable cad, and the film goes to great lengths to position Hubert at the centre of the film (not least the fact he is in the dock in the opening court scenes). When Michael describes Hubert (and his class) as ‘out of date, museum pieces’ and we see the growing relationship between him and Meg, it is the start of a series of narrative events that wrong-foot audience expectation’s of a light-hearted aristocratic comedy of errors. The death of Eustace offers the next narrative lurch, with the introduction of a revenge-based court case providing another. Yet even here, the film is not finished. With Hubert cleared, he returns to his London flat, hears servants talking about Meg and Michael’s unrequited love, confronts his wife about it, seemingly realises his entire life has been a waste, announces to a crowd that he did murder Eustace, then throws himself off the balcony to his death below.

In its discussion of class dynamics, then, the film clearly ties in (however accidentally) to later notions of the middle class Ealing Studios and its desire to depict the working and middle classes on screen. Yet while Hubert’s class position might be out-of-touch, he remains one of the film’s few dynamic and interesting characters, fuelled by a strong performance by Brook who spits out his dialogue as though in a fast-paced screwball comedy, not this Frankenstein of generic odds and ends. There is solid support from Baxter and Barnes, but they fail to conjure up any of the hidden passion their characters are supposed to share, while Edward Rigby and John Laurie do their best to enliven the working class clichés showered on their drunken bookmaker and vengeful gamekeeper characters.

Although hampered by that strange narrative melange (and a curious flashback structure that begins with the foreman reciting the facts of the case, but never returns to the jury room when the flashback is complete), the film looks good, and is another solid production from director Robert Stevenson, scriptwriter Roland Pertwee and cinematographer Ronald Neame. Stevenson and Neame conjure up some impressive shots here, with good use of deep focus in the courtroom scenes, and some high angle shots that work to heighten the drama (notably down the side of the mansion block before Hubert falls to his death). The set design is also strong, setting up a modern art deco feel for the London apartment, more traditional (and spacious) country house interiors, and a cramped courtroom; this work is aided by extensive location filming, particularly around the Ware estate, that gives some verisimilitude to the film’s aristocratic setting.

Difficult to categorise, and with an uneven balance of comedy and tragedy around its central (and most interesting character), The Ware Case is never dull.

[UPDATED April 2014: The Ware Case is available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 5, from Network]

Next time, Ealing's final British film, the crime thriller Nowhere to Go (1958)...

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 92: His Excellency (1952)

His Excellency is one of those films that is difficult to love, partly because it often fails to deliver a coherent experience or meaning: it has moments of jingoism and anti-foreigner attitudes that feel alien to a 21st century audience, yet also goes to great pains to mock the British patriarchal attitude to ‘the colonies’; it mocks socialism yet offers a partial celebration of unionism and collective action; ridicules military might but ultimately relies on it to resolve narrative issues; celebrates a particular ‘northern’ personality within Britain but dilutes that through the imposition of upper class knowledge and restraint. And, worst of all for some critics, it is not the darkly wry and subversively witty film that Robert Hamer, director of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), was expected to deliver.

However, for all of the above reasons, the film is never less than fascinating, not least when it is imploding under the weight of its own narrative devices and themes.

From the opening announcement it is clear the film has a political and satirical point to make: ‘Great Britain’s Colonies are known to be the outposts of her Empire. They are reputed also to be the outposts of dressing for dinner, reading “The Times”, cricket and afternoon tea... This film tells of a mythical Colony of this kind during Britain’s recent Labour regime.’ That statement is a clue to the balancing act of mockery and patriotism the narrative tries to accomplish. In the colony (and naval base) of Artisa, the existing governor is replaced after a worker’s strike and dockyard riot. Instead of reliable aristocratic candidate Sir James Kirkman (Cecil Parker), Britain installs northern trade union leader George Harrison (Eric Portman). A man of action rather than a diplomat, Harrison rejects much of Kirkman’s advice and tries to change working conditions for the Arista dockyard workers, leading to a confrontation with Arista’s corrupt Prime Minister (Gerard Heinz) and local union leader Morellos (Geoffrey Keen). As the military are called out to deal with another strike and riot, Harrison relies on a final speech to try and get the workers on his side and back to work.

The class and political conflict is clear from the opening words and dialogue. One of the film’s representations of colonial ‘Britishness’ is a group of old ladies who gather at ‘Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’, read The Times and discuss the latest developments in London society. It is one of these ladies who declares, upon hearing of Harrison’s appointment, ‘I suppose with this wretched government one had to expect a Socialist, but they might at least have sent us one of the right sort’ (i.e. a socialist from the right background) It is tempting to compare this old-fashioned and fusty version of Britain with a similar gathering of old ladies in The Ladykillers (1955) three years later. In both cases, it is possible to read the gatherings as a clash of modernity, tradition and party politics – if the The Ladykillers (as director Mackendrick claimed) was about the Edwardian anachronism of Mrs Wilberforce (and her gloriously skewed house), then His Excellency signals the Victorian/Edwardian colonial mindset is equally anachronistic. If The Ladykillers can be read as a veiled comment on the post-war political landscape (as suggested by Jeffrey Richards and Anthony Aldgate), His Excellency offers a more explicit intervention in such debates.

Ealing’s politics and productions were class-ridden, but the content of their films can also be seen as driven by a reformer’s zeal, an often middle class exploration of modern society and different areas of Britain and abroad. While much of its representation of Britain here is aristocratic or militaristic, Harrison and his daughter Peggy (Susan Stephen) are the voices of the sensible middle classes, mediators that can attempt to talk to both sides and reach a compromise. This is hardly the socialism rejected in the line of dialogue quoted above, but it is a return to wartime values of compromise and coalition (Harrison accepts the need for Kirkman’s upper class help, Kirkman accepts Harrison’s perspective is valid). These are elements and ideals that Ealing understood, given Balcon’s description of their ‘mild revolution’ when many of them supported the post-war Labour government. However, the other side of this exploration of Britishness abroad means the film gives little voice to the natives of Arista, who are broadly scheming or in the pocket of large corporations. The local police chief Dobrieda (Eric Pohlmann), for example, is a caricature, a pompous colourful peacock of a figure that struts around the film like a bad Mussolini impersonator.

Harrison, as the film’s patriarch, believes he can walk the streets of his capital city until he understands the living conditions of his new people and find a solution (notably he never visits the tea shoppe, but prefers local bars). He may still hark back to his working class roots (Portman has a striking Manchester accent throughout), but it is clear from Peggy’s attitudes and accent that theirs is now a middle class life. Harrison, however, does succeed in wrestling sense from both upper and working class perspectives though his language alone – he attends a meeting of striking workers and convinces them to return to work through his oratory alone, while Kirkman and others are browbeaten by his ideas and orders. Where military might failed, working class language and logic triumph.

As might be imagined, this story offers little feminine perspective beyond the old ladies in the tea shoppe. Lady Kirkman (Helen Cherry) makes snide comments about the Harrisons, but is won over by Peggy’s charm and approach to running the governor’s palace; yet this is hardly a celebration of Peggy, who is reduced to a housewife’s role, chastising the chef and giving speeches to the local Red Cross. Stephen gives a solid, light performance but has little role beyond a sounding board for Portman to test rhetoric on.

Given the incoherent nature of much of the film, there are elements that can be celebrated: Portman and Parker give committed and enjoyable performances, the opulent set design of the palace is well used throughout (there are several shots of Harrison, Kirkman and Admiral Barclay (Edward Chapman) arranged across those spaces, like chess pieces on the chequered floor beneath them), and it continues Ealing’s strong tradition of location filming (the images of Portman striding through the streets and alleys of Arista, lingering in the empty town square, or yelling at the dockyard add colour to the story). Indeed, in places, the film is crying out for actual colour – Technicolor or Eastmancolour – and it is a shame it wasn’t made two years later, when the studio embraced colour filmmaking.

[UPDATED April 2014: His Excellency is available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 10, from Network]

Next time, we go (almost) back to the start, with the second film after Michael Balcon took over, The Ware Case (1938)...

Monday, 30 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 91: The Divided Heart (1954)

‘based... on a factual story taken from the newspapers. Part of its appeal for me was that it was about the mother-child relationship... which, I recognise, was a recurring one in Ealing films.’ (Michael Balcon, quoted in Barr, 192-3) 
The idea that the mother-child relationship was a recurring one in Ealing might seem a strange observation, even coming from the man who ran the studio between 1938 and 1959. Maternal issues can, of course, be found across a range of Ealing’s films: there is the mother-battleaxe figure who has to be defeated (often by the new bride) in films like Young Man’s Fancy (1939) and Turned Out Nice Again (1944), and there are mother-child elements to Cage of Gold (1950), Where No Vultures Fly (1951) and Mandy (1952), but it seems a stretch to call this a recurring theme. Children are more visible in Hue and Cry (1947) and The Magnet (1950), but the mother-child theme is less evident; equally, an argument could be made that father-son (The Long Arm, 1956; Pink String and Sealing Wax, 1945) and father-daughter relationships (Lease of Life, 1954; Touch and Go, 1955, The Shiralee, 1957) are equally important to the studio output.

The focus of The Divided Heart can, however, be seen as a continuation of Ealing’s move into more domestic melodramas from the post-war period, a move that paralleled what Charles Barr and others have seen as a move towards the professional male figure of The Cruel Sea (1953) and The Man in the Sky (1957). Barr also saw this film as ‘worthy but tame – sober, academic, actressy, afraid of getting into any deep emotional water’ (192): an assessment that seems to ignore the film’s desire to elicit emotion in quite direct and manipulative ways. It is also very much (to use a potentially problematic term) a ‘woman’s film’, in that the subject matter appears tailored for an assumed female audience – and the film features two central female characters.

The film opens with Inga and Franz Hartl (Cornell Borchers and Armin Dahlen), on the Bavarian ski-slopes and at the birthday party of their son Toni (Michael Ray / Martin Keller). The party is disturbed by two child repatriation officers, notably Marks (Geoffrey Keen), who informs the Hartl’s that Toni’s biological mother is alive and living in Slovenia. During a court case to assess Toni’s future, and to decide which of his mothers he should end up with, there are flashbacks that fill out other elements of the story: the birth mother, Sonja Slavko (Yvonne Mitchell) was held in a concentration camp during the war, and lost her husband and daughters; after finding Toni at a German orphanage, Inga raised him by herself while Franz is away at war, and captured by the Russians. Toni (or Ivan) gets the chance to meet Sonja, and grows to like her, but tells the judges he would prefer to live with the Hartls. Sonja also comes round to the belief that Toni would be better with them. Despite this, the three American justices vote 2-1 in favour of returning him to Sonja, and the final image is mother and son, reunited, on a train heading home.

The film is richer and more complex than Barr’s assessment allows, not least because it is, like Frieda (1947) before it, a commentary from an English perspective, on the post-war German character and identity. At first, the Hartl’s are just a nice family, but as the flashbacks reveal, Franz was a Nazi soldier and Sonja (and other Slovenians) suffered at the hands of the German army. The symbolism and emotion is laid on fairly thick: Toni/Ivan has hysterics every time he sees a Nazi uniform because it (unconsciously) reminds him of being torn from Sonja; in court, Sonja speaks through a translator, but one word ‘Auschwitz’ echoes round the courtroom and is understood in all languages; there is a concern about whether the Hartl’s will tell Toni the truth about German actions in the war, particularly against Slovenia. Those moments aside, the film rarely takes a direct position for or against Inga, and Borchers gets her fair share of lingering close-ups when she talks about her love for Toni, or longing looks across the courtroom at her competitor for his love, Sonja.

It could be argued that Inga gets more than her fair share of the film’s portrayal of this custody case, not least because she speaks English throughout (although, in one of those cases of glorious movie logic, she is actually speaking German), while Sonja – to start with at least – has to speak through a male translator, thus striking her mute for at least half the film. Mitchell makes the most of her mostly silent role and, like Borchers, is given plenty of time for expressive looks and glances – one of the places where the film wades happily into the ‘deep emotional waters’ Barr thinks it incapable of. By the end of the film, when Toni/Ivan has saved Sonja from a snowball attack in his home village, and both mothers have mutely expressed their love, the film is an exercise in manipulative staging, framing and editing. (there are also several nicely composed shots that fir both women into the frame, often with Inga in close-up, Sonja further away, and arguably more distant emotionally) That it ends with clumsy speeches from the three judges giving their opinions is unfortunate, because it shifts the focus from the two actresses who have driven it along so far.

The film is solid throughout, and makes good use of its location work in St. Johann-in-Tirol and Skofja Loka (Yugoslavia), adding a European sheen and a set of different spaces to the tale. Indeed, the Bavarian setting (and much of the story) seems so alien to much of what Ealing was known for – despite Balcon’s claim – that when Sonja gets lost in the streets and alleys of the village, our sympathy as an audience may shift to her, because this is unfamiliar territory for the Ealing audience as well.

[UPDATED April 2014: The Divided Heart is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 10, from Network]

Next time, more Ealing European themes in His Excellency (1952)...

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 90: Mandy (1952)

Mandy is a film that can be defined in various ways. The DVD cover, in a departure from the normal Ealing Studios branding, sells the film as ‘by Alexander Mackendrick' (the back cover also notes he is 'the director of The Man in the White Suit’, but the film also has generic similarities to ‘social problem’ films of the early 1950s (such as I Believe in You, 1952), female-targeted stories (the likes of Dance Hall, 1950; The Divided Heart, 1954) and more child-oriented films (Hue & Cry, 1947; The Magnet, 1950). In the grander scheme of Ealing Studios in the 1950s, it is also the first of five successful collaborations between Jack Hawkins and Ealing (following his brief appearance in The Next of Kin, 1942), and the first to position him as a professional, often highly driven and brusque, individual (a role he would pursue in The Cruel Sea, 1953 and The Long Arm, 1956, among others).

There are traces of all those approaches throughout the films performances and narrative. When Christine and Harry Garland (Phyllis Calvert and Terence Morgan) realise their daughter Mandy is deaf, their responses threaten to tear the family apart. Initially living with Harry’s wealthier parents (Godfrey Tearle and Marjorie Fielding), Christine realises the house has becomes a prison for Mandy, and (against Harry’s wishes) takes her to a special boarding school in Manchester run by Dick Searle (Hawkins). Here, Mandy struggles with her new surroundings, but with individual tuition from Searle, begins to become more confident and starts to speak. Harry tries to force Christine to return to London, and uses rumours of Searle and Christine having an affair to take Mandy back to the family home. At the end, female independence (for both Christine and Mandy) is resolved by Mr Garland’s intervention, and the family is reunited.

Although not a ‘social problem’ film in the classic sense, this is a social ‘issue’ film about the one in sixteen thousand children born deaf: an issue which (in true Ealing style) is married to a domestic melodrama. The film does depict Mandy as a problem that can be ‘solved’ through education but, unlike Charles Barr, I don’t think Mandy stands for ‘all children, for the potential locked up inside the new (English) generation’ (152), not least because we meet several (deaf and non-deaf) children in the film, and their potential seems to be happily unlocked already (in fact, the interplay of Mandy and other children is an element that structures much of the story, despite the clear influence of Searle). It is not just Mandy, of course, that needs to be investigated: her family (parents and grandparents) also need attention. So, the film is an amalgam of several of the Ealing elements identified: social issue, melodrama, about children but also the adults who revolve around them.

What then about star and director? The claim for Mackendrick seems fuelled by the need to demonstrate an author’s vision at work, but the gulf between a critic’s need to discover a vision and the actuality of such a vision appear quite distant here: the film is beautifully shot by Douglas Slocombe, the actors are strong, and the storyline is potent and dramatic stuff – but the dark, satirical and joyful notes of Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Maggie (1954) or The Ladykillers (1955) are nowhere to be seen here. That is not to reduce the often powerful work in Mandy, more to note that it does not have that immediate connection to what came before or after. The film is playful around its use of sound (including early scenes of Christine and Harry making noise to try and attract Mandy’s attention), and in attempts to connect the audience to Mandy’s experience: often the camera will push in on Mandy’s face, and the soundtrack will fade, until we are left with only the visual information. Although not a complete sense of her point-of-view, these occur at dramatically important moments (a van driver shouting at her; a teacher trying to get her to speak). As noted below, the film also isolates Mandy within the frame (in the empty garden of the Garland house, in a park), also helping to visually identify her ‘otherness’ within the narrative world.

Performance-wise, Hawkins is a reliable actor and gives Searle a requisite grumpy passion that matches his calling as a teacher. He is also largely secondary to the Garland family: Calvert and Morgan are solid, but they tend to be overshadowed by Mandy Moore’s startling turn as the title character, a piece of acting that, given her age and lack of dialogue, remains powerful to this day. The film doesn’t give her an easy task, either, with several long close-ups that require the young actor to perform wholly through expression, and convey the frustration of Mandy’s attempts to speak and understand.

However, while Mandy’s story is always central, the Garland family dynamic is at the heart of the film’s concerns, particularly its exploration of female imprisonment, escape and isolation. One of Mandy’s first actions is to try and escape the tall cage of the Garland home, with its ornate hallways, prim rooms, paved courtyard garden: isolated in these spaces, her ‘escape’ is onto the neighbouring bombsite (almost required for an Ealing film at this stage) and streets, where she is almost run over (by a van she cannot hear). The motif of escape continues when Christine and Mandy flee London and the Garland family; yet their new life is isolating for both. Mandy is visually separate from many of her classmates, unable to fit in; while Christine is often pictured alone in the hallways of the school. While Harry sporadically appears to fill some of those empty spaces, Searle is the more comforting figure (it is telling that he is the one who fills the male role in a celebratory montage showing Mandy’s improvement), but he and Christine rarely make a compelling couple, and he ends the film as isolated as the Garland women he has been helping. Returning to the London house, Mandy is visually pictured within door frames that trap her back into this old life. The unlikely saviour to her isolation (and Christine’s) is Mr Garland: after hearing Mandy speak, he reunites Christine and Harry, and they watch as Mandy, on the same bombsite, is included in a game with the local children.

So, in the end, a film that is almost all of the things listed above, but which survives largely because of the committed performance of Moore in the central role.

[Mandy is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, more child-centred drama in The Divided Heart (1954)...

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 89: Young Man's Fancy (1939)

Between 1938 and 1940, director Robert Stevenson, cinematographer Ronald Neame and scriptwriter Roland Pertwee were part of the creative bridge between Basil Dean’s Associated Talking Pictures (which were based at the studios in Ealing) and Michael Balcon’s new production company called Ealing Studios. While they produced a number of films together, including The Ware Case (1938), Young Man’s Fancy and Return to Yesterday (1940), they were also individually responsible for fourteen of the first sixteen films produced by the new studio, including The Four Just Men (1939) and Let George Do It (1940).

While there is still one film from that period of Ealing’s production history left to watch – The Ware Case – it is already clear that these films exist in that no man’s land between 1930s low budget British studio productions and the infusion of drama-documentary styles that wartime circumstances would force on Ealing, and others in the British film industry. It would be wrong to dismiss these films, either creatively or as a picture of production trends, but they feel more bound by well-trodden narrative structures and thin characterisations than some of the complex Ealing work of the 1940s and 50s. Certain continuities are there to be made – the reliance on ensemble casts, with certain actors recurring across films, can be seen in later productions – but a direct comparison likely reduces the content of these early productions.

Young Man’s Fancy is a faintly absurd romantic comedy sporadically saved by spirited performances from Seymour Hicks and Anna Lee, and some strong comic exchanges (courtesy of Pertwee, Rodney Ackland and EVH Emmett). The story is set in September 1870, with the Duke and Duchess of Beaumont (Hicks and Martita Hall) eager to marry their son Alban (Griffith Jones) to Miss Crowther (Merial Forbes), the daughter of wealthy brewer Sir Caleb (Felix Aylmer). Alban, uninterested in Miss Crowther, meets Ada O’Grady (Lee), a working class Irish ‘human projectile’ (cannonball) at the Cavendish music hall. Hoping to use the scandal of his association with Ada to break off the marriage, and with Ada schooling him in rebellion against his mother, they end up in Paris together where, while the city is under siege by the Prussian army, they (naturally) fall in love. On return to London, Alban has to decide whether to obey his mother or follow his heart.

While it breaks little new story ground (although the introduction of the siege of Paris as a narrative obstacle is a little odd), the film does enjoy some creative flourishes, notably the framing of the whole story by a wedding album motif. While this is initially used to present the crew details, and photographs of the main cast (a hand turns each page during the credits), it also functions to introduce scenes of Paris and London when the story shifts location, and then literally closes the story / album at the end. While such a motif is now commonplace in romantic comedies (the film also ends with an aborted wedding, another standard element) it works well here to establish generic expectations. Director Stevenson also uses editing and optical printing to emphasise travel later in the film: Alban and Ada’s Paris-to-London return journey is told in a simple shot of them in a carriage, over which are superimposed British railway signs, place names and advertisements. It is a striking sequence that offers a simple visual representation of their journey and their descent back into British society and habits.

Given the thin plot, the film relies heavily on its performances and dialogue: the Duke is the broadest comic character, but Hicks is able to perform both drunken well-meaning idiot and thoughtful father roles equally well. Hunt as the Duchess gets some enjoyably scathing dialogue (her dislike of the common brewing family, snide asides to arriving party guests, demands to have bedclothes burned after Ada had slept in them), but her character is largely a one-dimensional posh battleaxe. The Crowther family have little real personality, while Alban is similarly one-note, Jones’ performance often pulled up by Lee’s enthusiasm and skill. She plays Ada as mischievous and loud, emotional and independent: the success of the Ada and Alban romance is fuelled mainly by her work. The film skirts Ada’s working class origins and the Beaumont’s treatment of the poor (they appear to be slum landlords). Ada’s father (Edward Rigby) is given some potent lines about capitalism and social inequality (he’s embarrassed his daughter is associating herself with ‘the idle rich’), but they are thrown away, rarely central to the plot: tempting to see an early element of Ealing’s interest in social issues, but more likely a coincidence.

Given Ealing’s British reputation, it is also curious to see another film where travelling (or escaping) abroad becomes an important element, but returning back to Britain is always essential: Frieda (1947), Cage of Gold (1950) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) would all revisit those themes in later years. That said, the view of 1870s Paris as a besieged and war torn city, with foreigners fighting their way onto the final trains, and buildings occupied by the military, would also prove to be prophetic of what 1939-40 would bring.

[UPDATED April 2014: Young Man's Fancy is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 8, from Network]

Next time, a different kind of 1950s social problem in Mandy (1952)...

Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 88: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Re-watching Kind Hearts and Coronets for the sake of this blog post (the film is one of the Ealing films I’ve seen several times in my life, although admittedly not in recent years), I’d forgotten how sexual a film it is. Many of the films seen over the course of this challenge have challenged Ealing’s reputation as a studio more at home with restrained and repressed subjects, but this film stands alongside Another Shore (1948), Cage of Gold (1950) and The Feminine Touch (1956) as films that are quite wonderfully overt about sex, lust and longing.

It may be that the perceived knowledge of this film works to soften some of that sexual sting: the pitch-black nature of much of the comedy, as Dennis Price’s Louis Mazzini has his murderous revenge on the D’Ascoyne family (after they disinherit and shun his mother); Alec Guinness’ masterful performance of eight characters from the D’Ascoyne family; the reputation of the film among the ‘Ealing comedies’.

Yet good as Price and Guinness are, Joan Greenwood as Sibella is in danger of walking away with the whole film, developing from an apparently flighty and flirtatious society girl to a sly and cunning mistress, before blooming into a lying and mischievous blackmailer. Despite being almost constantly buttoned up in a series of ornate outfits, Greenwood uses her husky low tones and coquettish manner to position Sibella as a strong sexual figure on par with Mazzini and the D’Ascoynes. It is true that the film often resorts to a simplistic dualism with its main female characters, with Louis caught between Sibella’s machinations and his courtship of uptight and abstemious widow Edith D’Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson), but both actresses bring humour and life to their different roles (Greenwood can be more obviously theatrical, while Hobson is more restrained but equally pointed) that allow some development beyond the obvious virgin/whore dynamic.

The sexual thrust of the film doesn’t end with the women. Dennis Price is a striking and sexual figure throughout: wooing Edith and Sibella, an expert in ladies underwear (from working in a draper’s shop), taunting Sibella’s cuckolded husband with the line ‘you’re a lucky man now, take my word for it’, and apparently also attractive to men, with a strongly suggestive scene with photography enthusiast Henry D’Ascoyne (Guinness) who offers to show Louis his equipment in the safety of his dark room. The D’Ascoyne line, from which Louis is descended, is not short on lust: the family line passes through male and female heirs because of the first Duchess’ ‘relationship’ with Charles II; while Louis murders Ascoyne D’Ascoyne (the younger; also Guinness) while he is on a dirty weekend in Maidenhead. (hardly an accidental choice of venue).

Of course, the film isn’t just about sex. It is about family, murder, the class system... Yet, at the same time, sex lies at the heart of the narrative. Sex is the (unspoken) reason Louis’ mother (Audrey Fildes) left the family home to marry her Italian lover (and was then shunned thereafter); and sex is the initial fuel behind Louis’ murderous decision to wreak revenge on the D’Ascoyne family. While his mother’s death and the family’s refusal for her to be buried at the ancestral home is the reason Louis gives to others, the film shows us he only makes the decision after Sibella spurns his advances and announces she has accepted a marriage proposal from Lionel Holland (John Penrose). Sex is what causes Louis to be tried for murder (after Sibella hides Lionel’s suicide note and insinuates Lionel confronted Louis over their affair); sex is what saves him from the hangman’s noose (Sibella, again, finds the note in exchange for future sexual favour, and the future death of another D’Ascoyne, Edith).

Like many of the Ealing films studied through this challenge, part of the joy of the film comes from the minor characters: notably Mr Elliot the executioner, who keeps forgetting to address Duke Louis by his correct title (Your Grace). By casting Guinness as the family D’Ascoyne, the film highlights the importance of such brief characters, with several short vignettes of the suffragette Lady Agatha (killed in a balloon ‘accident’), the dullard Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne (poisoned port) and pompous Ethelred D’Ascoyne (hunting accident). While most of them remain caricatures of particular British upper class types – the obstinate naval captain, the bumbling priest, the horny playboy – they are well-observed and largely exist as backdrop to Louis’ progression to the Dukedom.

Unlike some of the others Ealing films the visual elements are enjoyable but rarely stand out: there are location shots throughout, notably in the grounds of various D’Ascoyne family estates and houses, but again they feel like a useful backdrop than a potent part of the narrative. The only exception to that might be the scene between Edith and Louis, which continues after potting shed has exploded, and the smoke drifts serenely behind Edith’s head. The film’s humour lies in tone, dialogue and performance as much as its visuals, although it all looks impressive in the restored print released by Studio Canal on Blu-Ray in 2011.
[Kind Hearts and Coronets is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, more upper class romantic chaos in Young Man's Fancy (1939)...

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 87: The Man in the Sky (1957)

In the forthcoming collection Ealing Revisited (available to pre-order on Amazon here:, Robert Murphy describes The Man in the Sky as a film any national cinema should be proud of. Yet this film is rarely listed among the greats of Ealing’s oeuvre, never mind that of British cinema more generally. While I’m not going to summarise Murphy’s opinion here (you’ll have to read the book for that), I do want to consider how the film sits within broader ideas of what Ealing Studios were capable of, and whether that shifted in the final ‘Ealing Films’ made in association with MGM in 1956-8.

One of the most striking changes to this film is the shift out of the London streets and into a more suburban landscape: here, the new houses and outskirts of Wolverhampton. Rather than the bomb-strewn locations of Hue & Cry (1947) or The Blue Lamp (1950), these are clean and character-less avenues; in place of the community and support of It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) or Lease of Life (1954), we have an absent neighbour, a local laundrette and a shop selling flying saucers and spaceship toys. That is not to say there is no community in the film, but the workers of Conway Aero Manufacturing (who arguably best fill that role) are literally onlookers, commentators, always outside and never part of the drama. That community is also a professional one, to which John Mitchell (Jack Hawkins) belongs, but which has little place for his wife Mary (Elizabeth Sellars). In that sense, the film mirrors the work/home life split seen in Ealing’s other 1956 Hawkins film, The Long Arm (1956).

The storyline here is simple but potent: John Mitchell is a test pilot at Conway’s, which is going to go bankrupt if they don’t secure a lucrative new contract. During a routine test of the new plane, an engine fire causes Mitchell to order everyone to parachute to safety, but he decides to stay onboard, knowing that losing the plane will definitely sink Conway. In an Earthbound precursor of Apollo 13, the ground crew and Mitchell struggle to find a way for him to land the plane safely. Mitchell circles the field for 30 minutes; below, his wife and colleagues watch and wait...

The first element that is striking about the film is its desire to tell the story in real time. The first and third are partially compressed, but the second act is wholly in real time, as Mitchell circles the airfield. (dialogue exchanges and well-placed clocks attest to the real time element) Hawkins is particularly strong here: isolated in the plane set, and with only occasional (and often one-sided) dialogue exchanges, he has to convey Mitchell’s stubborn, scared and uncertain emotions, and convince the audience the character would be committed enough to see this unlikely flight through. Given the brisk nature of the visual storytelling in the opening of the film (in 12 minutes we learn about the Mitchell family, meet their children, understand the financial pressure they’re under, meet the team at Conway, get introduced to seven or eight supporting characters, and then we’re up in the plane), director Crichton pulls that pace back, and allows the film to linger on Hawkins’ face (or one of the other characters), to rely on performance to propel the story along.

The second striking element is the performance of Elizabeth Sellars, whose Mary Mitchell is as close to breaking point in the domestic sphere as her husband is up in the air. This may be billed as a story about the man in the sky (my own narrative recap above focused almost wholly on this aspect), but it is clear that the woman in the house is also holding an increasingly shaky and unwieldy machine together, and the Mitchell marriage becomes the main problem the film has to solve. True, the film initially paints that problem in broad strokes (notably their inability to buy a new dream house), but it continues to cut back to Mary during the airborne drama (of which she is blithely unaware until close to the landing) and emphasises her perspective on the Mitchell’s lives. That the marriage is the main issue is also clear given that John’s (successful) landing occurs almost 15 minutes before the film ends, with the remaining time largely given over to a Hawkins-Sellars confrontation about his apparently suicidal decision on the plane, and their future life. It is a conversation that can seem one-sided, given John physically and verbally dominates it (Hawkins flirts with playing John as a bully here), but the camera often comes back to Sellar’s face while John continues his stern but blustering defence of his decisions (and refutes Mary’s belief he wanted to kill himself). Although this ends with John justifying himself and agreeing to buy their dream house, the visual focus on Mary (and her scenes throughout) suggests it remains open-ended, a papering over of the cracks, rather than a long-term solution.

The desire to play the drama through performance as much as dialogue or event, also reveal the visual strengths of the film: Crichton and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe use deep focus shots in places, particularly when shooting the crowds who gather on the airfield (often shooting down from the tower, with characters in fore- and background action clearly in focus); there is a playfulness around some compositions (the crowd running back and forth across the horizontal length of the frame to keep the plane in sight as it goes behind buildings) and a simplicity to others (the plane, isolated in the sky, while everyone stands together on the ground); while they favour a slow zoom into close-up on characters faces to emphasise emotional shifts (including a shot near the end of Hawkins in the bathroom, just after Mary has accused John of not thinking of the family: the frame pushes closer and closer in on him, and we see him snap)

With nice character moments scattered throughout (the reporter who is told this is only a story if the plane crashes, Conway being promised the contract if it lands, the tea ladies who complain no one is buying their tea because they’re staring at the sky), and some impressive sound design (the creaking and shrieking noises of the tortured plane make it sound alive in the central sequences), this remains a fascinating film, and one that should be better known among the Ealing canon.

[The Man in the Sky is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, is this Alec Guinness' (and Ealing's) finest hour? Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)...

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 86: Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

In the numerous celebrations and commentaries around the 100th anniversary of Scott’s expedition in 2012, few mentioned this Ealing hagiography of Captain Scott (John Mills), the studio’s big budget Technicolor epic of Antarctic exploration. Part of Michael Balcon’s belief that Ealing (and the British film industry more widely) should be producing films of great British heroes and events, the film’s simple narrative is visually overshadowed by strong landscape elements, and the (complicated) production history of its Technicolor imagery.

French film critic Andre Bazin dismissed Scott as a ‘boring and ridiculous undertaking... told with an almost pedantic formality’ (Bazin 1967, 157-8) and it is hard to challenge that assessment. After a brief 1904 prologue, the film jumps to 1908 and follows Scott as he gathers together money and men in England, including Bill Wilson (Harold Warrender), ‘Teddy’ Evans (Kenneth More), Taff Evans (James Robertson Justice), Bowers (Reginald Beckwith), and Captain Oates (Derek Bond). There is no real sense of why these men gather together, although dialogue does pay lip service to the spirits of scientific enquiry, adventure and patriotism. Slowly (it is 27 minutes before it leaves England), the film gets its characters to Antarctica, and off on the route to the Pole, now in a race against a Norwegian team. From there, the story treads familiar ground: the trek across the desolate landscape, the problems of the journey, the final five men arriving too late to claim their prize, and then dying on their journey home.

Any attempt to appreciate Scott, however, likely needs to ignore its narrative and thinly drawn characters, and focus instead on the staggering landscapes, images and Technicolor that sit at the heart of the film. Despite his dislike for the film, Bazin had noted the film was ‘a Technicolor masterpiece’ and ‘lavishly and carefully made’ – and that is an assessment that captures the issue at the heart of the film. That is not to say that such elements save the film (it remains too long, and too deferent) but they reveal its scope and ambition, something quite apart from Ealing’s reputation as a safe and restrained studio.

This is, after all, a film that required three cameramen/directors of photography: Osmond Borradaile shot the Antarctic imagery with a Technicolor Monopack camera; Geoffrey Unsworth filmed location images in Norway and Switzerland; and Jack Cardiff, who had the job of stitching those different colour palettes together with his own studio-bound footage. Sometimes that needlework succeeds (some of the Antarctic work, cutting from long and medium location to close studio images is convincing), at others it doesn’t (the ship’s departure features an awkward combination of a studio-bound ship and dockside with location scenes of a pier that doesn’t match in terms of colour), but there is no doubt that the impressive scale of the landscapes function as the film’s main visual spectacle.

Borradaile’s extreme long shots of the Antarctic landscapes, intercut with some of Unsworth’s location scenes on safer European snow slopes (which often feature stand-ins rather than the actual actors), sells the idea of isolation, with tiny groups of men, dogs and sleds lost in a white sea of icy and snow. Such images fuel the narrative themes more than dialogue and plot points, and provide an atmosphere that the studio work struggles to replicate. While the artificiality of the studio-bound Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948) emphasised the melodramatic nature of that film, here the studio artifice works against the power of the realistic imagery provided from the location work. While Cardiff struggled to match the colours, the unsettling yellow sunset tones and grey-green hues of the tent interiors work to undermine the realism that Ealing was obviously striving for.

Away from aesthetic issues, the film is also a film about men, not women. Kathleen Scott (Diana Churchill) is supportive (‘You knew the Antarctic long before you knew me’), Oriana Wilson (Anne Firth) is not, although that is conveyed through Firth’s largely mute performance. But they are two of only four female speaking parts, and all are dismissed within the first half hour. The male performances are a curious mix: Mills is his usual blank slate, perhaps frozen by the pressure of giving any real passion or life to this legendary figure; only James Robertson Justice stands out of the other men who make it to the Pole, offering some depth and humour to the otherwise po-faced characterisations.

At the end of the film, you know little about Scott, his motivations, whether his decisions (trying new machine sleds and ponies instead of relying purely on dogs) were truly the cause of the deaths, or (perhaps the film’s most crucial fault) why a failed expedition to the South Pole is worthy of celebration and memorialising. There is a curious scene early on where a Yorkshire crowd query why Britain should go to the Antarctic at all: like Scott, this Ealing film has no real answer to that question.

[Scott of the Antarctic is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, time is running out for The Man in the Sky (1957)...

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 85: Convoy (1940)

From the opening credits, which dedicate the film to the ‘Officers and Men of the Royal and Merchant Navy’ and the note that ‘many scenes in our film... were taken at sea under actual wartime conditions’ Convoy is, in many senses, the archetypal Ealing war film. The focus, like the later The Cruel Sea (1953) is on the captain and officers, and the choices they make during wartime; but the film also has time for the ordinary sailors, and their role in the running and order of the ship. The ship’s community, both above and below deck, is quickly but well drawn, although the addition of some of the broader character notes (and narrative developments) is an obvious reminder that this is Ealing Studios’ first attempt to create a war film that could successfully combine documentary footage with dramatic narrative scenes, propagandist tendencies with melodramatic acting styles and characters. Given that Ships with Wings (1941) and The Big Blockade (1942) were later, and less successful, attempts to combine similar aspects, it is telling that director Pen Tennyson – the man Michael Balcon described as the future of Ealing after his first film There Ain’t No Justice (1939) – managed it so convincingly here.

Captain Tom Armitage (Clive Brook) commands the officers and crew of HMS Apollo, as they head out to form part of a North Sea convoy, protecting ships heading into British ports. Joining the Apollo is Lt. David Cranford (John Clements), who had an affair with Armitage’s wife, Lucy (Judy Campbell) years before. Armitage and Cranford clash when it is revealed Lucy is on board a wayward merchant ship, the Sea Flower. Cranford is locked up for trying to send help, but narrative events – including a Nazi U-boat’s attempt to lure ships into a trap using the Sea Flower, and the appearance of a German dreadnought  – bring him back on deck in time to see Lucy, amend bridges with Armitage, and die a heroic death as the Apollo single-handedly takes on the dreadnought (called Deutschland, in a not-so-subtle metaphor).

While that description seems some distance from later Ealing films that make more claim to realism and documentary techniques, many of the film’s visual qualities owe an obvious debt to that developing tradition. Several long sequences pull together three key elements that would be central to Ealing’s wartime filmmaking approach: solid location filming (here, on board destroyers and other boats), strong ensemble performances, and often exceptional model work. The final face-off between the British and German ships, and the earlier submarine / North Sea Patrol battle make particular use of these elements, but the non-fighting scenes of ships at sea are equally strong examples of it.

One key element in the film’s success is the comic touch that would lighten later Ealing wartime films such as The Bells Go Down (1943), and that arises from the largely working class characters. The crew of the Apollo bicker about the lack of leave and have food fights in the mess; the minefield skipper (Hay Petrie) and his mate (Mervyn Johns) are busy fishing as guns boom in the distance; while there is a running joke about Armitage’s batman Bates’ (George Carney) inability to deliver a cup of hot coffee or cocoa to Armitage at the right time (until during the final battle). These small moments of humour do much to lift the creaky melodrama of the Armitage-Cranford-Lucy triangle, and some of the more on-the-nose propaganda (including Lucy reciting Nelson’s prayer on the eve of Trafalgar; the German captain noting ‘Their heart is British, they are attacking again’; or the Apollo crew offering German prisoners a tot of rum).

As a solid if not completely successful combination of drama and documentary, Convoy remains fascinating for what it gets right, and for what it suggests about a future Ealing that could never come, given that Tennyson died after completing this, his third Ealing film. Tennyson may have been one of Ealing’s great ‘might-have-beens’ after the success of There Ain’t No Justice and The Proud Valley (1940), but this film suggests that Ealing Studios were already learning specific lessons from the first ten or fifteen films produced under Balcon’s regime.

[Convoy is not currently available on DVD from Studio Canal]
Next time, Ealing's Technicolor celebration of British heroic failure in Scott of the Antarctic (1948)...

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 84: Dance Hall (1950)

Sometimes, when watching one of the Ealing films that make up this challenge, I am reminded of another film. Most often the link is to another Ealing Studios production or other examples of ‘classic’ British cinema: so, with Dance Hall that list might include female-centred dramas such as Millions Like Us (1943) or Ealing’s own The Feminine Touch (1956) or, prompted by the opening factory floor sequence, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) (a comparison that others made well before me, notably Melanie Williams in The British Cinema Book). Yet it wasn’t a British film I kept thinking of throughout my viewing of Dance Hall, but when harry met sally... (1989).

The film follows the lives of three girls who work together at the local factory, and play together at the local Palais. Carole (Diana Dors), Georgie (Petula Clark) and Eve (Natasha Perry) are first seen as the camera tracks left along the rows of machine, watching them singing and chatting about men and dancing. From here, we follow them getting prepared for a night out at the Palais, where we also meet Georgie’s dance partner Peter (Douglas Barr), Eve’s boyfriend Phil (Donald Houston) and cocky American Alec (Bonar Colleano). The triangle between Eve, Phil and Alec forms the core of the film, tracing Phil’s jealousy over Eve and Alec dancing together, Phil and Eve’s cramped marriage, separation and final dramatic reconciliation. While this is solid, the sub-plots get less focus which, in the case of Georgie and Peter’s progress through a competitive dance competition, isn’t that much of a problem, but the underuse of Carole/Dors is a real oversight. While she is the strongest comic actor of the three (there is a great line where she swears off men and insists she’s going to go and live in a monastery, before Georgie corrects her), Dors’ attempt to imbue Carole with any dramatic purpose is undercut by the script, which gives her little to do and (out of the blue) ends up with her engaged to the largely mute Mike (James Carney). At one point the film appears to be heading for a portmanteau set-up, with segments devoted to each girl (the film returns to the factory three times, and each time it seems like it will follow Georgie or Carole in more detail) but the pull of the Phil-Eve-Alec story proves too strong.

The obvious strength of the film is its openness to dramatising and exploring a group of working class women’s dreams and desires: the film doesn’t chastise Eve for wanting to go dancing, Carole for playing the field, or Georgie for choosing a beautiful ballgown over a dress bought by her mother. The men, particularly Phil and Alec, regularly come off worse in their scenes: Phil is needy and controlling in equal measure, Alec is aloof and smug, Mike is silent, while all Eve, Georgie or Carole want to do is dance at the Palais with their friends. That the film broadly supports their view is done partly through visual means and the amount of time it spends at the Palais: while other locations look cramped, dark and traditional, the dance hall is a vast and impressive set, bright, shining and modern. This set is constantly explored and framed by Douglas Slocombe’s mobile camera: tracking along the edges of the dance floor, sitting alongside the band, crane shots that sweep up to the balcony, and images down on the floor itself, shooting up through the whirl of dancing couples, moving alongside them, focusing on their feet, letting them sweep in and fill the screen. The mobility of the camera, and slick editing, means that scenes in the Palais move to a strong rhythm. The women are the heart of this story, but the spectacle is the dance hall itself: to emphasise this, shots of the women dressing up and preparing themselves are mirrored by images of the hall being swept and decorated for the following night’s entertainment.

So why then does the film remind me of when harry met sally...? At one level, it is the exploration of shifting relationship and romantic worries among a small group of couples, and the centrality of female sexuality and desire within that; while at another it is the culmination of both films in a New Year’s celebration where, in Dance Hall, Eve declares that she hates Phil before this on-an-off couple embrace to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. It is tempting to imagine that, like the later film (where the late Nora Ephron worked with writer-director Rob Reiner), the combination of Alexander Mackendrick and Diana Morgan (and ECH Emmett) is behind Dance Hall’s balance of comedy, romance and drama. That’s not to say Dance Hall is a romantic-comedy, or that its script is as sharp as Ephron’s, but that the attempt to mix romance and comedy, with a dramatic focus on interlinked male-female relationships, feels fresh and new for a 1950 film, as much as when harry met sally... did for a late 1980s audience.

It is a real shame that Dance Hall is not yet available on DVD, because the popularity of the cast (Clark and Dors particularly) and the subject matter would, I think, make it a strong film to be rediscovered and placed more centrally within understandings of post-war British cinema.

[Dance Hall is available on DVD from Studio Canal]
Next time, a final burst of wartime action as Ealing joins the Convoy (1940)...