Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 35: Touch and Go (1955)

Never destined to be among Ealing’s more famous comedies, this light-hearted comic tale of the Fletcher family and the two days before they are due to leave for Australia, is fluffy and inconsequential, but remains an amusing portrait of an idiotic father and his much more sensible wife and daughter. It may be a lesser film in Ealing’s back catalogue, but Touch and Go’s thin narrative works largely because of strong performances and a light farcical nature.

The story itself is simple: Jim Fletcher (Jack Hawkins), a furniture designer, resigns from his job in a pique and decides to move his family to Australia to make a new start. His family, Helen (Margaret Johnston) and Peggy (June Thorburn), agree initially but, two days before they leave, Helen reveals some uncertainties, and Peggy meets Richard (John Fraser). Falling rapidly in love, Peggy wants to stay and marry Richard. Inevitably, all Jim’s plans come to nothing, his old boss agrees to produce his new designs, and the Fletchers choose to stay in London.
Jack Hawkins is a revelation in this much lighter role, a departure from the taciturn roles he played in The Cruel Sea (1952) and The Long Arm (1956). He plays the hapless father with real glee, happily blundering his way through conversations with Helen and Peggy. Unable to understand women’s feelings – in which sense he might easily be considered a stand in for Sir Michael Balcon or Ealing’s production staff more generally, given their obvious uncertainty over how to dramatise female perspective – he drops verbal clangers about killing their beloved cat, Helen’s parents dying, Peggy’s plans to marry her new boyfriend, with no apparent sense of the harm he is doing. And despite Jim’s assertion that ‘So long as I’m responsible for looking after this family, I shall continue to make the decision,’ it is clear from very early on, that it is the women who are actually in charge of the decisions in this household (and whom Jim eventually notes, are the ones who make sense).
Despite this, there remains the usual Ealing problem about female characterisation: although the film makes it clear that Helen and Peggy are in control, they are rarely given any real agency. In a similar vein to Lease of Life (another film where a husband and father is unaware of the impact his decisions have on his family), Peggy’s future is dictated by her father’s whims, and Helen seems willing to go along with the Australia plan even in the face of mounting chaos and difficulties. Even at his most inane, the narrative still wants Jim to be in control. We never really understand why Helen would want to leave (and she seems to change her mind based purely on a last minute conversation with her parents – and the need to bulk the narrative out beyond 80 minutes), and Peggy’s sudden infatuation/romance with Richard is largely explained away by his ability to rescue a cat and talk about engineering (always important components of ‘love at first sight’). Because they are the straight women to Hawkins’ comic floundering they have to carry the more farcical elements of the plot, leaving Jim to float through the increasingly ludicrous situations.

Peggy and Richard’s romance, aside from being illogical, also dramatises another field in which Ealing struggled through the mid- to late-1950s: youth culture. Peggy and Richard go to genteel cafes for knickerbocker glories, and the late night dance they attend, even with its jazz trumpeter, feels more like a school dance than an authentic London hangout. The closest equivalent is The Feminine Touch (1956), where a student nurse and her doctor boyfriend visit a cellar bar with African murals on the wall and a black band playing: Touch and Go’s dance feels genteel by comparison, set in a London that is many years away from being ‘Swinging.’
Like other Ealing films, notably The Ship That Died of Shame, the film also introduces a supernatural air, linked mainly to Heathcliff, the Fletcher’s black cat. Introduced with a recurring glissando, the cat appears to also oppose Jim’s plans to emigrate. The cat’s escape from its basket on Chelsea Bridge leads to Peggy meeting Richard; its illness forces Jim to change plans and agree to take it with them; it trips Jim up on the stairs on his way to discuss Peggy and Richard’s marriage plans; and then the cat goes missing in the final few hours, delaying their departure and allowing other narratively useful events to occur. By the end, the film’s farcical nature has taken over, with local children bringing hundreds of cats into the cul-de-sac, expecting a reward – and, as the Fletchers start to unpack, Heathcliff is seen again, overlooking the cul-de-sac and, seemingly in charge of everything.
Aesthetically, the film is basic, offering functional staging but with no real standout moments for the colour cinematography, despite being filmed by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, whose previous Ealing colour films had proved more adventurous with lighting and design. Here, the style is beholden to the performances, allowing Hawkins free rein to bustle around sets and streets. The cul-de-sac set is nicely constructed, but doesn’t feel much more advanced than that seen in Saloon Bar (1940) fifteen years previously.
So, ultimately, this is lightweight, airy and inconsequential. That it retains its charms is due largely to the performances – Hawkins is centre-stage, but the support from Johnston and Thorburn balance out the film’s farcical nature.
Next time, George Formby returns in Spare a Copper (1940)...

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