Monday, 20 February 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 46: Sailors Three (1940)

Tommy Trinder’s first Ealing film is one of the lesser films on this challenge, but it is interesting to see how Trinder’s music hall roots are utilised in this broader, slapstick runabout. The change in Trinder’s career through his Ealing films is one of the more interesting of that first clutch of Ealing stars – Trinder, Hay, Formby – something we will follow from The Bells Go Down (1942) and The Foreman Goes to France (1942) through his later roles in Champagne Charlie (1944) and Bitter Springs (1950).

It would be easy to pass over this and see it as a throwaway Ealing film, very much in the comic mode of other Ealing wartime comedy productions. The creative team of director Walter Forde and writers Angus Macphail, John Dighton and Austin Melford are names familiar from much of Ealing’s late 30s and early 40s work, and their work here isn’t that far removed from similar routines and sequences in Let George Do It (1940), Spare a Copper (1940), or The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942). That’s not to say that Ealing’s three comic stars are interchangeable – it would be difficult to imagine Formby playing the ladies man, Trinder performing convincingly as a defrocked headmaster, or Hay being suitably innocent and naive. However, star personas aside, the plots and set pieces of these films feel very reminiscent, relying heavily on coincidence, national stereotypes and slapstick.

Here, Trinder is Tommy Taylor, a sailor on board the H.M.S. Ferocious, a British ship sent to track down and destroy German destroyer Ludendorff in the waters around South America (a catch-all definition for the continent, given the film’s foreign characters are all broadly Spanish or German character types). Tommy, along with two friends, Llewelyn ‘The Admiral’ Davies (Claude Hulbert) and Johnny Wilding (Michael Wilding), head out on shore leave and, through a tortuous series of mishaps involving Davies’ attractive sister Jane (Carla Lehman), end up rowing drunkenly back to their ship... except they head for the wrong one, and end up onboard the Ludendorff instead. Following an abortive attempt to pass as Germans, they escape, take over the ship, rescue English survivors from another German ship, and end up fighting with the original German crew as the H.M.S. Ferocious begins shelling the destroyer.

Narratively, the film throws almost everything at the screen: as well as the sailor’s drunken escapades, there are mischievous children setting off fireworks and the ship’s guns, an apparently plain sister turned beautiful young woman, an Austrian baker who hates the Nazis and wants to flee to Britain, a neutral Jonah from Tangiers who has suffered multiple torpedo attacks, a drunken wedding party, propagandistic anti-German messages and stereotypes throughout, and a couple of Trinder song and dance routines. This ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ approach is familiar from the films listed above, and largely works here because of the sheer pace of the film and the performances, notably from Trinder and Hulbert (a perennial supporting player, as seen in The Ghost of St Michael’s (1941) and My Learned Friend (1943).

The film is solidly put together, featuring a blend of documentary footage of sailors with fictionalised images of Trinder et al., solid special effects work on the ships (most noticeably, the perspective paintings that create a more spacious sense of the ship’s decks and engine room), and a nice final moment where the film goes all meta-textual and self-referential, placing the denouement of the film’s narrative in a newsreel format, being viewed by an audience in a cinema, where narrative loose ends are tied up and heterosexual couplings (Tommy and Jane getting married) are introduced.

The film’s propaganda notions of Germany are historically interesting – almost all Ealing filmic Germans are officious, loud, obsessed with obeying orders and marching, but never particularly evil; and here, as in our next film, there are ‘good’ Germanic types available, particularly among Austrians – in this case, Hans Muller (James Hayter) who helps the sailors escape and take over the destroyer. What is curious is the amount of German that is spoken in the film, all without subtitles; whether that was an assumption about language competency among British audiences, or an attempt to put the audience in the same unknowing position as on-screen sailors is unclear.

If this blog entry feels short, it is largely because the film is solid but not particularly remarkable. Trinder’s brash, horny but brave persona isn’t much different to his work in Fiddlers Three (1944) – a superior film to this, perhaps because of its distance from the war and enjoyment of the fantasy and historic setting – while Hulbert adequately performs the naive, awkward pratfalling side-kick role (there is a particularly nice piece of comedy business around him trying to steal the shells for the German guns, struggling up stairs and down corridors with each one, in order to throw it out a porthole). The third of these Sailors Three, Johnny, is less memorable, largely because, as Tommy’s rival in love, he feels like Trinder-lite, charming but disposable.

Next time, we stick with wartime comedy, as The Goose Steps Out (1942)...

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