Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Great Ealing FIlm Challenge 57: The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

When it comes to the well-known Ealing comedies, those 6 or 7 films that (for many people) define what ‘Ealing’ means within British film culture, it is difficult for me to pick a favourite. The Man in the White Suit (1951) has real bite to it, a pitch-black satire which shares some similarities with the earlier Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and later The Ladykillers (1955); yet the wish-fulfilment of Passport to Pimlico (1949) is wonderfully performed and presented, and (as readers of the blog know) I do have a soft-spot for the film often described as the lesser of the comedies, The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). Yet this film cannot be ignored, not least for its sheer pace, inventiveness and for the strength of Alec Guinness’ performance.

The story of Henry ‘Dutch’ Holland (Guinness), a minor bowler-hatted bank functionary among thousands of his ilk, and the fulfilment of his (long-held) desire to steal the gold bullion he shepherds from foundry to bank vault, is likely well known. Planning the heist with his artist friend Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway) and crooks Lackery Wood (Sid James) and Shorty Fisher (Alfie Bass), the film shows us how this small repressed man changes into a new character through his criminal endeavours. That the scheme – melting the stolen gold into Eiffel Tower models that can be transported to Paris – ultimately fails is immaterial to the film’s real interest in Holland’s blossoming.

As much a tour de force for Guinness as Kind Hearts (although less showy), there are key scenes – most notably when Holland arrives back at the bank with a spring in his step (having recruited crooks and put plans in place), only to visibly shrink and deflate back to his ‘work’ persona when called into see his boss. Equally, the moment where Holland realises he is in charge of this gang, or where he sees the trust that Lackery and Shorty have placed in him, confirm Guinness’ ability to inscribe the character with nuanced gesture and expression.

The film also contains many strong visual moments: Holland and Pendlebury running down the central stairway of the Eiffel Tower is well known (and a nice visual link to an earlier scene where Holland was made to spin on the spot to make it easier for Lackery to tie him up), but the film also contains strong location work (seemingly shot on the same streets around St Pauls and the City as Pool of London (1951), which was produced a few months earlier), a speedily-edited car chase montage (that harks back to Pool of London and 1950s The Blue Lamp), and a strong sequence where Lackery and Shorty are recruited into the gang in a shadowy warehouse (notably Shorty’s initial entrance, as a monstrous and misshapen shadow cast on the wall, then revealed to be the diminutive Alfie Bass). Equally, a single-shot sequence following Holland – hailed as a hero – from room to room in the bank, from Chief Cashier to the Chairman and Board of Directors, perfectly conveys Holland’s growing sense of himself but adds a nice satirical note that only in organising this robbery has he achieved this level of success at the institution he just robbed.

The film maintains a solid balance between its whimsy – Holloway plays Pendlebury as a scatter-brained Shakespeare-quoting twit, the laughing schoolgirls who inadvertently buy six of the mob’s Eiffel Towers – and its broader comic moments. Holland reads pulpy crime novel You’d Look Well in a Shroud to his landlady, Miss Evesham (Edie Martin); Lackery, stuck next to the safe he’s trying to break into, tucks into a sandwich; Holland has to mess up and rip his own clothes to establish his alibi after the robbery; French immigration and customs prevent Holland and Pendlebury from boarding a ship. These moments punctuate and inform the film’s strong and propulsive narrative, which only shows signs of flagging in Holland and Pendlebury’s pursuit of the final Eiffel Tower statue back in England and the slapstick chase through a police museum exhibition that ensues. This sequence works, but the move into broader comedy does pull the film away from the blacker and satiric edge the earlier scenes contained. It does, however, point up an underlying interest in technology – the large advert for Ekcovision Television behind Pendlebury as he waits for the heist to begin; the wireless radio police cars in the chase – and the potential misuse of such technology, given Holland’s ability to mislead the police using the radio.

At the end of the film, the contrast of the versions of Holland the film has presented to us becomes clear: pursued by the police, Holland is able to return to his persona as a ‘non-entity’ among thousands, losing himself among a crowd of other bowler-hatted city gents; as the film cuts to Holland in Rio (these sequences bookend the film), however, it is clear that his meek persona has been replaced by a confident and happy one (fuelled by money and status), even when he is being taken back to Britain in handcuffs (a lovely reveal, right at the end, as he and the policeman stand up from their table). If this film, as has been claimed, is a drama of wish-fulfilment, then Holland’s dream came true and (as we can see in that final scene) remains true even when captivity looms.

[The Lavender Hill Mob is released by Studio Canal on DVD and Blu-Ray, see for more details]

Next time, we head back 'down under' for Ealing Films' The Shiralee (1957)...

Monday, 26 March 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 56: The Rainbow Jacket (1954)

Charles Barr bases his assessment on the final five years of Ealing production on one line at the end of this film, where Sam Lilly (Bill Owen) admits to Barbara Crain (Kay Walsh) that although his career as a jockey is washed up, he earned ‘just enough’ from betting on the last race ‘to buy a little old snack bar.’ To Barr, this strikes of Ealing’s conformist, middle-aged nature by the mid-1950s, producing films that privilege immovable institutions over the dynamism of youth. While I would dispute the narrative of stagnation that Barr suggests here – this blog has already seen that films like The Love Lottery (1954), The Ship that Died of Shame (1955), Touch and Go (1955) or Dunkirk (1958) offer some challenge to that idea – it is true that The Rainbow Jacket is not one of Ealing’s finest hours.

Created by established Ealing names (T.E.B. Clarke, Michael Relph, Basil Dearden – although with evidence that the latter two were not happy with the assignment), this is a slice of stereotypical sporting drama that paints characters in broad strokes, but, unlike the brisk pace of The Square Ring (1953), it suffers from a plodding pace; more carthorse than thoroughbred racehorse. Featuring some striking colour composition, and with an emphasis on extensive location filming at a series of racetracks, the film fails to come alive at any point.

When disgraced jockey Sam meets wannabe-jockey Georgie Crain (Fella Edmonds), he convinces Georgie’s mother, Barbara, to let him train the kid. After seeing Georgie control a wayward horse, Lord Logan (Robert Morley) gives him a job at his Newmarket stables, where Georgie works under trainer Geoffrey Tyler (Edward Underdown)  and the sadistic but good-humoured stables boss Tommy Adams (Herbert C. Walton). A natural jockey, Georgie’s meteoric rise and success helps brings Sam and Barbara together – but Sam’s shady past (fixing and betting on races) comes back to haunt them. Despite temporarily regaining his jockey licence, Sam sacrifices his career to save Georgie’s and plans a normal life with Barbara and that little old snack van.

Although slightly more complex than that description, the narrative trajectory remains clear: unlike The Square Ring, where Bill Owen positively bounced around the screen as cocky boxer Happy Burns, he is more restrained here, and the film appears uncertain if he should be punished or celebrated because of his past. Barr sees the film’s ending as a punishment, a curtailing (or reducing) of Sam’s future, resigning him to normal life with a wife and job. Yet reading the film in that way ignores Georgie’s story, which lies at the heart of the film – he is the character we spend most time with, we follow his path to success, see the uncertainty he goes through when learning the truth about Sam’s past. At the end of the film, Georgie is triumphant, winning the main St Leger Day race at Doncaster (and, replacing Sam, winning a second race – unseen, but covered by the racing commentary) and heading on to bigger and brighter things.

If Sam is the heart of the film, this is a tragedy of tradition over potential; if Georgie is at the heart, it is a triumphant story of individual genius, shaped by different people, but greater than all of them.

Unfortunately, whichever reading you choose to opt for, it doesn’t take away the fact that neither approach does much to enliven the bulk of the film. The performance of Fella Edmonds isn’t strong enough to carry the dramatic weight (the film appears aware of this, particularly in a scene where an older girl dances with – and towers over – him), Owen only shows flashes of his comic potential, and the supporting cast are largely anaemic – while poor Kay Walsh, soon to play the unhappy matriarch-turned-domestic crook of the Thorne family in Lease of Life (1954), has another brush with petty crime here, stealing money from her job to bet (unsuccessfully) on the horses. There is some comic relief from Robert Morley, but his brusquely idiotic Lord Logan largely blusters through most of his scenes; Sid James’ brief appearance as miserable snack bar owner Harry is too brief to make a difference; and even an early appearance by Honor Blackman (as Mrs Tyler) does little to lift the film’s spirits.

What, then, of the film itself? Like other films on this challenge, its status as one of Ealing’s thirteen colour films attracts my immediate attention, but – and this is becoming a cliché within this post – only at certain moments, largely reduced to accurately capturing the blue skies and green turf of different racecourses around England. There is a nice opening image under the film’s title – the red circle of the winning post offers a striking visual signifier of the subject matter – but after this, there are only suggestive hints (a red tablecloth and post box are used early on, but appear not to have any meaning other than verisimilitude). The strongest moment is a brief sequence inside the photography lab where photo-finish plates are produced. In this dark, shadowy space, lit only by first a green, then a red glow, the film takes on garish hues that sit uncomfortably with the naturalistic effect achieved elsewhere. It is not a surprise when the film cuts briskly away from that moment – and the only other strong colour imagery comes at the end, when we see the disgraced Sam, alone in the changing room, surrounded by the bright colours of discarded jockey uniforms. In the next (and final) scene, he is wrapped in a grey coat – perhaps offering more evidence for Barr’s notion that his future is closed down, reduced, no longer colourful.

[The Rainbow Jacket is released by Studio Canal, see for more details]

Next time, Alex Guinness' memorable performance as Henry Holland in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)...

[edit: this replaces the previous information that For Those in Peril would be next: due to availability it will feature in early April instead)

Thursday, 22 March 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 55: Pool of London (1951)

Produced in the year after The Blue Lamp (1950), Pool of London shares similar thematic and narrative interests in criminal gangs (a jewellery heist in this case), car chases and delinquency. Although produced by the same team (Basil Dearden and Michael Relph), this film features little of the jovial camaraderie of P.C. Dixon and his colleagues, and feels more like the team’s effort to make a harder-edge crime drama, perhaps even influenced by some of the post-war American crime thrillers that were subsequently dubbed film noir. Yet despite some impressive stylistic touches, and an unusual setting, Pool of London is most noticeable for its attempt to blend together different issues and narrative ideas, leading to occasionally jarring shifts in tone and structure.

Dan MacDonald (Bonar Colleano) and Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron) are shipmates on the Dunbar, a boat recently docked next to London’s Tower Bridge. Dan is the wide boy petty smuggler (nylons, cigarettes) while the more morally upright black sailor Johnny is his best friend; Dan has a girl in port (possibly every port), Maisie (Moira Lister), while Johnny tends to avoid the city, sure that beyond its gleaming surface it is ‘filth, squalor, misery.’ Yet on this trip he meets and begins a tentative relationship with Pat (Susan Shaw). Meanwhile, Dan agrees to smuggle stolen goods from London to Amsterdam for Vernon (Max Adrian) and Alf (Alfie Bass), and he and Johnny get caught between a murderous criminal heist and a Scotland Yard manhunt.

While that description doesn’t encapsulate the full range of tangential elements within the film, it already begins to point up the dense nature of what the film is attempting to combine. First, there is documentary footage of the London docks (according to Barr, the film arose out of a documentary project) butted up against several sequences of stylised chiaroscuro lighting; there is the dramatic material of the heist and murder next to the comic presence of Dunbar’s chief engineer (James Robertson Justice), who alternately drinks, sleeps, reads poetry, and yells at the crew; there is the sexual attitudes of the shipmates to their women compared to Johnny’s burgeoning relationship with Pat (largely developed by her); and there is the film’s attempt to comment on race relations through different characters assumptions and attitudes towards Johnny. Throw in Vernon’s acrobatic criminal, cat fights between Maisie and her sister Pamela (Joan Dowling), Dan sleeping with shipmate Harry’s girl Sally (Renee Asherson), and a series of fast-paced car chases, and the film is constantly on the verge of tipping over into incoherence.

There are points where it loses that sense of balance, and it is unclear what direction the film wants to head in: this is most clear in the desire to pursue the heist and Johnny and Pat’s day out in London at the same time. There is little direct relationship between the two storylines (the main element is that, while on St. Paul’s roof, Pat spots Vernon on the roof of a building nearby), but the film intercuts between them, as though trying to suggest some thematic connection that simply doesn’t arise. Even the music in these sequences is different: stronger, dramatic work over the heist and murder; lighter, romantic for Pat and Johnny. Both sequences work in their own right – Earl Cameron’s performance as Johnny is strong, presenting a man who has no real home and whose skin colour means most people will not accept him (rejecting Pat’s notion that it doesn’t matter how or where people are born, but equally thoughtful as to what colour God is); and the heist is expertly cut together (there is a great visual trick with an unclaimed bottle of milk that pays off through the scene) – but this is the point where the film most obviously feels most like two different stories that happen to share the same space.

Yet while that portmanteau quality works in Dead of Night (1945) or Train of Events (1949), here there is a sense that everything has to be connected – the diamonds from the heist are in the package Johnny agrees to take on the ship for Dan – but those links are never consistent beyond the level of narrative requirement. Equally, the race issues the film obviously wants to engage with – which form a solid bond with Dearden’s later film Sapphire (1957) – don’t lead anywhere, and tell us very little about the characters who indulge in such casual racism (such as Maisie, theatre guard, the police), or Johnny himself, the victim of it. Cameron and Colleano are called upon to do most of the dramatic heavy lifting throughout, and it is a shame to see Moira Lister (who was impressive in 1948s Another Shore) reduced to a shrill and mannered performance as working class Maisie.

What sticks in my mind after watching the film is its visual style: there are beautifully composed shots of the docks, mainly at night, well-shot shadowy streets and morally dubious characters (Maisie and Dan are often bathed in shadow, with bars of light across their face); the images of a deserted Sunday morning in the City of London (and the bombed out areas, a notable characteristic of Ealing films from Hue and Cry (1947) on) create a strong background for the heist, occurring in the shadow of St. Pauls; while the final atmospheric car chase through Rotherhithe tunnel is also a highlight, a set piece that feels almost Hitchcockian, as Vernon clambers (acrobatically) over a domed air vent and ends up falling from a pipe into the tunnel below. But ultimately, the film never feels as coherent or as powerful as the sum of its parts.

[Pool of London is released by Studio Canal, see for more details]

Next time, the sport of kings takes centre stage in The Rainbow Jacket (1954)...

Monday, 19 March 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 54: The Overlanders (1946)

The first of Ealing’s Australian adventures, this shares similarities with the later Tommy Trinder-starring Bitter Springs in its use of wilderness and landscape, and the joy with which Harry Watt embraces the visual iconography of the Western (or particular aspects of it at least). Unlike Bitter Springs’ Cowboys and Indians narrative, this tells of a massive cattle drive across wartime Australia.

Even though it was released post-war, this is another Ealing film infused with propaganda intentions (Harry Watt was sent to Australia to enhance Australian propaganda, largely in documentary projects, but also keeping an eye out for stories Ealing would invest in): the coming together of a disparate group to take a massive herd of cattle “over land” rather than kill them in the Northern territories (which in 1942 feared an imminent Japanese invasion), and the trials they face. Early on, the emphasis is on this propaganda mission – the repetition that ‘bullocks are more important than bullets’ – but that shifts to the characters as they head further and further into the wilderness, although propaganda naturally returns in the film’s closing minutes (as we see more images of Australia pulling together to accomplish the mass migration of cattle).

The group is led by Dan McAlpine (Chips Rafferty), who enlists Scottish sailor ‘Sinbad’ (Peter Pagan), comic relief Corky (John Fernside), and the Parsons family: father Bill (John Nugent Hayward), his mother Mrs P (Jean Blue), and his daughters Mary (Daphne Campbell), and Helen (Helen Grieve). There are also two aborigine helpers, Jackie (Clyde Combo) and Nipper (Henry Murdoch), but they are rarely developed, simply background characters. In one sense, this isn’t a world away from Bitter Springs – Rafferty plays the solid working class Dan much as he did Wally King in Bitter Springs, barking orders and punching his way through the wilderness; there’s the romantic Scotsman who makes a pass at the headstrong and tomboy-ish Mary (who proves tougher than most of the men); and comic relief in the form of Corky – the sequence where he manipulates the group into heading for Anthony’s Lagoon is solid and enjoyable writing, well matched by Fernside’s performance.

Visually and aurally, this never feels like Watt’s first rodeo – while his first film Nine Men (1943) also featured similar Western traits (the isolated building, a small bunch of men repelling a larger force of ‘others’, saved by a cavalry of sorts), here he jumps straight into the wide open landscapes, hard-worn men on horseback, dust-wreathed prairies, and herd of cattle as though born to it. The film lives and dies by its location shooting and situations – the epic landscapes which dwarf the figures within it, the small dramas of crossing a crocodile-infested river, catching wild horses or night time stampedes – and the reality of this work remains impressive sixty-five years later, when thundering cattle would be CGI-d in, not rounded up and made to crash through rivers until they got the perfect shot.

Of course, there is an imperial / colonial taste about it, but to a lesser extent than Bitter Springs. The white man remains in control – Rafferty has an omnipresent voiceover throughout, adding to a series of documentary-style montages and explanatory sequences (how to catch wild horses, how to force cattle over a rocky path, building out from Watt’s earlier drama-documentary experience in the GPO unit) – and the aboriginal cast are largely set dressing, but the focus on the group dynamic does reduce some of the more overt colonial implications (despite this being a British film about Australian interests and ideas, which is imperialist in its own unique way). Australians, and Australian interests, remain at the heart of this: Dan dismisses Corky’s scheme to exploit the Northern Territories for minerals, saying the land should be left ‘to ordinary Australians.’ However, those are settlers like Bill, not the aborigines, and this is ‘a national job’ (which assumes a large friendly government to implement it), not something to be left to shyster businessmen like Corky (or, arguably, the other foreigner, Sinbad, who is invalided out of the narrative after being trampled in a stampede).

At the end of the film, having survived multiple stampedes, hardships, crocodile attacks and injury, Dan and his team bring their cattle home. And, like all great westerns, our heroes (bar the recovered Sinbad) aren’t city people, and return to the wilderness. There is no great reward, no fame, not even romance (Sinbad and Mary are parted): simply a return to the wilderness to continue the work.

Next time, from the Australian outback to the capital's docklands in Pool of London (1951)

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 53: Bitter Springs (1950)

Like Harry Watt’s The Overlanders (1946) and Where No Vultures Fly (1951), with which it shares similar narrative and thematic DNA, this is a (sometimes uncomfortably colonial) look at the relationship between white and black, here in the context of Australian homesteaders who, in 1900, trek 600 miles to a parcel of land they’ve bought from the Australian government. Arriving after an arduous journey, they find native aborigines already inhabiting the area, setting the scene for a major conflict. Again mirroring Watt’s earlier work (there is a good chance he would also have made this film, given his love for Australia, but was considering leaving feature film making completely after the trouble he –and Ealing – had making Eureka Stockade in 1947-49) this is a strong example of a lesser-known Ealing genre – namely, the Western.

Michael Balcon had expressed an interest in Australian production, even before moving to Ealing, so it is perhaps not surprising the studio made five films in the country between 1946 and 1959 (starting with The Overlanders and ending with Ealing’s final film, The Siege of Pinchgut in 1959). Stephen Morgan’s fascinating look at those films (part of the co-edited collection Ealing Revisited, released later this year) reveals that Ralph Smart, who had worked closely with Watt on Ealing’s first two Australian ventures, took over this film but clashed with Ealing over the casting of Tommy Trinder (who was a big star in Australia, at least in part because of his earlier Ealing films) and the changes made to the script around the treatment of the aborigines.

The end result is a film that misfires in places, largely works on visual and generic levels, but (not least because the world has moved on at least a little in sixty years) feels dated in its treatment of aboriginal issues. However, the film isn’t as completely one-sided as more standard cowboys and Indians fare might be, and does at least gesture towards a more liberal perspective – albeit one that is biased towards civilising and changing native culture rather than understanding or embracing it.

Like the last couple of films in this mini-Tommy Trinder marathon, Trinder is part of an ensemble here rather than having the plot revolve around him and his traditional persona (as in, say, Sailors Three (1940) or Fiddlers Three (1944). This also means that, for the third film running (in the challenge) he fails to get the girl, letting a better man win. Here, Trinder is an unemployed minor magician and showman (we first see him wrapped in a sack and bound in chains as part of a risible escapology trick) who, along with friend Mac (the ubiquitous Gordon Jackson) and son Charlie (Nicky Yardley), sign up as drover’s hands with the King family. The family, led by Wally (Chips Rafferty), his mother Ma (Jean Blue), his son John (Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwall), and daughter Emma (Nonnie Piper), along with their aboriginal employee/farmhand Blackjack (Henry Murdoch), have purchased the land around Bitter Springs.

From here, the narrative is fairly predictable – they arrive in Bitter Springs, Wally angers the aborigines, the King family build a house, Mac and Emma fall in love, one of the aborigines is shot during a tense stand-off, Tommy and his son are taken hostage, the family retreat to their homestead for a final assault, and the cavalry ride in to save the day. Like most Ealing films, the fun is in the detail and the performances: Rafferty is convincing as the gruff abrasive leader, Jackson plays up Mac’s uncertainty and openness (Mac remains open to the native’s plight and rights until forced to choose a side), while Trinder strolls through each scene with his trademark cockiness and charm. Both female actors are solid, but the film doesn’t really give them a lot to do. While Ma largely cooks and cleans, Emma is presented as a tomboy, wears trousers and men’s clothes (unless seducing Mac, when she puts on a dress), helps herd sheep, uses a whip, and shoots her gun alongside the menfolk. Although Piper looks very modern in the role – particularly in her leather jacket – the film doesn’t develop this into a stronger role and is unsure how to deal with a strong female character who can work alongside men.

The film’s strengths play to the scale and scope of the Australian filming, with stunning location shooting and staging. The reason this works as a western is that sense of isolation and desolation, particularly in the montage of the family’s trek (the first third of the film), and then in the more lush forest and prairieland around Bitter Springs. The film also maintains a few thin links to its documentary heritage, with shots of kangaroos and the depiction of aboriginal customs, notably kangaroo hunting and a funeral (although this is all shot through a lens of Western curiosity).

Where the film likely falls down for a modern audience, however, is the insistence that the white heroes are the source of the solution as well as the initial problems: Wally refuses to admit that the aborigines have any claims to the land (the fact they have ‘been scratching around here for a thousand years doesn’t mean they can keep it’), regularly exacerbates the situation, won’t listen to reason... yet ends up, due to government help in the form of trooper Ransom (Michael Pate), colonising the land and putting the aborigines (who now wear western clothes) to work as sheep-shearers. While this was likely preferable to Ealing than a Zulu-style slaughter of natives by the Kings or the cavalry, it does allow the film to end on a note of optimism that is largely absent in the rest of the film.

As for Trinder, unlike The Bells Go Down (1943) he does at least survive this film (he even rides in with the cavalry), but it would be his last Ealing film. The experiment of developing a star figure, and of wedding his particular comic persona into more dramatic work, was never effectively handled after the war, and Ealing’s preference for ensemble casts and subtler performative styles, meant there was little place for Trinder in the studio’s future.

Next time, we remain in Australia for another cattle drive, in The Overlanders (1946)...

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 52: Champagne Charlie (1944)

It is tempting to see Champagne Charlie through the lens of later comments Michael Balcon made about projecting Britain as a ‘patron and parent of great writing, painting and music’ and the necessity of moving beyond an aesthetic based purely in realism. While it is possible to read the film in relation to its wartime production context, this story of comic rivalry among Victorian music hall stars seems to have its eye on a wider range of issues and approaches.

Directed by ex-documentarian Cavalcanti, with many experienced Ealing stalwarts (including director of photography Wilkie Cooper, scriptwriters Austin Melford, John Dighton and Angus Macphail, with Michael Relph on art direction, T.E.B. Clarke contributing to song-writing and Douglas Slocombe operating the camera) this is close to the heart of Ealing’s production ethos at the time. And while it is true that there are elements here of the traditional and community-minded Ealing that we’ve seen in other films – music hall rivalry is put aside when all are threatened with closure (cooperation transcends competition, according to Charles Barr) – this appears to be a minor note in a film more interested in individuals, drinking songs and class mobility (or the lack thereof).

Star Tommy Trinder plays George Leybourne (nee Saunders, his stage name changes twice, from Saunders to Leybourne to ‘Champagne Charlie,’ after a particularly famous song), a miner who comes to London and is taken on as a comic singer first at the Elephant & Castle pub, then at the Mogador club, where music hall legend Bessie Bellwood (Betty Warren) schools him in his new career. Partnered with songs from Mogador’s resident writer, Duckworth / Ducky (Robert Wyndham), Leybourne is soon a popular act at the hall, which attracts comparisons and rivalries with the Great Vance (Stanley Holloway), ‘the greatest comic singer in England’.

The rivalry – and reluctant friendship – that develops between Leybourne and Vance is the heart of this film, thematically and structurally: there is a long montage just under halfway through, where the scenes cut quickly between a series of competing songs about drink. From Leybourne’s tune about ale, to Vance’s about gin, from a French-styled ‘burgundy, claret and port’ routine to sailor’s rum-based jig, from the ‘brandy and seltzer boys’ to ‘a glass of sherry wine’, the film covers almost all the major alcoholic drinks going, before ending up with Leybourne’s ‘Champagne Charlie,’. There is a glee and bounce to these scenes, a lightness of touch that is absent from many of Ealing’s wartime productions, partly a result of the changing circumstance of the war, but also the choice of genre and era (Ealing enjoyed the Victorian and Edwardian periods, returning to them again in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), among others). This is one of very few Ealing musicals – and most of those are star-led by George Formby or, as here, Tommy Trinder – and this comes closest to using the musical sequences to inform the plot and characters.

It would be easy to criticise the film given that very little happens for the bulk of it, and the occasional stabs at a more traditional narrative, such as a contrived duel between Leybourne and Vance, the threat by agitators to close down the lewd and satiric space of the music hall,  or the concurrent class-ridden drama of Bessie’s daughter Dolly (Jean Kent), her upper class lover Lord Petersfield (Peter deGraaf) and his father, the Duke (Austin Trevor), who knew Bessie when he was younger and is on the committee that proposes to shut down the music hall... simply take focus away from the enjoyable music hall setting and performance. That is largely because of the strength of Trinder and Holloway, who make no pretence towards realism but give larger-than-life portraits of two egotistical but talented comedians. Although given less screen time Holloway’s inherent snobbery and one-upmanship is an enjoyable foil to Trinder’s usual cockiness, and their bickering (sung or otherwise) keeps the film going.

While never particularly showy, the film also looks impressive, with nice touches around setting and camera work: an opening camera angle down on the Elephant and Castle that tracks over the rooftops to follow Leybourne and his brother in through the pub’s courtyard; the parting of the brothers, as they take different paths off screen; the presentation of the different halls, from the Mogador to Gatti’s to the Oxford; and the focus on specific Mogador patrons when we are first introduced to the space, and then again at the end, as we leave it. Cavalcanti also experiments with deep focus cinematography in several shots of the Mogador, shooting from the stage and showing the whole audience – including Vance, who walks in at the back of the room, and pauses on a staircase to watch Leybourne perform. Cavalcanti doesn’t immediately cut to Vance, to confirm who it is, but lingers on that long shot, with Vance framed within the audience and architecture of the hall.

It is curious that Barr chooses to criticise the film for being too innocent, while Perry dismisses it as too jolly and genteel: it is the very lightness of the film, the departure from realism (there is rarely any sense that this is a realistic depiction of a Victorian music hall, or indeed of Victorian London more generally), that gives it coherence. When the film drifts away from that towards issues and social comment – notably whether Lord Petersfield’s life will be ruined if he marries a ‘mere’ music hall performer – it stumbles, and has to pull itself back to topic – the centrality of individual performance and comic routines.

Next time, our Tommy Trinder mini-marathon ends as we go down under for Bitter Springs (1950)...

Thursday, 8 March 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 51: The Bells Go Down (1943)

Watching The Bells Go Down is a little like a murder-mystery in reverse, or a very early disaster movie, where part of the fun is guessing which characters are going to die before the end. In the case of this Ealing film, it may not be the ones you think are most obviously cannon-fodder, particularly the fate of the film’s ostensible star, Tommy Trinder, who opts to shelve some of his more obvious comic tics for a more straightforward role as Tommy Turk, an ordinary man who can’t get into the army so opts to join the Auxiliary Fire Service instead (although, admittedly, this is largely because he thinks he’ll get to rescue girls in distress).

That’s really all there is to the narrative: some men (and women) join the AFS (the women answer phones, they don’t fight fires), start as a joke to normal firemen but are accepted as they show their commitment to the job, and the community they are protecting. There is uptight Ted Robbins (James Mason), in love with Susie (Merial Forbes) but unable to commit to her (Susie is also the wrong kind of girl according to Ted’s mum, who doesn’t like the amount of time she spends ‘hanging around dance halls’); local thief Sam (Mervyn Johns) who hides in the AFS recruitment line to avoid a policeman, and gets drafted; old hand Brookes (William Hartnell), wise, knowledgeable and aware of the Germans from his time fighting with the International Brigade in Spain; and Bob (Philip Friend), who marries Nan (Philippa Hiatt) and, if we’re playing disaster movie bingo, seems most likely to die: he promises to call the local phone box after each shift to let Nan know he’s okay, he’s often at the top of the ladder over the fire, or in the room that is burning down around him; and when it becomes clear Nan is pregnant (and in a hospital that, in the final act, is burning down) it seems certain his card is marked. While the film doesn’t opt for that ending – this despite Ealing being the kind of studio that, in wartime, appeared quite happy to kill off nice, safe characters (just look at Went the Day Well? (1943) or The Next of Kin, 1942) – it does feel as though Bob is a marked man throughout the whole film.

The film looks good, with strong practical effects around the different fires that the teams tackle, and a solid (if occasionally rocky) series of model shots to offer the kind of scale that matte paintings and studio work can’t quite capture. While it would be stretching a point to say that it appears realistic – it is difficult for anything to feel completely realistic when Tommy Trinder, James Mason and the First Doctor are running around putting out fires – those live action sequences remain the film’s strength, with the actors smeared in soot, drenched in water, lit by flame, and surrounded by smoke and chaos. As Basil Dearden’s first full director credit – after three films co-directing with Will Hay – this is playful in some places, with a wandering camera chasing around as water pulses through hoses, and solid in others, intercutting known actors with documentary footage of real firefighting.

The film opens and closes with its most propagandistic statement about community, pushing in over the heads of locals at a busy market to Bob and Nan’s wedding bans being posted at St Mark’s church, at the centre of this little ‘village’ (the opening voiceover discusses London as a series of villages, thus reducing the sprawling metropolis to manageable dramatic size). At the end, the film offers a reverse of that opening image, as the camera pulls back from the christening of Bob and Nan’s son, out of a hole in the church (caused by bombing) to reveal the market still bustling, still active, still a strong community. Throughout, this message is emphasised – it may be one of Ealing’s strongest statements about community and togetherness – Susie is accepted by Ted’s pub-owning parents when she rallies the air raid wardens to rescue them from their bombed-out premises; village news and gossip is passed around by the local milkman; the fire crews are pulled together through adversity; and the village gathers in air raid shelters, helps repair damage.

But what’s nice about the film is that it has little moments of a more subversive nature than the community ethos suggests: Sam remains a criminal throughout, stealing barrels of Guinness (a nice moment of what feels like early product placement) – he may rescue a policeman near the end, but there is little sign in Johns’ performance that Sam is now a reformed man; equally, Trinder is as single-mindedly in pursuit of girls and a good time as in earlier films, messing around in the telephone room, chatting up Susie, and always smoking on fire call-outs, something the Scottish District Officer McFarlane (Finlay Currie) chastises him for. Trinder’s persona is, therefore, only partially contained within the unit – his fate in the hospital fire could be read as the only way to contain the character within the community (individuals not useful in wartime as much as cohesive groups), yet he dies while sharing a cigarette with McFarlane, who is a community leader, which undermines such easy assumptions.

Overall then, another strong Ealing propaganda piece which manages to combine dramatic reconstruction of fire-fighting during the Blitz with soap-y melodrama and hints of comedy.

Next time, we head back to the Victorian music hall, with Tommy Trinder as Champagne Charlie (1944)...

Monday, 5 March 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 50: The Foreman Went to France (1942)

This is a strange little propaganda piece, a flashback-structured film that dramatises the ‘true’ story of Melbourne Johns, a foreman from a munitions factory who went to France to reclaim some industrial machinery loaned to a French company that, in 1940, was in danger of falling into the hands of the Germans. In one sense, then, this is a comfortable slice of Ealing wartime drama: there are appearances from familiar faces (Mervyn Johns, Gordon Jackson, Thora Hird), recognisable themes (Britain’s defiance and ingenuity, the strong relationship between Britain and France in the face of adversity) and repeated tropes (Britain wasn’t prepared, dangers of the fifth column). But at the same time, it has music hall comedian Tommy Trinder, and his reliable tropes of lusting after anything in a skirt, disobeying orders, and generally playing the fool. Oh, and technically Trinder isn’t even the lead character and doesn’t appear until over twenty minutes in.

That the film never feels as schizophrenic as that description might suggest is largely down to the cast: Clifford Evans as the foreman of the title, Fred Carrick; American actress Constance Cummings as Anne Stafford, an American working at the French company Carrick visits to get his machines back; Trinder as Tommy Hoskins and Gordon Jackson as Alastair ‘Jock’ McFarlane, two British soldiers who get pressganged into helping Carrick transport his machines to a southern port in their truck.

The film is most often talked about in relation to the foolish nature of the ‘foreman’, who trusts each authority figure he meets in France (the railway station master, the mayor, the prefect), all of whom are fifth columnists working for the Germans. Carrick can be read as analogous to 1940s Britain, unsure and unaware of the kind of war being fought, largely trusting the establishment and not challenging the status quo. Throughout the film, Carrick begins to appreciate his situation, and he spots the final fake – someone masquerading as a British colonel – without the help of Stafford. How far we would want to stretch the Carrick/Britain analogy is uncertain, although it is also true that the first person he places all his trust in is an American, Stafford, who initially claims neutrality but, after the death of her sister in a German bombing, sticks with Carrick for the rest of his journey.

Trinder’s appearance as a cocky British soldier, on a mission to liberate some curry powder, does change the tone of the film, but not as much as might be expected (particularly on the basis of his earlier appearances in this Challenge: Fiddlers Three 1944 and Sailors Three 1940). There are some more comic moments, but then the film is hardly a grim drama before his appearance. The main addition is a romantic triangle between him, Carrick and Stafford (there is never any sense that ‘Jock’ would be interested – but to make sure, the film kills him off towards the end) – Trinder gets a couple of opportunities to sing, and play the harmonica, but they are brief.

While it feels quite small in scope to begin with – lots of set-based work, returning to similar sets (notably the French factory) – the film broadens in scope visually and narratively when these four characters take to the road. The increase in location work (and the reliance on variable back projection) aids the film’s propaganda elements – the scene of a road filled with refugees strafed by German fighters is brutal (and uses sharp editing that wouldn’t look out of place in an Eisenstein film, particularly a collision of shots of young children, a plane zooming into camera, screams, and gunfire) – a similar scene in Ealing’s Dunkirk (1958) is surely an echo of this work. It is also a point that shows the film isn’t afraid of pulling punches for propaganda purposes – Carrick is shot in the hand, and a nun is killed in the attack.

The rest of their journey – a British road movie through France, in some ways – is episodic, but never completely flags (although a stop-off in a farmhouse where Trinder chases cows does test the patience a little – a necessary element if only to get him out of the way while the film develops the Evans/Cummings romance). They see the aftermath of an incendiary attack on a French town (similarities here to Trinder’s The Bells Go Down, 1942), there is a discussion of Britain ‘waking up at last’, the refugee kids are dropped off at a convent, ‘Jock’ takes a bullet defending them, and they end up at a French port, where resolute French people decide to make room on the last boat for Carrick’s machines.

Overall, this is a nicely done little film, but it survives largely because of a committed cast and some strong narrative elements. Trinder is actually a useful addition here, adding to the ensemble without dominating it. Cummings is suitably brash and biting, and maternal and supportive, where required, but her character remains the most sensible and self-aware of the group throughout – she spots the fifth columnists that Carrick is (initially) ignorant of. It might be seen as another of Ealing’s transitional films – made around the same time as The Bells Go Down, San Demetrio London (1943) and Went the Day Well? (1943), other experiments in the melding of documentary, propaganda and drama.

Next time, Tommy Trinder joins the AFS during the blitz, when The Bells Go Down (1943)...

Thursday, 1 March 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 49: The Square Ring (1953)

Any film following the supernatural fun of The Halfway House (1944) would likely pale in comparison, but The Square Ring – despite being largely based around a series of boxing matches over the course of a night – holds up surprisingly well, despite being about a ‘sport’ that I care little about, and relying too heavily on stock character types and obvious dramatic resolutions. But whether it is the solid and reliable presence of Jack Warner, the comic timing of Sid James, or the irrepressible nature of Bill Owen, this film does punch above its weight (and I promise that will be the last boxing related gag).

The film is set almost entirely within the confine of Adam’s Stadium, a local boxing arena where promoter Adams (Sid James) has put on an evening of boxing bouts. The film follows Danny Felton (Jack Warner), the stalwart stadium trainer, and his helper Frank Forbes (Alfie Bass) as they help six boxers: new and naive Welsh boxer Eddie Lloyd (Ronald Lewis), cocky celebrity boxer-about-town Happy Burns (Bill Owen), slick and morally grey Rick Martell (Maxwell Reed), lumbering and opinionated Whitey Johnson (George Rose), and the hulking, slow Rowdie Rawlings (Bill Travers). Each of these boxers – and the sixth, ex-champion Jim ‘Kid’ Curtis (Robert Beatty) who is top of the bill – is sketched in broad terms, and we learn very little about them beyond those initial characteristics (most of which are narratively necessary). It is set up early on that Martell has taken dives for money before, that Whitey is desperate to prove he can still fight, that Lloyd is wet behind the ears, and that Rawlings is dim and childlike (his interest in, and ownership of, a science fiction pulp storybook, Queen of the Space Ships could be read as a dig at the growing popularity of SF in the 1950s, and a further assumption about the juvenile content of such stories) and the film doesn’t stray far from those sketches.

In one sense, though, this feels like the reverse of the Ealing wartime films: here, we have a group of men coming together, from different areas and backgrounds, arguably for the same purpose... but they can’t work together. In fact, the film is predicated on the rivalry, bitching, complaining and whining they all do while stuck in the dressing room waiting for their bouts to begin. Rather than community, this feels like a group of individuals who have no ties to each other beyond a shared profession: they don’t learn to care more about each other, or to support or help the other. By the end, they have all left the room, leaving only Danny, ‘Kid’ Curtis and Frank. Curtis’s story – ex-champ, struggling to make a comeback, wanting to reclaim his glory years and his ex-wife Peggy (Bernadette O’Farrell), a local girl – is at the heart of this, and leads to an unusually sombre conclusion. But where Barr sees the film as an attack on popular culture (Warner gets a couple of lines about how the business has changed), I think that is overshadowed by attractive characters like Bill Owen and Sid James who are part of that culture.

So, while the central narrative is solid, the film comes alive around the edges, whether that is Joan Collins’ appearance as Frankie (Martell’s girl), Bill Owen’s energetic bounce, or the fantastic turn by Sid James. James has some strong pieces of comedy business: a recurring gag where he cajoles the boisterous crowd to return a missing charity collection box, and a lovely bit of character work, where James is always chomping down on a cigar, but veers away when anyone threatens to light it – perhaps illuminating the cheapskate nature of Adams as a man, and a suggestion of the role he is playing as the hard-boiled promoter.

Throughout, this remains a film centred on its limited locations: it barely cuts outside the ring or dressing room, and even then only for brief indoor scenes in a cafe. While this is no doubt for budgetary reasons, that enclosed feeling adds to the uncertainty of all the characters: notably Frankie’s panic, alone in the crowd, but also the boxers, pacing the dressing room and then led into the ring. It further undermines ideas around community – the audience are there to bet and be entertained, and rarely engage in anything communal or positive. Visually, the film is uneventful: we see five of the six fights; the first only shows the two boxer’s feet as they dance around each other, but that suggestion that there might be a different stylistic tic applied to each fight is soon allayed. Most often, the film resorts to a montage of different shots from around and inside the ring – but, apart from the final fight, this film about boxing spends very little time in its square ring, preferring the four walls of the dressing room.

Next time, we begin a mini-season of Tommy Trinder as The Foreman Goes to France (1942)...