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)

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