Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 60: The Proud Valley (1940)

The Proud Valley seems to be a film that is required to stand for a lot of different opinions, historical developments, and ideologies: perhaps understandably, given this is an Ealing film with black American actor Paul Robeson in the lead role, about a mining village’s attempt to self-govern their own mine, a plan which (both in terms of the film’s fiction and the film’s production) changes due to the advent of the Second World War. It is easy to discuss the film in terms of key themes – notably the power of community, or the need for national (British) unity in wartime – but I wonder if that dilutes the film's ability to question such easy ideas. 

Pen Tennyson’s second film for the studio, The Proud Valley is seen as a key film in Ealing’s move towards ‘projecting Britain’, something that (as the blog has explored) is key to the identity of the studio during wartime and beyond. Tennyson, often seen as one of the studio’s ‘might have beens’ (he died in a plane crash while in service), is also credited with introducing non-professional actors and more authentic accents to working class depictions at Ealing. Certainly, one of the strengths of the film is its depiction of the village around the Blaendy pit, into which outsider and itinerant ship’s hand David Goliath (Paul Robeson), arrives. At least in part because of David’s amazing singing voice – the pit has a male voice choir about to compete at the Eisteddfod – foreman and choir conductor Dick Parry (Edward Chapman) gets him a job down the pit. 

Barr and Perry’s accounts of the film are, understandably, interested in the later developments of the story: an accident at the pit claims Parry’s life, the pit is closed, the village struggles to survive, Parry’s son Emlyn (Simon Lack) organises a march to London with a plan to reopen it, war is declared and they are given the chance to reopen Blaendy. The focus on the relationship between capital/bosses and labour/workers – combined with the fact the original script originally ended with the mine run as a miner-owned collective – tends to privilege this reading, but it works from the idea that the village is consistently presented as a coherent community. In fact, one of the strengths of the film is its ability to undercut simple ideas around ‘them’ and ‘us’, around the image of two different maternal figures, Mrs Owen (Dilys Davies) and Mrs Parry (Rachel Thomas). 

Mrs Owen is the local shopkeeper and postmistress, ostensibly a central figure in the community. Mrs Parry is a housewife, married to Dick, mother to Emlyn and four other children. They are linked through their children: Emlyn and Gwen (Janet Johnson) are in love and, with Emyln training to be a pit manager, planning to be married. It is clear Mrs O believes herself superior to others in the village – she doesn’t like dirty mine workers in her shop, can’t stand the Parry’s children’s swearing, she steams open people’s post to keep ahead of the news – yet when the pit closes, she is also flexible with payment and gives products on tick to the locals. This uncertain balance ends with an outburst at the Parry’s house, where Mrs O notes she owns her own shop, has money in the bank, and accuses Emlyn of being ‘a boy on the dole without a penny to his name’ saying Gwen won’t be dragged down by him and the ‘poverty-riven hole’ they live in. While Gwen chooses Emlyn, and his plan to reopen the pit, over her mother’s plans, Mrs Owen remains a problematic figure within the film: are we supposed to read her as too capitalist for this communistic narrative? She disappears shortly after this, seemingly absent from the community that joins together – visually and in song – at the end of the film (a community that, crucially, Mrs Parry, is a central part of), but her presence cannot be denied. 

Yet all this talk of competing maternal figures runs the risk of ignoring the film’s star, and its central masculine figure: Paul Robeson. From the moment he strolls onto screen, snatching a ride in a train wagon, belting out songs in rich bass tones (‘like thunder from a distance’), and mining coal stripped to the waist, it is clear that Robeson is the centre of this film. True, the film aims for an ensemble feel, but Robeson (a tall, handsome black man with an amazing voice) stands out visually and aurally in every scene. It is a casual performance, open and confident; never trying to steal a scene, but walking away with it nevertheless. Perhaps the main problem is that his character has little to do in the film, and ends up as little more than a magical figure that wanders in, revitalises the village and encourages Dick and Emlyn to pursue their dreams. He is brave, kind, strong, moral... but there is no sense of why he does anything he does in the film, not least the final self-sacrifice he makes to save a group of trapped miners. Given the film ends with Robeson’s voice on the soundtrack as the film tracks over images of an idyllic Welsh landscape to a perfect sky overhead, is it too much to see him less as a magician, and more as a heavenly visitor, a precursor to Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)? 

The Proud Valley remains a fascinating, often contradictory film, but is worth watching for the performance of Robeson and the narrative’s ability to draw you into its small village atmosphere.

[The Proud Valley is released on DVD by Studio Canal. See www.studiocanal.co.uk for more details]

Next time, we call in at Mrs Wilberforce's to meet up with The Ladykillers (1955)...

No comments:

Post a Comment