Thursday, 3 May 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 67: Cheer Boys Cheer (1939)

Ealing’s eighth film after Michael Balcon’s arrival at the studio is one of those that is permanently stuck in the debate over what makes a film ‘Ealing-esque’ or, indeed, what makes a comedy an Ealing comedy? Cheer Boys Cheer is a comedy, produced at Ealing, which concerns a struggle between Greenleaf (a small, traditional local brewery with community values) and Ironside (a huge, mechanised national brewery with eyes only on the profit margin). Barr sees the film as somehow prophetic, with Ealing as Greenleaf, standing up against the Ironsides of the film industry. While the argument remains valid, I can’t help wondering how many other films of the time period also set up similar small vs. big, community vs. industry comparisons, or if the film is as important in Ealing’s development as Barr suggests.

Well-paced and still funny in places, the film hammers home the oppositions suggested above with little subtlety: the metallic machines of Ironside gleam, as workers in white scientist coats stride between them; while the wooden crates and vats at Greenleaf are tended by a group of loyal misfits. The Ironside family favour impersonal board rooms and the accumulation of wealth; while the Greenleafs and their workers gather in a communal dining room and Greenleaf senior has a collection of antique Toby jugs. The central plot concerns Edward Ironside (Edmund Gwenn) and his son John (Peter Coke) attempting to take over the family business run by Tom Greenleaf (C.V. France) and daughter Margaret (Nora Pilbeam), a take-over complicated when John, working at Greenleaf under an assumed identity, falls in love with Margaret.

The reason the film likely struggles to claim classic Ealing comedy status is the insistence on broad and forced slapstick routines, notably based around Greenleaf staff Albert Baldwin (Graham Moffat) and Geordie (Moore Marriott), actors loaned out from Gainsborough and delivering music hall-style pratfalls, fights and bickering (filling a car full of grain, fighting in a pub; slapping and arguing with each other). As for the central romance, the film’s bitter rivals turned sweethearts plot includes some... dubious sequences: most notably, when John (despite having only met her minutes before), bends firebrand Margaret over a car door and starts spanking her.

Margaret remains the only significant woman in the film (there is a brief appearance by Jean Webster Brough as the barmaid at the Cross Keys pub), and Pilbeam plays her as a strong, opinionated and intelligent woman who is more than an equal partner at Greenleaf, making many of the business decisions when her father cannot, and the object of affection of both John and Greenleaf brewer Mat Boyle (Jimmy O’Dea). Yet it is hard to shake the suspicion that the film is, in part, an attempt to tame her character: early on, she is wild and impetuous, drives like a woman possessed, voices her opinions strongly and confidently... but then becomes calmer as she and John grow closer, and then dejected and forlorn when they split up. Given the heterosexual pairing the film is inexorably heading towards – Margaret accepting John back seals the business ‘marriage’ – it remains unclear whether she will remain an equal in the joint Greenleaf-Ironside venture.

The film also fails to sell the change that comes over John, at least in part because of a solid but uninspired performance by Coke (who is acted off the screen by Pilbeam at every turn) but mainly a script that needs the character to change for plot contrivance. John has to shift from a hard-nosed sexist businessman who’ll do anything to get his way, to a sly undercover operative at Greenleaf, to a Greenleaf supporter willing to spend his own money to pay for a huge advertising budget, a cunning saboteur of his own father’s business, and then an accepted husband and owner of both breweries. The tacit assumption is that romance and homespun community values make the change, but the film doesn’t show us this, it simply tells us it happened.

Visually, the film is competent if not amazing: director Walter Ford and director of photography Ronald Neame do try some interesting tricks – an opening credit sequence where the titles are printed on the side of beer crates that roll into camera along a conveyor belt; matte or process shots that increase the scale of Ironsides brewery; sped-up images of fast car rides; an impressive montage sequence of Ironside vans, beer and newspaper headlines near the end of the film; and strong use of sound effects in key sequences, notably John, Matt and the others breaking in to Ironside’s brewery to spike their beer and dropping a tool down a metal canister – the loud bouncing, echoing and clanging goes on far beyond what is realistic, but it adds to the film’s playfulness and slightly unreal atmosphere.

Always solid, Cheer Boys Cheer may not be a full-fledged ‘Ealing comedy’ but it remains an enjoyable precursor of later Ealing themes and narrative interests.

[UPDATED April 2014: Cheer Boys Cheer is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 9, from Network]

Next time, another of Ealing's Scottish comedies, in The Maggie (1953)

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