Friday, 29 June 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 83: I Believe in You (1952)

It is hard to know how to react to I Believe in You: in one sense, this could be dismissed as reliable Ealing social problem fodder, where nice upper and middle-class people volunteer to be probation officers to help deal with the problematic working classes, particularly the rebellious youth who frequent dance halls and get in trouble with the police (in that sense the film has been linked to Relph and Dearden’s earlier The Blue Lamp, 1950). Yet, at the same time, the film can be seen as an indictment of that organisation, largely unable to help their charges and often reduced to an under-staffed community centre. The film also feels like a tipping point for Ealing productions: the establishment are represented by the stuffy yet well-meaning Cecil Parker, Celia Johnston and George Relph, while youthful vigour comes in the form of Harry Fowler, Joan Collins and Laurence Harvey, with the latter two offering very different paths for British cinema in the years and decades following this film’s release. The distinction between Johnson and Collins is showcased throughout, both in attitudes (Norma wants to go dancing, have fun) and clothing (the film enjoys its glimpses of Collins in a bikini).

Structured around the flashback of ex-colonial officer and ‘man of leisure’ Henry Phipps (Cecil Parker), the film traces his induction into, and first year of working with, a probation service department led by Mr Dove (George Relph) and Matty Matheson (Celia Johnson). Based in an unnamed police court, the probation service is a chaotic corridor full of characters (and character actors) jostling for the attention of one of the three officers. While the film shows various cases, the focus is on Charlie Hooker (Harry Fowler), one of Phipps’ charges, and Norma Hart (Joan Collins), one of Matty’s: Hooker has drifted into gangs alongside his mates, while Norma is a wannabe gangster’s moll, hanging around with tough guys like Jordie Bennett (Laurence Harvey). As Phipps gets to grips with his new life, he ends up playing cupid for Charlie and Norma, but has to try and prevent a robbery that could ruin their future together.

Parker and Johnson are the safe and stalwart centre of the film: he’s a comic but loveable figure out of his depth (regularly referred to as ‘Mr Chips’, part of a running joke where no one can remember his name), while she is solid and reliable, with a tragedy in her past (a wartime loss is hinted at, but it is tempting to think she’s still pining for Trevor Howard). They have a thankless job at times, partly because the script can feel trite in places, but mainly because they are surrounded by scene-stealing character actors who dip in and out of the plot to serve as reminders of the broader world of the probation officers: chirpy Fred Crump (Fred Griffiths), ex-portrait model and horoscope nut Mrs Crockett (Ada Reeve), paranoid Miss Mackline (Katie Johnson), convinced that someone is poisoning her cat, and the Hon Ursula (Ursula Howells), an upper class drunk trying to forget a wartime sweetheart. These characters form much of the interest in the film, even as they point up the failure of the officers to solve problems. It is clear these people will keep recurring and returning to the same office, the same person. Even police sergeant Body (another stellar small turn from Sid James) functions in a similar way, constantly complaining that no one picks up the office’s pint of milk: it seems that despite the best efforts, the probation service is caught in a repeating loop, unable to change or help.

Psychology is important to the film, with both Matty and Phipps offering psychoanalytic reasons for their charge’s behaviour: jealousy over a mother’s new lover, loss of a loved one during wartime; mother love. Yet, again, there is no solution to these diagnoses, they are offered as clues, not resolutions. The ultimate message from the film appears to be that the probation service needs to become more like the people they help, to not look down on them like ‘a scientist looks at beetles’: Dove expresses this early on in terms that PC George Dixon would recognise, telling Phipps he needs to walk the streets of the district to keep in touch with the people, to be visible, part of the community; while Phipps’ ultimate solution to helping Charlie and Norma is to try and single-handedly prevent a robbery, literally and figuratively getting his hands dirty to stop Charlie turning into a thug.

While there are some nice visual touches throughout, this is rarely a showy film in that sense: the camera pushes in on a courtroom scene at the beginning, and then pulls back from that same scene at the end, a visual framing device for the story as a whole; the audience is often put ‘in’ the position of the offenders, with the judge speaking into camera while passing sentence; but the location work remains the key visual strength here, with a range of street scenes from throughout London’s outer boroughs. Working class terraces, Victorian hostels, overgrown gardens, shadowy steps, rubble-strewn bomb sites, temporary swimming pools rubbing up against established theatres (performing Shaw’s Man and Superman): these are the sites of I Believe in You as much as the tiny stage-bound corridor, offices and courtroom. And they, ultimately, raise this above the more prosaic material of the narrative.

[UPDATED April 2014: I Believe in You is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 6, from Network]
Next time, Petula Clark and Diana Dors take to the floor in Dance Hall (1950)...

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 82: Barnacle Bill (1957)

Barnacle Bill (aka All at Sea in the U.S.) has an undeserved critical reputation as a late failure that is more concerned with the studios’ past comedy glories than it is in creating something new and innovative. Two famous accounts of the studio are scathing in their assessments: Charles Barr felt the film didn’t ‘merit a long account,’ dismissing it as a recreation ‘of past Ealing successes... the last twitching of the nervous system before death.’ (Barr 1980, 164) George Perry, meanwhile, saw Barnacle Bill as ‘Ealing comedy in decline’ (Perry 1981, 125), with ‘eccentricity replaced by silliness’ compared to the ‘sharp, accurate, well-aimed satire’ of Passport to Pimlico (1949). (142)

But, based on viewing it for this blog, I can’t really agree with them.
Perhaps it is the presence of Alec Guinness, setting the bar so high (based on previous Ealing appearances) that it becomes difficult to judge the film on its own merits; or maybe it is those brief echoes of Pimlico, Titfield or Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) (a tiny piece of Britain choosing to separate itself from the rest; a small group standing in opposition to a bureaucratic system; Guinness appearing in multiple roles). Yet all those points are small elements in what is actually a solid and enjoyable comic production with a sly sense of humour (often self-deprecatory), confident visual gags, and a strong central character performance from Guinness as Captain William Horatio Ambrose.
Ambrose, despite coming from a long line of sea-faring ancestors (short comic skits introduce us to Ambrose family history from cavemen to the First World War, with Guinness in each role), has always suffered from seasickness and spent the war working in training schools and on sickness remedies. Post-war, and wanting a command of his own, he buys the dilapidated Sandcastle pier and, fighting the (crooked) local council every step of the way, makes a success of it by registering it as a ship (the ‘RMS – Really Motionless Ship – Arabella’) and taking visitors on fake cruises. Facing seaborne attack, Ambrose is forced to go into battle (in a pedalo) and finds a cure for his seasickness on the way.
As that description likely makes clear, this is one of Ealing’s more fantastic stories, and it makes few claims to anything approaching realism. It is a film built around that central figure of Ambrose (and thus, Guinness), and few of the supporting characters make any lasting impression. Guinness remains the powerhouse of the film, a seemingly stern naval figure whose unrealistic dream revitalises the small town, drawing in old and young with a dance hall, cheap drinks, and fun.

Perhaps the film suffers through critical opinion simply by existing so close to the end of the studio, one of the six non-Ealing based films produced for MGM, the context overwhelming the actual content of the film; equally, Barr and Perry seem to criticise it for not having a link to contemporary events but arguments could be made around the ‘pier as Britain’ (it literally becomes an island, and one that can only be attacked by sea), Ealing’s continued 1950s concern about generational difference (Ambrose is hailed by the town’s youth for creating a new dance hall and bar), or the changing face of the British seaside (the Victorian pier pulled down to be replaced by something more modern).
The playful and occasionally surreal nature of the film starts with the opening titles, where names float up and down on screen as though tossed around by the (live action) waves; continues through the vignettes of the Ambrose family (one of whom is being cooked in a native tribe’s pot that is clearly too small to fit a whole human in); the defence of the pier by three pedalos against a dredging boat also partially takes place on a radar screen that makes it look like a video game; to the ramshackle and cubist nature of some of the buildings on the pier itself (the Crazy Cottage, which Ambrose makes his home, is full of sloped floors, skewed surfaces and oddly angled ceilings, and becomes the centre of comic scenes of him and Mrs Barrington (Irene Browne) getting drunk together, and sliding towards and away from each other). There is also an early scene of Ambrose apparently on deck in a storm but, as the camera pulls back, it is revealed to be a fake deck in a training school with people off to one side throwing water over him – yet the scene also stands as a reminder of the trickery of cinema, pulling back to reveal the ‘magic’ behind such scenes (which may have particular relevance for director Charles Frend, given he was also behind The Cruel Sea, 1953). Light comic and self-referential touches like this actually lift the film and balance the occasional dip into slapstick (which is found in all Ealing comedies).

A late entry in the Ealing comedy canon, yes, but one that deserves to be considered alongside earlier triumphs.

[Barnacle Bill is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, Ealing on probation in I Believe in You (1952)

Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 81: Painted Boats (1945)

Even though earlier Ealing films in this blog have featured documentary elements – the likes of The Big Blockade (1942), The Next of Kin (1942) or The Bells Go Down (1943) – they contained their documentary elements within a feature narrative. Painted Boats, however, is the opposite: a documentary that features occasional narrative or dramatic moments, largely through an inconsequential story following the burgeoning romance of Mary Smith (Jenny Laird) and Ted Stoner (Robert Griffiths).

The appearance of a feature dominated by documentary elements shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given Ealing’s parallel work on short documentary production during the early 1940s. Although not an area of the studio this blog is able to focus on (not least because the films are harder to access), these shorts feature work from established and upcoming Ealing talent such as John Paddy Carstairs, Walter Forde, Charles Frend, Alberto Cavalcanti, Angus Macphail and Basil Dearden. Documentary production of titles like All Hands (1940, featuring John Mills), Now You’re Talking (1940), Dangerous Comment (1940), Yellow Caesar (1941) and Go to Blazes (1942, featuring Will Hay and Thora Hird) ran alongside the well-known Ealing wartime films and, in some cases (such as The Next of Kin) informed feature narratives.

Painted Boats, however, is a different beast. Although produced during wartime, and very much linked to wider propagandistic aims to remind audiences what Britain was fighting for (the film is, in many ways, a love letter to British history, industry and a particular way of life), its choice of an instructional documentary approach can feel more like a return to the 1930s documentary movement than a look forward to the documentary aesthetic-informed dramas that Ealing were becoming known for. Exposition and narrative are not so much combined as pushed up against each other: at several points in the story, a narrator (James McKechnie) takes over, a ‘voice-of-god’ presence who tells the audience about the history of the canal, why they were built, how they were almost replaced by railways, how the canals responded to wartime, and what the role of the canal can be in peacetime. It is possible to imagine the documentary portions of this film cut together as a sponsored documentary similar to Coal Face (1933) or Housing Problems (1935): indeed, the film uses poetry and rhythm in its narrative voice and montage editing in a manner that seems to be a direct reminder of those earlier films.

The actual drama element is slender: the Smith family run the Sunny Valley, a traditional barge that is pulled by a horse; while the Stoner family run the Golden Boy, driven by a diesel engine. Although there is a tradition versus modernism narrative here, it feels tangential to the film, even when Pa Smith (Bill Blewitt) dies and the Sunny Valley also gets an engine. This sets up the most interesting part of the film, as Ted is called up (off-screen, we only hear about this via his brother Alfie Stoner (Harry Fowler) and the Smith women decide to stay onboard and crew it themselves. It is a very wartime-based message, given the crucial role women played in keeping British industry going, but it is also striking to see a film that ends not in marriage, but in female solidarity and action.

Visually, the film jumps between styles. The film is dominated by strong location filming from director of photography Douglas Slocombe, which moves from sweeping aerial shots to close images on the boats and canal sides themselves that celebrate the range of English landscapes that the canals cut through. The film also foregrounds two sequences that take place in the long canal tunnels, and which are particularly powerful, with the black expanse filling the screen and only allowing brief glimpses of the men and women guiding the boats, a reminder of Slocombe’s later expressive black-and-white photography in The Man in the White Suit (1951), among others.

So, a strange entry for this blog, but one that gestures towards Ealing’s other life, as a wartime documentary film studio, more than their known persona.

[Painted Boats is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, we're all at sea with Barnacle Bill (1957)...

Monday, 18 June 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 80: Eureka Stockade (1949)

This historical Western finishes off the coverage of Ealing’s five Australian films in this blog and, as that genre description suggests, it has a lot in common with the films it was produced between, namely The Overlanders (1946) and Bitter Springs (1950). Like those productions, Eureka Stockade relies on the scale of Australia’s natural landscapes, filling the screen with impressive location shooting and framing people and events under huge skies that dominate two-thirds of the screen or more. The narrative here is about a fight for freedom, one the opening voiceover compares to other historical moments: ‘England had her Magna Carta, France her revolution, America her declaration of independence, and Australia, Eureka Stockade.’ Yet by trying to do justice to this moment in history, to explain the motivations of the main characters, and to justify the scope of the narrative, the film ultimately rushes over details and characters in the race for the finish line.

Despite that criticism, however, this remains an impressive and well-paced film, and one that tells a story likely unknown to most audiences. Peter Lalor (Chips Rafferty) is one of hundreds of immigrants who arrives at Ballaarat to mine for gold; once there, he meets Scotsman Tommy Kennedy (Gordon Jackson), Spaniard Rafaello Cardoni (Peter Illing) and German Frederick Vern (Sydney Loder), and the four ‘grave-diggers’ work together in the fields, hoping for a lucky strike. But this Australian gold rush has pulled workers away from the farms and other industries, and the government, hoping to force men back to work, introduces taxation and digging licences run by the honest and under-manned Commissioner Rede (Jack Lambert). As tensions between the pioneers and the newer immigrants increases, Peter finds himself the reluctant leader of a small band of rebels fighting for the right to vote, buy land and settle down: a fight that leads to a show down with government forces at a hastily built fort on Eureka Hill.

The film takes its time to draw the viewer into the story: what initially feels like a more light-hearted story about four disparate men digging for gold takes a dark turn when one of Tommy’s friends, Scobie (Al Thomas) is killed by a gang led by bar owner Bentley (Ron Whelan). Because Tommy’s character has been developed, when he shifts to demanding vengeance and helps stoke the flames of an attack on Bentley and his wife, his viewpoint is understandable (even as the film relies on Peter as the voice of reason to defuse and reject this move to violence). Vern and Raffaelo are more broadly caricatured (Rafaello also has a good line in anti-German dialogue), but still rounded individuals – when Vern runs away from command in the final battle, it feels apt, based on his actions and bluster to date. And, while the film is careful to position itself largely on Peter’s side, it also gives Rede actions and dialogue that doesn’t paint him as evil, but restricted to obeying (and occasionally challenging) orders. The film may be broadly on the side of the revolutionary diggers, but it isn’t a simple celebration of their views, and does give limited voice to the opposing side.

Yet despite solid storytelling throughout, the final ten minutes of the film are rushed and uncertain, cramming in too much historical detail in an attempt to show the impact of this one rebellion. Given the slow and steady build-up, the post-showdown is juggling too many balls: Tommy saves an injured Peter with the help of school teacher Alicia Dunne (Jane Barrett); they travel away from Ballaarat; the military restores order to the town; the government brings several captured rebels to trial; Peter recovers from his illness; the rebels are cleared; the government recognise the rebel’s demands; Peter and Alicia return to Ballaarat to buy land, and have a final meeting with Rede. That alone would be material for another film, and it reduces the final impact of this one.

As is no doubt clear, one of the film’s strengths lies in its use of location filming and landscapes: shots of the field where the gold miners dig give the film a strong sense of space, and the different fights between diggers and police/soldiers are well choreographed in such locations. Yet the film can also be visually and aurally inventive in other ways: Watt uses a lot of montages and close-ups in sequences that are effective in showing either how news spreads quickly across the miner’s camp, or the growing anger at new government policy; while several night time sequences (notably Scobie’s death and the burning of Bennett’s bar) rely as heavily on Mary Habberfield’s sound editing skills as they do the cinematography of George Heath.

In terms of its place within the larger Ealing back catalogue, Eureka Stockade has strong links to other studio films, not least the Australian projects developed by Harry Watt. Like The Overlanders and Bitter Springs (and, arguably, many of Ealing’s war films), the film is about a disparate group of nationalities and individuals coming together for a common cause; the films suggest that logical, commonsense decisions are often beyond the reach of official organisations; and they celebrate the history and landscape of their country, projecting elements of Australia as clearly as Balcon intended Ealing films to project Britain. (although, of course, in projecting Australia these films can also be read as projections of British views on Australia, a partially colonial view of this land)

[UPDATED April 2014: Eureka Stockade is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 7, from Network]

Next time, from Australian history to the British waterways in Painted Boats (1945)...

Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 79: There Ain't No Justice

Michael Balcon often identified this film as an early example of what he believed Ealing films to be capable of: a character study about (allegedly) realistic people and situations, a commentary on modern society, with a focus on community and the representation of British concerns. Yet while that description fits There Ain’t No Justice it also speaks to some of the film’s (and studio’s) problems, particularly a reliance on normative endings which displace the interesting morally grey material at the heart of the story into more black-and-white terms.

The story feels well-worn today, and was likely so even in 1939: Tommy Mutch (Jimmy Hanley) enters the world of professional boxing to make money and impress Connie Fletcher (Jill Furse). Helped by his trainer, Tommy gets a deal with local promoter Sammy Sanders (Edward Chapman), who plans to fix a series of matches between Tommy and Frankie Fox (Michael Hogarth). Needing money to help his sister Elsie (Phyllis Stanley), and distracted by the sexual allure of Sammy’s girl Dot Ducrow (Nan Hopkins), Tommy has to decide whether to take a dive or stand up to Sammy.

The film opens with a dedication to ‘the small time boxer, who has too long been at the mercy of both managers and public’, and expresses the hope that it may help ‘those who are struggling to improve his lot.’ Charles Barr notes that the narrative is more concerned with crooked managers / promoters Sammy and Alfie Norton (Gus McNaughton), than it is the questioning the public, but like Ealing’s later film The Square Ring (1953), the mass boxing crowd is presented as a potentially dangerous body of (largely) men. This is not the safe and comfortable community of Notting Hill the film celebrates in an early dance scene (where Tommy meets Connie, and all the locals dance to ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’), but a darker place baying for entertainment, chanting at bloodied fighters, and seemingly ready to tip over into violence (while the final riot is caused by external influence, and played partly for comedy, it also appears to be a comment on the problems of this mass gathering). It may even be that Ealing gets more cynical with age: the boxing arena’s call for charity (here, for a blinded boxer) is repeated in The Square Ring, where the charity box is stolen by a member of the audience.

So, that idea of different communities is central, and the socially ‘correct’ community ultimately wins, with Tommy choosing to leave boxing for married life with Connie. Equally, problematic sexuality is constantly displaced: as Dot increases her seduction of Tommy, Connie is shown in a maternal role, cradling a baby; Elsie’s boyfriend Lenny Charteris (Michael Wilding) starts as a sexual figure, but that potency is reduced when they get engaged, then avoided when he robs the milk bar where she works and runs away (allowing Tommy to step into a patriarchal role, finding the money to support himself and Connie, and save Elsie). As this suggests, family is also key, with Tommy’s parents Alfred (Edward Rigby) and Ma (Mary Clare) functioning as secondary comic characters. An early scene where the five members of the Mutch family move around the cramped kitchen having breakfast is particularly strong in setting up the dynamic of their lives.

To Balcon, and to later critics, this coalescing of different strands of what later came to stand for ‘Ealing Studios’ is partly the influence of director Pen Tennyson and his belief in opting for more realistic characters, situations and dialogue. Certainly when compared to The Gaunt Stranger (1938) or The Four Just Men (1939), the focus on a working class family does allow the film to make some claims to realism, but the film’s balance of drama and comedy is hardly more revolutionary than Let’s Be Famous (1939) or Saloon Bar (1940), which also foreground regional accents and community-based ensemble filmmaking, simply in more generic formats. That is not to say that There Ain’t No Justice had no influence: it is easy to see echoes of it in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) and The Blue Lamp (1950), although it lacks the strong location work of those later films (apart from an early pan round real London streets), and tends to rely on its boxing melodrama rather than building up the world its disparate characters inhabit.

Best seen as a first attempt at what Balcon believed Ealing was capable of, and should pursue, There Ain’t No Justice falters when seen out of that context, too restricted by narrative conventions and without the full courage of its realist convictions to flesh out its characters and situations.

[UPDATED April 2014: There Ain't No Justice is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 8, from Network]

Next time, revolution in Australia in Eureka Stockade (1949)...

Monday, 11 June 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 78: Let's Be Famous (1939)

The third film produced at Ealing Studios after Michael Balcon arrived (following The Gaunt Stranger and The Ware Case in 1938), it is both tempting and potentially misleading to try and see the future path of Ealing in the tealeaves of Let’s Be Famous. Charles Barr describes the film as a tedious experience, enlivened only its depiction of the BBC and commercial radio advertising, and its links to concerns over generational struggle seen in other Ealing films of the period; while, to many British cinema and television fans, the film is perhaps best known as a vehicle for future Coronation Street star Betty Driver.

While ‘tedious’ feels an unfair judgement, the film is not Ealing’s finest hour, although it does bear similarities to other studio films, most obviously the comedies Cheer Boys Cheer (1939) and Sailors Three (1940). It shares the episodic and slapstick elements of those films, but without their narrative momentum or cohesion: the film is reduced to a series of set pieces, comic attractions that feel like separate sketches linked mainly by the appearance of recurring actors. While some of these remain amusing – the final sound effects-inspired sequence is still strong, not least for its combination of sound and visual humour – most feel drawn out and tired (a stage magician hypnotising one of the characters; a tangential parachute jump plot involving fake French accents).

The plot is both tortuous and simple. Irish singer and local legend (a legend largely written by himself) Jimmy Houlihan (Jimmy O’Dea) heads to London as the result of a mix-up: he thinks he’s been booked to sing, while the BBC want him as a comic Irishman for a spelling bee. En route, Jimmy meets Polly and Betty Pinbright (Lena Brown and Betty Driver): Polly was once Polly Punch, the queen of burlesque, while Betty is a wannabe singer, lured to London by Golden Glow advertising man Johnny Blake (Patrick Barr). Both Pinbrights are keeping their London journey secret from stuffy patrician father/husband Albert Pinbright (Milton Rosmer). Once in London, complications ensue that draw in rival advertising man Finch (Sonnie Hale), his boss Watson (Basil Radford), the BBC and a series of commercial broadcasts for Radio France. By the end, most of the characters are drunk or enraged in a radio studio-based fight-chase-slapstick-musical number that throws everything on screen in the hopes that something sticks.

O’Dea, Hale and Radford are the glue of the film, even if all give better performances in later Ealing productions: O’Dea and Hale in particular form a double-act that is pushed into more and more absurd narrative situations. At one point, they mime a parachute jump using a hotel table and an umbrella; during the ‘actual’ parachute jump, the film pauses while they float in the air discussing their families; and, as mentioned, they are the key players in a final scene where, locked in a booth, they act out a radio play performing all the sound effects using the materials in front of them. This moment of comic chaos also feels like an insight into sound effects creation and editing, pulling back the curtain on sound design techniques of the late 1930s in both film and radio. It is also one of the few moments where the radio station setting is put to good use in the film.

As for the female characters (notably Driver), they have little function in the narrative beyond their musical numbers and their ability to attract men. Driver has some good repartee with Barr (whom she calls a half-witted advertising man), using her northern background as a means to mock his smooth metropolitan routine, but she still ends up in a bubble bath for the sexy advertising photograph her contract requires; and, while Polly and Betty get to perform on the broadcast (against Albert’s wishes) this is resolved mainly by Albert chasing them round the studio shouting his disproval. While Betty’s desire to sing is out in the open (earlier, she snuck out of choir practice and adopted a fake name to enter a crooning competition), it hardly feels like this is a moment of personal revolution.

The film’s treatment of advertising and the BBC does remain interesting, particularly in a time period where radio was still a rival medium (and where television was still an experimental and unknown proposition): the BBC is a place that runs spelling bees that pits “the regions” against London, while advertising agencies create programmes for ‘Radio France’ that are designed to sell products for large companies like Golden Glow and Silverene. The advertising agency men Watson, Finch and Barr are depicted as squabbling children fighting to shape the next potential star. If the BBC is boring, and the commercial world juvenile, does that position the film industry as the more entertaining, adult medium?

Very little stands out in the film from a visual perspective: this feels like low budget filmmaking, all filmed in the studio (apart from some aerial shots during the parachute jump), and reliant on editing montages to create pace. The songs are solid if unremarkable, and suggest that Betty Driver might have been seen as a replacement Gracie Fields, but she often seems leaden when scenes needed more energy and vigour. The final image, of Driver, O’Dea, Hale and Radford, lined up and singing about happy days being back, and sun shining through, might speak to a brighter future for Ealing, but largely by learning the lessons from this film and leaving the musical comedy to George Formby and Tommy Trinder.

[UPDATED April 2014: Let's Be Famous is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 10, from Network]

Next time, we're back in the ring for Ealing's first boxing drama, There Ain't No Justice (1939)...

Friday, 8 June 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 77: Hue & Cry (1947)

Although Charles Barr has ‘always found the charm of this film very resistible,’ I think there remains a lot of fun and enjoyment to be found in this often slapstick-laden Ealing comedy: the first of the post-war series that, for many, still defines what we mean by Ealing Studios. Like many of the Ealing films covered in this blog, it is not perfect – the supporting performance by Alastair Sim is tonally distinct from the rest of the film (which, depending on your preference, may be a good thing), and the film occasionally opts for the easy gag rather than anything more inventive – but the energy of the main performers, the impressive location shooting, and some wry creative touches, largely offsets those problems.

Set in and around various bombsites and derelict landscapes, the film follows eager wannabe sleuth Joe Kirby (Harry Fowler), who accidentally uncovers a criminal plot to plan and execute robberies through codes embedded into the pages of kid’s comic Trump. Along with other kids from his local neighbourhood, including Alec (Douglas Barr), Arthur (David Simpson), Roy (Stanley Escane), Dicky (Gerald Fox) and token female Clarry (Joan Dowling), Joe attempts to track down the mastermind behind the plan, and bring him to justice, meeting up with the comic story’s author Felix H. Wilkinson (Alastair Sim), Covent Garden businessman Nightingale (Jack Warner) and Police Inspector Ford (Jack Lambert) along the way.

The strength of the film is not its narrative, however, which efficiently moves its characters from scrape to scrape: it flows largely because of the child actors, who all give strong performances that rise above the uneven sections of the script (there is a slapstick fight in a department store followed by a more tense sequence navigating the unfamiliar world of the sewers that would simply not convince without strong work from the younger actors). The characters are well observed as well, with Joe, Alec, Roy and Clarry having particularly distinct views and opinions, rather than all being written as interchangeable kids. As for the adults, Lambert and Warner are solid, while Sim hogs his limited screen time with a real star turn: he is doing his own melodramatic and mannered thing, in a different register to the rest of the film, but which largely works because his (brief) appearances are also separated from the bulk of the action and the cast.

The film also looks impressive, because of its much-vaunted location shooting. While this has come up around other Ealing films of the period, Hue & Cry succeeds because of the prominence it gives its post-war ruined landscapes. From the kid’s meeting place in the midst of a ruined building, to the warehouses that are the setting for the final kids vs. crooks fight scene, the vision of a bombed-out London persists. That is not to say the film is aiming for a purely realist tone: studio scenes in the stairwell of Wilkinson’s flat play and the aforementioned sewer tunnel sequence flirt with horror and suspense tropes as much as an implied realism. The film uses its locations for strong dramatic purpose – the final cat-and-mouse chase between Joe and Nightingale through a derelict building is enhanced by the uneven walls, gaping holes in the floor and exposed stairs.

While this may sound like a damning statement, one of the film’s most enjoyable stylistic and comic touches happens during its title sequence. The film’s credits are painted on a series of ‘real’ brick walls, against which kids play cricket, throw stones at each other, run past, ride bikes, jump over the walls, etc. As the camera pans and cuts between these different areas of wall, you can see the graffiti that surrounds the main credits (Union Jacks, cricket stumps, stick figures, arrows, insulting messages to some of the film’s characters, a steam train) and which points to broader issues of Ealing’s interest in representing aspects of British society, but also to other Ealing films before and after 1947. While setting up the anarchic spirit of the film’s younger characters, there are also playful comic touch that relate to the production itself: a ‘Kilroy was here’ title (or, given its British provenance, a Chad title) that reads ‘Wot No Producer?’ before the camera pans right to show Michael Balcon’s name; equally, graffiti has been added to director Charles Crichton’s name so that it reads ‘King Charles Crichton’, and a policeman’s shadow passes over this image, perhaps a suggestion of how Crichton saw his role in marshalling cast and crew for this film?

The titles also reveal the presence of Mary Habberfield as Sound Editor – a role that is highlighted throughout the film, in creating the unease in the sequences that play with horror (noted above), but also in the department store fight, which is accompanied by a malfunctioning speak-your-weight machine, a nice aural touch in an otherwise bland sequence.

These little creative touches, and the well-cast young performers, raise the film above its standard narrative devices, and give strong support to any claim that this is where the post-war Ealing comedy machine began.

[Hue & Cry is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, we go back to an earlier comedy made at Ealing, Let's Be Famous (1939)...

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 76: The Night My Number Came Up (1955)

Ealing’s occasional drift into the supernatural has featured in this blog before, with fantastic scenarios and superstitions informing films as diverse as They Came to a City (1944), The Halfway House (1944) and The Ship That Died of Shame (1955). This film, late in Ealing’s output (one of the last fifteen produced by the company), embraces its supernatural conceit and makes it both the pivot around which the narrative revolves, and the central theme the characters debate.

The presence of superstition is emphasised early on, before the film’s title even appears. After Michael Balcon’s credit, a title claims ‘There were 8 passengers, 5 crew...’ before the number ‘13’ is emblazoned on the screen, under the title The Night My Number Came Up – confirming exactly what number is being referred to.

‘If we changed our plans every time somebody had a
dream, we’d be in chaos.’

The narrative concept is simple: at the home of civil servant Owen ‘Robbie’ Robertson in Hong Kong, Commander Lindsay (Michael Hordern) relates a dream he had about a plane crash that featured eight passengers, including his friend Air Marshall John Hardie (Michael Redgrave), an official, a beautiful woman, a coarse, flashy man, and a man who has to be restrained. While they all reject the concept of the dream as a premonition (dismissed as a medieval concept), Robbie becomes more anxious and jumpy as elements of the dream fall into place: Hardie’s Tokyo-bound ‘Liberator’ plane is changed to a ‘Dakota’, trade official Lord Wainwright (Ralph Truman) joins the passenger list, as does Robbie, Hardie’s assistant McKenzie (Denholm Elliot), stenographer Mary Campbell (Sheila Sim), Wainwright’s secretary, and, after a stop in Okinawa, the loud, brash Walter Bennett (George Rose) and his secretary George (Geoffrey Tyrrell). With the radio out, the plane off course, and flying into stormy weather, the passengers and crew begin to wonder if the dream really will come true...

[yet, despite the colourful and fantastic topic – or possibly because of it – the film is also set in a very grey world. The studio sets are largely drab and unadorned, the basic decoration of remote airbases and airplane interiors dominate, with the only real splash of exoticism the early scenes in and around the Robertson home]

The undercurrent throughout the film is the balance of reason and superstition, using the Hong Kong setting to link to Chinese beliefs that dreams are ‘a glimpse into the future sent for their guidance.’ Unlike other Ealing supernatural films, it is the specificity of the non-English setting that allows such debates to occur, set against the long history of Chinese customs that Robbie has encountered. The other characters present different viewpoints: Hardie is more straightforward, relying on what he can see; Wainwright thinks it is all local nonsense; while McKenzie and Campbell gradually come round to Robbie’s position. Yet the film undercuts the more rationalist positions by noting the superstitions of pilots, the uncertainty of having a girl on board, various characters’ belief in God, and by bookending its narrative with Lindsay’s dream coming true. Wainwright’s words that there are different kinds of learning – ‘from books... [and] from experience’ – also seem to cast doubt on science and reason versus the long history of Chinese belief in the supernatural.

Like many of the Ealing films viewed for this blog, the importance of the special effects department cannot be emphasised enough: the film requires extensive shots of the central airplane landing and taking off, flying in the air, its wings icing up, or it almost crashing into a Japanese fishing vilage. While some of these are achieved on location (there are several impressive images of Hong Kong and surrounding areas), the bulk of those shots become the responsibility of the effects team, and the results are impressive, particularly when intercut with reaction shots and live action sequences (the plane narrowly avoiding the village is a strong example here, and the film’s premonition-based narrative allows it to be shown three times).

Given the simple narrative set-up, most of the enjoyment in the film comes not from the drip-feed revelation of dream elements, but from the characters that inhabit the small plane. Redgrave plays Hardie as solid and reliable, if a little stuffy; Knox expertly plays Robbie’s increasingly unhinged behaviour; Elliot looks suitably haunted (McKenzie had a wartime breakdown); while Rose plays up Bennett’s brash and annoying side. Sim, as Mary Campbell, has little to do but react to her male co-stars: she and Elliot get some nice moments in the bar at Okinawa and on the plane, but any sense of a burgeoning relationship is lost in the impending worries about crashing. Given these enjoyable character moments, the most fun is likely the final pay-off from Lindsay. Having helped direct search-and-rescue teams to the correct location, Lindsay reveals to the local commander that his dreams often come true and, in fact, he just had one about the commander. As Lindsay leaves, he mysteriously notes ‘If you do disappear, I’ll tell the authorities where to go looking for you.’ Rather than offer a rational explanation, or curtail the supernatural element at the close, the film relishes the possibilities of casting Lindsay as a Trickster figure, and Hordern plays this with a knowing look and an impish tone.

[The Night My Number Came Up is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, the first 'official' Ealing Comedy? We look at Hue & Cry (1947)...