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)...

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