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)...

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