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 www.studiocanal.co.uk for more details]
Next time, we're all at sea with Barnacle Bill (1957)...