Monday, 23 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 89: Young Man's Fancy (1939)

Between 1938 and 1940, director Robert Stevenson, cinematographer Ronald Neame and scriptwriter Roland Pertwee were part of the creative bridge between Basil Dean’s Associated Talking Pictures (which were based at the studios in Ealing) and Michael Balcon’s new production company called Ealing Studios. While they produced a number of films together, including The Ware Case (1938), Young Man’s Fancy and Return to Yesterday (1940), they were also individually responsible for fourteen of the first sixteen films produced by the new studio, including The Four Just Men (1939) and Let George Do It (1940).

While there is still one film from that period of Ealing’s production history left to watch – The Ware Case – it is already clear that these films exist in that no man’s land between 1930s low budget British studio productions and the infusion of drama-documentary styles that wartime circumstances would force on Ealing, and others in the British film industry. It would be wrong to dismiss these films, either creatively or as a picture of production trends, but they feel more bound by well-trodden narrative structures and thin characterisations than some of the complex Ealing work of the 1940s and 50s. Certain continuities are there to be made – the reliance on ensemble casts, with certain actors recurring across films, can be seen in later productions – but a direct comparison likely reduces the content of these early productions.

Young Man’s Fancy is a faintly absurd romantic comedy sporadically saved by spirited performances from Seymour Hicks and Anna Lee, and some strong comic exchanges (courtesy of Pertwee, Rodney Ackland and EVH Emmett). The story is set in September 1870, with the Duke and Duchess of Beaumont (Hicks and Martita Hall) eager to marry their son Alban (Griffith Jones) to Miss Crowther (Merial Forbes), the daughter of wealthy brewer Sir Caleb (Felix Aylmer). Alban, uninterested in Miss Crowther, meets Ada O’Grady (Lee), a working class Irish ‘human projectile’ (cannonball) at the Cavendish music hall. Hoping to use the scandal of his association with Ada to break off the marriage, and with Ada schooling him in rebellion against his mother, they end up in Paris together where, while the city is under siege by the Prussian army, they (naturally) fall in love. On return to London, Alban has to decide whether to obey his mother or follow his heart.

While it breaks little new story ground (although the introduction of the siege of Paris as a narrative obstacle is a little odd), the film does enjoy some creative flourishes, notably the framing of the whole story by a wedding album motif. While this is initially used to present the crew details, and photographs of the main cast (a hand turns each page during the credits), it also functions to introduce scenes of Paris and London when the story shifts location, and then literally closes the story / album at the end. While such a motif is now commonplace in romantic comedies (the film also ends with an aborted wedding, another standard element) it works well here to establish generic expectations. Director Stevenson also uses editing and optical printing to emphasise travel later in the film: Alban and Ada’s Paris-to-London return journey is told in a simple shot of them in a carriage, over which are superimposed British railway signs, place names and advertisements. It is a striking sequence that offers a simple visual representation of their journey and their descent back into British society and habits.

Given the thin plot, the film relies heavily on its performances and dialogue: the Duke is the broadest comic character, but Hicks is able to perform both drunken well-meaning idiot and thoughtful father roles equally well. Hunt as the Duchess gets some enjoyably scathing dialogue (her dislike of the common brewing family, snide asides to arriving party guests, demands to have bedclothes burned after Ada had slept in them), but her character is largely a one-dimensional posh battleaxe. The Crowther family have little real personality, while Alban is similarly one-note, Jones’ performance often pulled up by Lee’s enthusiasm and skill. She plays Ada as mischievous and loud, emotional and independent: the success of the Ada and Alban romance is fuelled mainly by her work. The film skirts Ada’s working class origins and the Beaumont’s treatment of the poor (they appear to be slum landlords). Ada’s father (Edward Rigby) is given some potent lines about capitalism and social inequality (he’s embarrassed his daughter is associating herself with ‘the idle rich’), but they are thrown away, rarely central to the plot: tempting to see an early element of Ealing’s interest in social issues, but more likely a coincidence.

Given Ealing’s British reputation, it is also curious to see another film where travelling (or escaping) abroad becomes an important element, but returning back to Britain is always essential: Frieda (1947), Cage of Gold (1950) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) would all revisit those themes in later years. That said, the view of 1870s Paris as a besieged and war torn city, with foreigners fighting their way onto the final trains, and buildings occupied by the military, would also prove to be prophetic of what 1939-40 would bring.

[UPDATED April 2014: Young Man's Fancy is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 8, from Network]

Next time, a different kind of 1950s social problem in Mandy (1952)...

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