Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 95 (and FINAL): Passport to Pimlico (1949)

And so, it came to an end. Not with a whimper, but with a bang: Passport to Pimlico, one of the best known ‘Ealing comedies’, one of the films that (it is claimed) speaks for the whole of the studio’s output and thematic interests, and one of the films that first sparked my love of Ealing many years ago. It remains a film of its time and place but, watching it during a time of British recession and austerity, it is also a film that can still provide a satirical edge to events, over sixty years on.

When an unexploded bomb (which is supposed to be the final one in London, until another one is found: a small comment on the fragility of fame/notoriety that echoes through the rest of the film) reveals a hidden treasure trove, the inhabitants of Miramont Place, Pimlico discover the land they live on is actually owned by the Duke of Burgundy. The local’s realisation that they are now Burgundians (and not bound by British law) is a beautifully structured piece of cinema that starts with the individual realisation of bank manager Mr Wix (Raymond Huntley), which spreads through other characters, ending up in a communal ‘knees up’ around the piano in the local, a ripping up of ration booklets, and a rejection of traditional authority figures. Because this is Ealing, such excesses are not without their problems: as the bureaucracy of Whitehall rolls over them, Miramont Place suffers from an influx of spivs and black marketeers, the imposition of strict border controls and immigration, and the cessation of basic amenities (water, electricity, food).

One of the things that this Challenge has revealed is that Ealing Studios was fascinated with the world beyond Britain’s borders: whether that was expressed through literal border crossings in Johnny Frenchman (1945) or Against the Wind (1948), or completely foreign-set narratives such as Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948) or His Excellency (1952). Here, the introduction to the film suggests a continental or Latin setting, with salsa music playing, a fan turning: a seemingly foreign location. That this turns out to be England in a heat-wave (revealed through a camera shot that pulls back over Molly Reeve (Jane Hylton) sunbathing on the roof, tilts down to reveal the fish shop beneath, pans across past the pub door, and gazes down the street) is just one of the visual and thematic misdirections that the film offers to its audience. It also points to the inherently playful nature of this film, and of the studio more broadly.

The film moves along swiftly, developing new ideas quickly and never stopping, a testament to the combined skills of director Henry Cornelius, writer T.E.B. Clarke, director of photography Lionel Banes and editor Michael Truman. Narrative details are referenced in passing, not shoehorned in or signalled far in advance. The heat-wave, for example, is rarely mentioned directly in dialogue, but is alluded to visually: in the opening few minutes, we see Molly in a bikini; a few minutes later she slaps some fish into a newspaper with a weather-related headline. The end of the heat-wave is also narrated visually with a sudden rainstorm and mercury plummeting in a thermometer. The skill of the pacing is also seen in the Whitehall scenes: although featuring the star turn of Ministers Gregg (Basil Radford) and Straker (Naunton Wayne), they are brisk and rapid, short digs at bureaucracy that don’t overstay their welcome (unlike Gregg and Straker, who are slow and dogmatic).

The scene in the pub also quickly and succinctly develops key characters: Wix’s rational approach, the more enthusiastic and communally minded Arthur Pemberton (Stanley Holloway), and bossy Edie Randall (Hermione Baddeley). The jealousy that Molly feels over Frank Huggins (John Slater) continually trying to impress Shirley Pemberton (Barbara Murray) is expressed musically, as Molly uses her singing to lure Frank’s attention away (the lyrics, ‘I don’t want to set the world on fire, just start a fire in your heart’ reaffirm this) It offers a strong example of the film’s focus on this community, but it also stands as a marker for how efficient the script, editing and direction can be.

As I suggested above, Pimlico still feels relevant today: the austerity measures of post-war Britain fit well with 2012 Britain, there is no money for public works (the Pemberton lido) only private development (blocks of flats), and there is no escaping the circuitous bureaucracy of Whitehall. In Miramont Place, public ownership of (and control over) the banks, democratically elected people’s councils, and pulling together is the response to such a crisis. Of course, that ignores the one fly in this socialist ointment: the need for a feudal overlord, in this case the current Duke of Burgundy (Paul Dupois). He may be charming, but he has little real role to play in this film: that said, the sequence of him attempting to romance Shirley under a night-time sky is beautifully undercut by the noises of a true London street (cats howling, men gargling).

With its strong location work, including shots in Piccadilly Circus (where several Pimlico kids go to watch a Gaumont-British newsreel about their street), the use of Whitehall, and the Underground (the scenes where the Pimlico brigade stop the tube to check passports and to check food stocks is a particular highlight), there is little doubt this is one of Ealing’s most obviously ‘London’ films. But the comic treatment of more universal themes of British community, identity (‘it’s because we are English that we’re sticking up for our rights to be Burgundian’) and democracy (a sign reading ‘3% For, 3% Against, 94% Don’t Know’ seems particularly apt to the film’s national vision) shine through, and reassert the film’s claims to classic status within Ealing’s 95 films, and British cinema more generally.

[Passport to Pimlico is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time... some final thoughts on the Great Ealing Film Challenge...

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