Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 75: Frieda (1947)

Frieda remains a strong example of a film from Ealing’s back catalogue that challenges the tried and tested community and ‘projecting Britain’ approaches that have dominated discussions of the studio. Part of the creatively rich 1947-51 period in Ealing’s fortunes, Frieda is a curious film that complicates any simple notion of what Ealing was about, and the idea they excelled at safe or restrained filmmaking.

The film follows escaped British POW Robert Dawson (David Farrar) and German girl Frieda (Mai Zetterling), and moves quickly from their marriage in a bombed-out church in Poland to their return to the apparently genteel English setting of Denfield. Although the violence of war underpins the film, the story is more interested in the violent emotions caused by an enemy ‘invading’ a quiet English town, and the shifting acceptance of Frieda herself. While Robert says early on that Denfield is a ‘pleasant, peaceful spot’, he is wrong when he predicts there is ‘nothing to be frightened of’ there. While it occasionally pulls its punches and lurches into melodrama near the end, Frieda remains a fascinating look at anti-German feeling, particularly given the film was released within two years of the end of the war in Europe, when such feelings would have been recent and widespread.

In one sense, then, this is a bookend to Ealing’s war films, a reflection on Went the Day Well? (1943), where the undercover German squad was defeated by a village community pulling together. In Frieda, the arrival of this German girl (and, eventually, her brother) divides a similar community, which struggles to find a cohesive and coherent reaction to her presence. This is dramatised largely through the response of Dawson’s matriarchal family, from Mrs Dawson (Barbara Everett) and her sister Nell (Flora Robson), to Edith (Gladys Henson) and Judy (Glynis Johns), the widowed wife of Robert’s brother, Alan. This cast of women returns to the (often complex) representation of women in Ealing films. While Mrs Dawson and Edith are domestic, reliable maternal figures who reluctantly accept Frieda, Nell (running for parliament on an anti-German ticket) accuses Frieda of being ‘party to a monstrous crime’ that she ‘cannot evade responsibility for.’ Judy, meanwhile, struggles with Robert’s return as he reminds her of her dead husband: the love triangle of Judy-Robert-Frieda is underplayed throughout, and director Dearden uses lingering looks between Johns, Zetterling and Farrar to convey the emotions rather than overwrought dialogue.

Given the vehemence of Nell and Judy’s reactions to Frieda, they remain (perhaps inevitably) the most interesting characters in the film, and those that the film is most eager to rehabilitate. Nell believes ‘Germanism’ is in the blood, and that Denfield’s eventual embrace of Frieda is ‘our strength and our weakness.’ Initially, the town sides with Nell: Frieda is likened to a mine (quiet until it explodes); Tony notes that it can’t be wicked to hate Germans because ‘it says so in the papers’; his school friends refer to Frieda as a werewolf; and there are complaints that rations are being given ‘to a German girl.’ By the halfway point, however, Frieda has proven her worth to the community, working on the farm, and included in traditional celebrations such as a Christmas dance.

In one sense, then, the film is a polemic that not all Germans are bad Germans, a sentiment that fits with Ealing’s relatively liberal politics and consensus building. Yet, while telling us that there are good Germans, aspects of the film can be read as anti-German: Robert (our hero) was treated badly as a POW, Alan was killed by German guns, and the only other German character in the film is Frieda’s brother Richard (Albert Lieven), a Nazi sympathiser and fanatic who wants to use Frieda’s ‘conquest’ of the English to revitalise a new war. Although Frieda rejects his view of Germany, Richard (like Nell) is a melodramatic character, visually and aurally striking, and his appearance lingers well after Robert beats him up. The views of Germany we are offered by the film, then, are of small, vulnerable and beautiful Frieda, or the loud, brash and warmongering Richard – Zetterling may be in the film for longer, but as a blank slate for the film’s desire to project a positive image, the louder and more declamatory opinions on Germany could dominate for some viewers.

That is not to dismiss Zetterling’s performance, more to point out that her role is a cipher, pushed around by events and rarely active in the narrative. The psychological toil of the film’s events (not least Robert accepting Nell’s anti-German attitude) does at least offer some justification for her suicide attempt (particularly when compared to other Ealing suicides in It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) or Cage of Gold (1950) – a trend that might suggest a limited series of narrative options for these women). Yet even this sequence is as much about Nell as it is Frieda, with a strong performance from Flora Robson where the camera lingers on her face, conflicting emotions playing across it as she decides whether to alert Robert to Frieda’s intentions. Nell and Judy’s confrontation, where Nell admits to being wrong, remains a little pat and unconvincing, but it allows the film to reinforce its message and, finally, reclaim Nell’s position.

The film contains strong visual touches throughout: an early pan around the Dawson house at Judy and Alan’s wedding is a point-of-view shot from Robert’s perspective (it is his flashback, and all the other characters raise glasses in his direction, acknowledging the POV); within the Dawson house, characters are regularly framed from above, as one character (often Frieda, isolated) looks down the staircase on action below that excludes her; there is also a montage sequence of Robert and Frieda working on the Dawson farm that borrows extensively from Russian techniques; and a strong domestic tableau where the Dawson’s frame Frieda and her brother, suggesting that they are within the family space but still outsiders.

[UPDATED April 2014: Frieda is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 3, from Network]

Next time, I have a premonition we'll be looking at supernatural drama The Night My Number Came Up (1955)...

Monday, 28 May 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 74: Cage of Gold (1950)

Given I hadn’t see it, my description (in the last blog post) of this film as another of Ealing’s women-centred films might not be the most accurate description of this crime / psychological drama. That’s not to say that Judith Moray (Jean Simmons) isn’t at the heart of this film, but rather that unlike The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947) or It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) there is no real community of women, or spectrum of female characters, underpinning the drama. The closest we get here is Judy’s maid / nanny, Waddy (Gladys Henson) but we rarely see them together, or sharing confidences.

Judy Moray is a young, seemingly carefree, artist in London, whose burgeoning romance with reliable Dr Alan Kearn (James Donald) is torpedoed by a chance meeting with her first love, bad boy Bill Glennan (David Farrar). Thinking back to Joanna Godden and It Always Rains on Sunday, Judy’s dilemma mirrors Jo/Ellen and Rose/Vi/Doris, pulled between reliability and excitement, traditional values and shiny consumerism (or, possibly, as the film expresses it in terms of 1950s radio, between the Third Programme and ‘comics and crooners’). Judy opts for champagne and social whirl, but pays for it when, pregnant and newly married, Bill discovers her family isn’t wealthy anymore and abandons her, heading back to his Parisian lover Marie Jouvet (Madeleine Lebeau) and the life of a conman/gigolo/blackmailer. Judy goes to Alan for help and, after they see Bill’s name in a list of dead passengers in a plane crash, he marries her and they set up a solid middle-class life in Battersea. Bill, of course, isn’t dead and comes back to haunt Judy’s new life, stoking up Alan’s jealousy and Judy’s happiness, until he is shot dead, apparently by Judy. A quick investigation of Alan and Judy’s conflicting stories by Inspector Grey (Bernard Lee, playing Jack Warner’s usual role as the avuncular but stern detective) soon reveals an unlikely third truth...

Judy, then, is at the centre of this story, but she is rarely in control and is buffeted between the poles of Alan and Bill. She never embraces her independence in the manner of Joanna or Rose in those earlier films – we know she is an artist, but the only thing we see her paint is a portrait of Bill, and despite seeing a magazine article saying her work has been ‘highly praised’ by critics, it remains a ‘hobby’ (the magazine’s picture of Judy and her son defines her ‘real’ job) – and she can’t even kill Bill, and is instead freed from Bill’s influence by a murder of extreme convenience (Marie just happens to be near his flat at the same time as Judy and Alan, and sneaks in to kill him, with the gun Judy dropped). As for Marie, she is one of two continental women who feature in the film’s Parisian interludes. Marie is a singer at the Cage of Gold club, run by her ex-lover Rahman (the great Herbert Lom, underused here), and Bill’s haunt when in Paris. Here, Bill also meets and romances Antoinette Duport (Maria Mauban), hoping for a large payout from her father (Grégoire Aslan) to leave town. These one-dimensional French women seem to be there as set-dressing or spectacle (Marie wears a series of glamorous gowns, is shown singing in her introductory sequence), or to suggest a continental attitude to sex that is less puritan than Britain? Either way, with no interaction between these three women, they serve mainly to define Bill as sexual and desirable.

David Farrar is a suitably convincing lothario, and oozes his way around the screen whenever given the opportunity, but his cad is rarely more interesting than the women who flock around him. James Donald is given even less to do, although his rising jealousy in the final act does at least push beyond the solid and reliable caricature he provides early on. As for Jean Simmons, she is the reason why Judy remains interesting despite the narrative’s twists. She carries several scenes through expression alone – fear and desire when she sees Bill again, amusement at Alan’s inability to perform simple household tasks, rising panic when he returns from the dead – and the interplay between her and Farrar does create a few necessary sparks to root that relationship.

Returning to a theme throughout these blog posts, the film benefits from some excellent location work – starting off in Piccadilly Circus and in the tube station beneath, as well as some brief scenes on the streets of Paris – and shows off director Basil Dearden and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe’s visual composition, using expressionist lighting and strong fog-infused scenes, particularly towards the end as Judy confronts Bill. The small and personal nature of the drama – a three-hander between Alan, Bill and Judy – is also emphasised through camera framing, with noticeably cramped and claustrophobic shots of Bill and Judy (when he fishes for information on her family’s money) and Alan and Bill (when Bill stokes the doctor’s jealousy). There are strong uses of soundtrack – a Punch & Judy show (an obvious choice, perhaps, given the character’s name) that echoes in Judy’s head; a discordant piano being tuned in the background of one of the Cage of Gold scenes, as Rahman tries to get Marie to leave Bill – while the film’s visual emblem (the bird in a cage signalled under the opening credits) is used as both a literal and metaphoric prop. The Cage of Gold club features an impressive piece of set design, with a huge bird cage in the middle of the club, in which pianist Victor (Léo Ferre) and Marie perform, while the idea of enclosure and capture plays out through Bill’s ability to trap women. (when he leaves Marie, again, she is pictured within that cage, powerless)

On the whole, then, this is a solid piece of filmmaking, but one that doesn’t take the time to develop its female roles as well as some of the recent films covered in the blog. That is not to say that all Ealing films need to fulfil that role – after all, The Feminine Touch is a later example that does as little with its male characters – simply that this feels like a missed opportunity to deepen the film’s appeal.
[UPDATED April 2014: Cage of Gold is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 3, from Network]

Next time, we continue to look at Ealing's women with Mai Zetterling in Frieda (1947)...

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 73: It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

Mid-1947 to mid-1948 is a key moment for women in Ealing films: the consecutive release of The Loves of Joanna Godden (June 1947), Frieda (July 1947), and It Always Rains on Sunday (November 1947), was followed by Simone Signoret in Against the Wind (February 1948) and Joan Greenwood in Saraband for Dead Lovers (September 1948) – there might even be an argument for Moira Lister’s strong performance in Another Shore (November 1948) extending that list out a bit further, but even without it, that is an impressive range of films, all featuring central female characters around whom the narrative revolves, and who remain three-dimensional and proactive throughout. In almost all those examples, male characters are secondary, behind two or three central women.

It Always Rains on Sunday, Googie Withers’ last film with Ealing, has tended to get the most focus of that list, partly due to Googie’s star status, but also because it is a taut and compelling crime thriller that can been linked to late Ealing films (The Blue Lamp (1950) and Pool of London (1951) share crucial DNA with its plot and shooting style). Googie plays Rose Sandigate, a married woman whose life is turned upside down when her old lover (and escaped convict) Tommy Swann (John McCallum) turns up at her home, looking for food and shelter. Yet given the prominence of Googie in discussions of this film, it is actually – as the trailer gleefully exclaims – a ‘symphony of London’s East End’ that exposes ‘the secrets of a street you know!’ Essentially then, this is a character-driven piece set in and around a small community in Bethnal Green that harks back as much to Saloon Bar (1940) as it pre-empts Passport to Pimlico (1949).

Googie’s performance as Rose does hold the bulk of the film together: she once flirted with the bad boys like Tommy but ended up settling down with reliable George Sandigate (Edward Chapman), his daughters Doris (Patricia Plunkett) and Vi (Susan Shaw), and Rose and George’s son Alfie (David Lines). It is to the Sandigate house that Tommy arrives, but trouble is already brewing among the Sandigate women: Vi is having an affair with married shop owner and saxophonist Morry Hyams, while Morry’s brother Lou (John Slater) is eyeing up Doris for a (possibly disreputable) job in a West End club, much to the disgust of Doris’ mechanic boyfriend Ted Edwards (Nigel Stock). Yet the film’s symphony and interconnected nature doesn’t stop there: Whitey (Jimmy Hanley), Freddie (John Carol) and Dicey Perkins (Alfie Bass) are inept crooks whose last job left them with cases of rollerskates that they are desperate to sell on – but Morry or Lou can’t help them, local cops Fothergill (Jack Warner) and Leech (Frederick Piper) are already suspicious.

That description only begins to cover the various narrative crossovers and coincidences that the film weaves through, but it does so with great verve and confidence, never settling too long on one story or character, and always returning to its central drama of Rose and Tommy. The script – by Angus Macphail, Robert Hamer and Henry Cornelius – never flags, and paints compelling portraits of even the smallest characters (Vida Hope only appears in one scene, but her venom towards ex-boyfriend Tommy sheds light on her stall holder character, and on him; equally Edie Martin as a friendly neighbour adds nice tension to Rose’s day). The script isn’t quite able to resolve all the storylines – partial solutions are given, yet the fate of all the Sandigate women feels in flux at the end – but presents a coherent slice of these different lives.

Given this large cast, the film is still full of nice visual throwaway touches and character moments: Rose freezing when she suspects George is going out to the bomb shelter where Tommy is hiding, only for George to chuck the roll of blackout material in without looking; Doris’ skill at the mechanical arm game in the arcade; Tommy hiding behind the kitchen door while Doris searches round the kitchen; the blind trumpeter begging outside the Two Compasses pub recognising Lou; almost all of Warner’s scenes chatting to various crooks and criminals; Rose realising Tommy doesn’t recognise the ring she gives him to pawn; the infamous dress-ripping scene, where Rose rips Vi’s new dress, only for Vi to then tear the rest open. In fact, the relationship between Rose, Vi and Doris is almost as important as that with Tommy: in one sense, as Barr suggests, blonde Vi seems to represent Rose’s older, more sexualised and reckless ways (with Tommy, when she was blonde) while brunette Doris is more similar to the older, brunette and reliable Rose who married George.

The film is also strong visually and uses the script’s 24-hour structure to provide visual balance: the opening image of the street in the early morning (as Vi arrives home) is matched by a shots 24 hours later, as George arrives back. The film moves from the emptiness of the opening shots, through to a moving camera that tracks above the crowded market scenes, before coming back to deserted night-time streets for the final chase scene; we see political marchers heading out to Hyde Park for the day, and then trudging back later in the afternoon; all these repetitions or mirroring of action gives the often disparate sections of the story added structure. And the final ten minutes of the film, an action-packed chase through the deserted wet streets of Bethnal Green, is visually striking while also crossing over with elements from throughout the narrative: after leaving Rose’s, Tommy steals Lou’s car, takes Whitey’s money, and is pursued throughout by Fothergill and Leech. The chase ends at that most Ealing (and British) of locations: a train yard, late at night, full of shadows and harsh spotlights, cut-up into strong horizontal and diagonal lines by the metallic tracks, all gleaming with recently fallen rain, and filtered through  lingering steam and smoke.

While the denouement – George accepts Rose’s explanation and condones her past – is a little pat and patriarchal, that (as in The Loves of Joanna Godden) doesn’t take away from the strong performance Googie gives throughout, or the varied range of female roles the film creates and develops.

[It Always Rains on Sunday is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, we stick with Ealing's women as Jean Simmons stars in Cage of Gold (1950)...

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 72: The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947)

There is something about the 1947-49 period of Ealing production that speaks to the renewed and widened sense of purpose that Michael Balcon wrote about in the post-war period. The Loves of Joanna Godden sits confidently alongside other projects – including the other period dramas and adaptations Nicholas Nickleby (1947) and Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948) – while also engaging with an emerging theme within Ealing, around female issues, and with stronger female characters at the centre of their narratives. Here, as in Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), that strong female presence is Googie Withers, seemingly Ealing’s go-to actress for such roles.

Although its ends with a predictable heterosexual resolution, the bulk of the film is a much more interesting exploration of a strong independent woman trying to run her family farm, in a world (Romney Marsh, in Kent) and time (1905) where such things were shocking and unfamiliar. Joanna Godden (Withers) inherits Baynham Farm from her father, whose will assumes she will marry her neighbouring farmer and friend Arthur Alce (John McCallum). Instead, Joanna insists she will run the farm herself stating she’d ‘like to meet the man who wouldn’t take orders from me.’ The film explores her successes and failures, her shifting attitudes to life (from initially describing her pregnant maid as a ‘slut’ to supporting her desire to have the baby, even if out of wedlock), the reaction of the locals to her decisions (who refer to Joanna as ‘a filly that ain’t never been properly broke in’), and the men she lets into her life.

The film explores three central relationships: Jo and Arthur; Jo and Martin Trevor (Derek Bond), another local farmer who falls for her; and Jo and her younger sister Ellen (Jean Kent). The latter falls away for much of the story, as Ellen is sent away to an expensive boarding school, but Ellen’s return does create sparks between the sisters and repositions the latter third of the film as an exploration of different kinds of female character and performance. Ellen’s upbringing turns here into a prim and snobbish character who rejects the ‘awfully old fashioned’ furniture, lifestyle and location of her sister’s existence. While the film spans a number of years, it is clear that Jo shifts from her eagerness to change everything about the farm (how they rear sheep, what price to sell for, whether to dig up land) to a more acceptable view of the farm’s heritage (she has saved her father’s old clock, despite the fact it doesn’t work) – Ellen is both a riposte to this (she mocks such heritage) and a reminder of Jo’s changing view. That is not to say that Jo is tamed by her experience but that the next generation represented by Ellen is more interested in consumerism than tradition, in finding a man who can buy her shiny things rather than making her own way in the world (whether this is a comment about the post-war world, or an prescient view of what the 1950s might bring, is unclear). And, in terms of the film, this generation gap is a little hampered by casting Jean Kent to play Ellen in both younger and older periods. In her late 20s, she never looks like the teenager she is supposed to be – which undermines the supposed generational gap that grows between Ellen and Jo (Kent and Withers were only four years apart in age, and make-up and costume can only disguise so much of that).

Visually, the film uses its landscape shots to construct and evoke a strong sense of place. Filmed on location in Romney Marsh, the desolate setting adds to the isolation of the characters, and stresses the uncertainty of rural life, where even an apparently innocent trip to the seaside puts the characters at the mercy of nature. Two scenes with Jo and Martin point to the film’s fascination with landscape, and its attempt to construct filmic space as both commonplace and mystical. Martin is fascinating by Jo, and is Arthur’s main rival for her affections. At one point, they sit and look over the marsh, which Jo has little regard for, seeing it only as flat fields and ditches. Martin, however, describes the light on the marsh as ‘the most beautiful... in the world’ – and the film breaks off into a significant montage of geese taking off, clouds, beach and waves, solitary trees silhouetted against the sky, wheat blowing in the wind, dappled light all the way to the horizon. Given the landscape has been tough and unyielding until this stage (Jo’s struggles with the farm are all about the land, and nature, not responding to her plans and changes), here the film presents it as romantic and mystical – and presents Martin as Jo’s gateway to this enhanced view of the world. Their romance is positioned as one that opens Jo’s eyes to an increased love of her land.

But what nature gives, it also takes away: a trip to the beach at Dungeness is more visually wary of nature and suggests Jo and Martin’s uncertainty in a non-Marsh landscape. Here, almost all the establishing shots of landscape are skewed, tilted: diagonal raked shores of a pebble beach, hills of shale and stone, only a stalwart lighthouse retains any horizontal solidity (perhaps appropriate, given it is a structure that signals danger: a message Jo and Martin do not understand). Then, from long shots to close-ups: as Martin goes into the sea for a swim, the camera focuses on Jo’s face, as she lies back on the pebbles. Here, the performance is all: a series of frowns, tightening of closed eyes, head rolling side to side, sleep-talking... and then, awake, the sudden realisation that Martin has not returned, a solitary towel floating at the shoreline. Rather than make Martin’s death a visual spectacle, the film focuses on the intimate, based around Jo’s subconscious fears becoming real.

All this focus rather ignores the relationship between Jo and Arthur, but it is the most traditional of the three: even when Arthur marries Ellen, the Hardy-esque nature of the plot and the lingering glances older (and wealthier) Harry Trevor (Henry Mollison) gives Ellen suggest the final narrative events. Yet the acceptable and expected pairing off of Jo and Arthur doesn’t negate the strong exploration of female independence, sexuality and emotional uncertainty that gives the film its real power.

[UPDATED April 2014: The Loves of Joanna Godden is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 4, from Network]

Next time, more Googie, in her final Ealing film, It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)...

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 71: Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)

Revisiting this film three or four years after I first viewed it (for research on Ealing Studios’ colour films) I still think it is unjustly dismissed within many studies of Ealing’s productions: Charles Barr, for example, described it as ‘an expensive, ponderous and loss-making period spectacle.’ (Barr 1980: 188). The film’s financial failure is writ large in most accounts, it has an apparent disinterest in obvious national interests (an opulent period drama at a time when Britain was suffering through post-war rationing, occasional references to the history of the British royal family, Technicolor in an age of black-and-white), and its creative approach challenges the myth of Ealing’s monolithic interest only in realism and restraint. Yet strip those blinkers from any assessment of the film and it is revealed as an unusual and spectacle-laden effort, revelling in the unusual subject matter, promoting a beautiful colour palette, and with a strong narrative through-line that often privileges its strong female characters.

The story of love and forbidden sexuality in 17th century Hanover, the film follows Princess Sophie-Dorothea (Joan Greenwood), whose political marriage to repellent Prince George Louis (Peter Bull) is an attempt to unite regional interests and prepare a successor to the English throne. Given her husband’s inattention and unfaithful behaviour, Dorothea finds herself attracted to Swedish prince Konigsmark (Stewart Granger), struggles to resist him (not wanting to sink to the dubious morals of the Hanover royals), but eventually pursues him, to suitably tragic ends.

Critical opinion was divided on the film: the Daily Graphic encapsulated many reviewers when it noted ‘the film leans towards the theatrical [rather than the] preferred... more realistic treatment’ – standing in opposition to the documentary realist tradition Ealing had helped develop during wartime. Although Michael Balcon regularly claimed the production was his own decision – part of his post-war desire for Ealing to explore new genres, to avoid the ‘formation flying’ of contemporary production – evidence suggests it was a project thrust on Ealing by Rank, which was eager to target the lucrative American market. It definitely sits uncertainly within Ealing’s canon, but it is also a film that fits within Ealing’s post-war desire to expand creatively, and one that offers several strong female roles in Countess Platen (Flora Robson), Dorothea, and the politically cunning ruler, Electress Sophia (Francoise Rosay), a trend established in films such as It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) and Frieda (1947).

Given Ealing’s reputation, the studio did stress the research behind the film, an attention to detail that was intended to present ‘realistic colour’ to its historical subject matter. Production designer Michael Relph, costume designer Anthony Mendleson, and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe worked with director Basil Dearden and screenwriter Alexander Mackendrick to develop a composed film that drew from painterly techniques and more adventurous uses of colour technology. As my chapter on Ealing colour aesthetic in the forthcoming Ealing Revisited explores in more detail, Slocombe and Relph appear to have been the strongest voices here, with Slocombe’s expressive use of Technicolor one of the film’s more impressive virtues (and one that I would dearly love to see a properly restored 3-strip print of: the DVD print is good, but elements of the film suggest deeper and more vibrant colours were present in the original stock).

Slocombe’s colour credo was not ‘whether the hues are true to life but whether pleasing and dramatic use has been made of them’ and this approach is clear throughout: opening credits which foreground red and blue hues; blue-grey expressionist colouring and lighting in the shadowy castle of Ahlden, the night-time rooftops of Hanover and the final sword-fight in the castle; the bright sunny location of Celle; or the auburn tresses of Joan Greenwood. Yet the true centrepiece of the film’s colour is the Hanover Fair, where a montage of bold colour spectacle represents both the chaos of the fair and Dorothea’s psychological state. This is a bravura sequence where editing, colour design, framing and narrative pull together into a wordless succession of images that expand the film’s creative vision. Indeed, while the critics could not agree on the film’s values, many agreed with the Daily Worker which had ‘seldom seen Technicolor used to such superb effect.’

None of this is to claim the film is perfect: the performances are solid, although Granger is a little stiff in an under-written role and Peter Bull’s amusing comic turn as George Louis doesn’t get much screen time. It is the women who dominate and linger in the memory: Rosay’s stern unyielding matriarch; Robson’s cunning countess, and Greenwood’s unhappy princess. Some scenes remain stilted, particularly in the early part of the film, but it picks up pace as the narrative speeds towards its tragedy, and the colour photography remains fascinating throughout.

[Saraband for Dead Lovers is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, we stick with Ealing period drama and explore The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947)...

Monday, 14 May 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 70: The Four Just Men (1939)

If Undercover (1943) was an unexpected find that played with existing conventions from Ealing’s wartime productions, The Four Just Men is an even more interesting discovery, a solid and enjoyable pre-war thriller from 1939 that offers an early example of the drama-propaganda production approach that would soon dominate the studio. Expertly handled by director Walter Forde and director of photography Roland Neame, with a taut and morally ambiguous script from Angus Macphail, Sergei Nolbandov (director of Undercover) and Roland Pertwee (based on the Edgar Wallace story), this presents Ealing as a strong purveyor of crime drama.

James Terry (Frank Lawton), James Brodie (Griffith Jones), Leon Poiccard (Francis L. Sullivan), and Humphrey Mansfield (Hugh Sinclair) are The Four Just Men. English patriots who have taken it upon themselves to usurp tyranny and expose anti-British political intrigue and spies, yet their chosen methods are murder, blackmail and sabotage: essentially operating as terrorists or vigilantes in countries around the world. Holding down less-than-ordinary jobs, each can be seen as a pseudo-Batman figure: upper class dandies and well-regarded socialites by day, dangerous and violent crime-fighters by night. Through the film, they investigate traitorous MP Sir Hamar Ryman (Alan Napier), who has sold out his country but also holds the key to preventing further sabotage and potential ruination.

This thriller storyline remains solid throughout, with some enjoyable touches both deft and daft (Humphrey, an actor, is – naturally – a master of disguise, allowing Sinclair to indulge in different wigs, moustaches, and clothes, leading to a final performance where Humphrey (Sinclair) has to imitate Ryman (Napier) in Parliament), and a romance sub-plot between Brodie and female journalist Ann Lodge (Anna Lee) that demonstrates her own crime reporting and detective skills (linking Brodie to the Four Just Men, recognising the scent of a murdered woman’s perfume) rather than just being a convenient feminine presence to fall into Brodie’s arms. The relationship between them is reminiscent of a good screwball comedy at times, and there is a hint by the end that the Four Just Men may now be the Three Just Men and One Just Woman.

The film also contains more creative visual touches than I remember from Forde’s The Gaunt Stranger (1938) or Cheer Boys Cheer (1939): mobile camerawork in the opening sequences (and throughout) that reframes and refocuses on objects in the frame, telling a story visually without relying on dialogue or voiceover; the usual reliance on montage to move quickly through exposition; and Ealing’s usual competent blend of location shooting (some outside the Houses of Parliament) and studio-based work. There is also what would (these days) be embraced as a metatextual or postmodern storytelling device: playwright Brodie uses the experiences of the Four Just Men for the plays he writes (which Humphrey acts in, and for which Poiccard provides the costumes!) At a party early on, Brodie describes his latest plot (about a traitorous MP) as needing a final act – which the film then provides, and we see the cast gathered around a radio set to hear the final moments of the play of the Four Just Men’s latest triumph, with an addendum (added once war had begun) that while the Men were not able to prevent the powers of oppression and tyranny, ‘democracy has risen to answer that challenge.’

Keeping the world safe for democracy, and killing in a variety of entertaining and thrilling ways: in places, The Four Just Men feels like an early attempt at a Bond film...

[UPDATED April 2014: The Four Just Men is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 2, from Network]

Next time, Ealing tries its hand at a Gainsborough-style period drama in its first colour film, Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)...

Friday, 11 May 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 69: Undercover (1943)

Over twenty years ago, George Perry dismissed this film as ‘unconvincing and cliché-ridden, and not for a moment are its players believable Yugoslavs.’ (Perry 1981, 72) Putting aside the latter notion of how Ealing would populate a film with ‘believable Yugoslavs’ that is a harsh criticism of a solid and enjoyable piece of filmmaking that both resembles and departs from standard Ealing wartime fare. A model of economical filmmaking that appears to predate the storyboard and pre-planning model Ealing would try and apply in the mid-to-late 1940s, the film also contains potent echoes of its contemporary productions Nine Men (1943) and Went the Day Well? (1943)

Based on the exploits of the wartime Yugoslav Chetnik resistance movement, Undercover is compelling drama-propaganda that traces the fortunes of the Petrovich family when they are forced to become rebels after the Germans invade in 1941. Milos (John Clements) is in the Yugoslav army during the invasion, his brother Stefan (Stephen Murray) is a successful doctor in Belgrade, while his wife Anna (Mary Morris) is a school teacher in his home village, living with Milos and Stefan’s parents, Kossan (Tom Walls) and Maria (Rachel Thomas). Opening with a traditional Ealing celebration of community, as the village gather at the Petrovich farm for Kossan and Maria’s 35th wedding anniversary, the film follows Milos, Stefan, Anna, Maria and Kossan’s fortunes as they attempt to resist the German occupiers.

Milos ends up running the local resistance cell, holed up in the mountains and leading occasional sorties against the Germans; Stefan is truly undercover, working alongside the German commander at his hospital but feeding information to Milos; Anna, Rachel and Kossan attempt to live under the Germans, but have to join the resistance when Milos’ identity becomes common knowledge. Stefan and Milos start as stoic figures, but both gain additional layers through Milos’ struggle to lead a rag-tag army of men and women and send his friends and family on suicide missions (he is accused of having ink in his veins not blood when he refuses to engage in tit-for-tat raids with the Germans), while Stefan’s struggle to balance his beliefs with his work saving German lives sets up his eventual sacrifice for the cause. Anna’s character arc is also well-defined: her role as teacher gives necessary exposition, her torture by the Germans sends her into the mountains, and she (and Maria) work alongside Milos to defend the Petrovich farm in the final act.

The idea of this as an economically produced film is clear throughout: the reuse of central locations (most notably the village and the Petrovich farmhouse) never feels forced, but allows the maximum drama and time in each place; documentary footage is used, as in other Ealing productions, to paint a larger picture of the German invasion; the narrative builds a solid cohort of characters who split up and then come together in either the city or mountains (an echo of Went the Day Well? which utilises similar tricks); the siege-based final act (reminiscent of Nine Men’s structure); and the drama is opened out through model work (an element of Ealing’s productions that I’ve highlighted before in this blog, but which deserves further acclaim) that showcases the bombing of Belgrade, creates German motorcades and city traffic, and plays a central role in visualising the bombing of a train tunnel.

As in those other films, Undercover is not afraid to pursue either striking narrative events. Like Went the Day Well? major or unlikely characters are killed off – not just Stefan and Kossan’s sacrifice, but six schoolboys are shot by firing squad to punish rebellious Petar (Stanley Baker): a scene that demonstrates Baker’s acting ability even as a teenager, the camera focused on his horrified expression as the off-screen shooting takes place. The film also offers a (partial) dramatisation of alternative voices and ideologies: one of the film’s most fascinating characters is Tosha / Stationmaster (Ivor Barnard), a working class voice who (in contrast to the other villagers) claims the country is run by nepotism, where jobs are assigned based on who you know not what skills you have. The German invasion promotes him to stationmaster and, although the film mocks his status when Milos and Kossan run rings round him, his betrayal of Milos and Anna appears to go unpunished.

The film is never coy about its propagandist function: Anna accuses her German torturers of having no conscience; most of the Germans are boorish and harsh (although General von Staengel (Godfrey Teale) is more morally grey than most, with a conqueror’s desire to be loved); the rebellion’s actions are rarely questioned; and the final voiceover heralds their continued and valiant struggle against ‘the enemy.’ For all that though, Undercover remains a fascinating and under-appreciated film of the period, and one that sits well alongside the more famous Ealing war films of the 1940s.

[Undercover is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, The Four Just Men (1939) uncover a plot to plunge the world into war....

Monday, 7 May 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 68: The Maggie (1953)

Authors such as Geoffrey MacNab have talked about repeated themes in Scottish literature and cinema (and books/films set in Scotland) around the terms Tartanry and Kailyardism: tropes and ideas of Scotland as a land of myth and tartan-clad heroes, or a world where canny individuals regularly outwit newcomers with native ingenuity. These elements can be seen at work in films from Brigadoon (1953) and Braveheart (1992) to Whisky Galore! (1949) and Local Hero (1985). While such definitions might have been challenged with the recent expansion of Scottish films such as Trainspotting (1997) or Ratcatcher (2005), there remains an interest in films that engage with the mythic – Pixar’s Brave (2012) seems to draw from that well – and comedians and actors from Billy Connolly to Robert Carlyle regularly play off versions of the canny Scottish figure in film and television.

But what does this have to do with The Maggie? Well, the film foregrounds elements of Kailyardism (there is also a smattering of Tartanry in the opening titles, a kilt-wearing laird, and a Highland ceilidh) in this tale of a small and decrepit puffer boat, the Maggie, and her crew of misfits: the skipper, MacTaggart (Alex Mackenzie), first mate Hamish (James Copeland), engineer MacGregor (Abe Barker) and young lad Dougie (Tommy Kearins). MacTaggart is the wily Scot, an old dyed-in-the-wool chancer who, through misdirection and low cunning, convinces Englishman Pusey (Hubert Gregg) to let him take the cargo of American businessman Calvin B. Marshall (Paul Douglas) to the island of Kiltarra, where Marshall is building a home as a surprise for his wife. When he discovers what has happened, Marshall sets off in pursuit, trying to stop MacTaggart but eventually joining the crew and giving in to his inevitable defeat.

While there are, as Charles Barr has pointed out, similarities to both The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) and Whisky Galore! (old form of transport winning out over new, traditional Scots win out over naive outsider), this film has a bitter and black comic centre that reduces any sympathy with either of the two male leads. Marshall is bluff and loud, throwing money at each problem rather than attempting to understand it; while MacTaggart is stubborn and mean, destroying property and livelihoods to get his own way. Mackendrick has stated that part of the ‘flavour of the joke’ was the ‘savagely unfair way in which [Marshall] is treated, the sly insult added to injury and the ultimate indignity of being made to feel that he is somehow “morally” in the wrong.’ (Alexander Mackendrick, quoted in Barr 1980, 167)

That idea of morality seems to come down to issues of money versus lifestyle: Marshall is rebuked by almost all the characters about his lifestyle and obsession with speed and efficiency. The ‘American way’ is ‘everything in a rush’ while the Scottish one (exemplified by the Maggie which, according to journalist Fraser (Andrew Keir) is ‘heartwarming’ and has a ‘touch of tradition’) is that things will get done, not quickly, but eventually. If the moral lesson about money and lifestyle remained unclear, one of the girls at the MacDougall party tells Marshall she doesn’t want a man who will have money and buy her everything, she’d rather have a poor fisherman who’ll always come home and wants to spend time with her. Yet the problem with this idea that Scottish cunning will triumph over American economic power, is that the film prevents us from rooting for MacTaggart. In making the other man so unlikeable, Mackendrick and writer William Rose paint themselves into a corner; when MacTaggart ‘wins’ (he is paid for delivering the cargo, even though it ends up at the bottom of the sea), Marshall is simply a diminished and diminishing figure who walks away down the quayside, while the crew of the Maggie celebrate. The big (Marshall) is made small, but the small (MacTaggart) remains small and petty, hardly a figure to emulate.

Is it too much to speculate that the film, despite trying to satirise two ways of life, is also suggesting that the struggle of the Maggie is ultimately futile against American economic might (even if small victories such as this can be won)? MacTaggart may be a canny and smart Scotsman, but American culture might be seeping into his world whether he likes it or not: given the presence of a Superman comic onboard that seems more enticing to the crew than the scenery of the Highlands they are sailing past...

Outside such thematic and character concerns, the film contains nice visual touches that show off Mackendrick and Gordon Dines’ work, with strong images of both urban (Glasgow docks) and rural (highlands and islands) Scottish landscapes; the Maggie, marooned at high tide, is a striking composition, as is MacTaggart and Marshall’s lonely trek along the beach to a nearby village; the camera, sinking to the level of a pier as the planks are torn asunder; there are also subtler moments, such as young Dougie stroking the ship’s wheel (when he thinks no one is looking), Dougie and Hamish swinging from the boat to the land using the jib; or Marshall, wreathed in shadows in his bunk onboard, struggling with his anger over MacTaggart.

In the end, as the cargo is thrown overboard, Marshall says ‘it was bound to happen, it was the only thing left that could happen’: the line can be read as a judgement on the film itself. Having thrown farce, black character comedy and moral judgements at the screen, the only route left is slapstick, throwing the bathroom into the water and accepting defeat. It is a lesson Mackendrick and Rose would apply to their next black comedy, The Ladykillers (1955).

[The Maggie is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, we go Undercover (1943)...

Thursday, 3 May 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 67: Cheer Boys Cheer (1939)

Ealing’s eighth film after Michael Balcon’s arrival at the studio is one of those that is permanently stuck in the debate over what makes a film ‘Ealing-esque’ or, indeed, what makes a comedy an Ealing comedy? Cheer Boys Cheer is a comedy, produced at Ealing, which concerns a struggle between Greenleaf (a small, traditional local brewery with community values) and Ironside (a huge, mechanised national brewery with eyes only on the profit margin). Barr sees the film as somehow prophetic, with Ealing as Greenleaf, standing up against the Ironsides of the film industry. While the argument remains valid, I can’t help wondering how many other films of the time period also set up similar small vs. big, community vs. industry comparisons, or if the film is as important in Ealing’s development as Barr suggests.

Well-paced and still funny in places, the film hammers home the oppositions suggested above with little subtlety: the metallic machines of Ironside gleam, as workers in white scientist coats stride between them; while the wooden crates and vats at Greenleaf are tended by a group of loyal misfits. The Ironside family favour impersonal board rooms and the accumulation of wealth; while the Greenleafs and their workers gather in a communal dining room and Greenleaf senior has a collection of antique Toby jugs. The central plot concerns Edward Ironside (Edmund Gwenn) and his son John (Peter Coke) attempting to take over the family business run by Tom Greenleaf (C.V. France) and daughter Margaret (Nora Pilbeam), a take-over complicated when John, working at Greenleaf under an assumed identity, falls in love with Margaret.

The reason the film likely struggles to claim classic Ealing comedy status is the insistence on broad and forced slapstick routines, notably based around Greenleaf staff Albert Baldwin (Graham Moffat) and Geordie (Moore Marriott), actors loaned out from Gainsborough and delivering music hall-style pratfalls, fights and bickering (filling a car full of grain, fighting in a pub; slapping and arguing with each other). As for the central romance, the film’s bitter rivals turned sweethearts plot includes some... dubious sequences: most notably, when John (despite having only met her minutes before), bends firebrand Margaret over a car door and starts spanking her.

Margaret remains the only significant woman in the film (there is a brief appearance by Jean Webster Brough as the barmaid at the Cross Keys pub), and Pilbeam plays her as a strong, opinionated and intelligent woman who is more than an equal partner at Greenleaf, making many of the business decisions when her father cannot, and the object of affection of both John and Greenleaf brewer Mat Boyle (Jimmy O’Dea). Yet it is hard to shake the suspicion that the film is, in part, an attempt to tame her character: early on, she is wild and impetuous, drives like a woman possessed, voices her opinions strongly and confidently... but then becomes calmer as she and John grow closer, and then dejected and forlorn when they split up. Given the heterosexual pairing the film is inexorably heading towards – Margaret accepting John back seals the business ‘marriage’ – it remains unclear whether she will remain an equal in the joint Greenleaf-Ironside venture.

The film also fails to sell the change that comes over John, at least in part because of a solid but uninspired performance by Coke (who is acted off the screen by Pilbeam at every turn) but mainly a script that needs the character to change for plot contrivance. John has to shift from a hard-nosed sexist businessman who’ll do anything to get his way, to a sly undercover operative at Greenleaf, to a Greenleaf supporter willing to spend his own money to pay for a huge advertising budget, a cunning saboteur of his own father’s business, and then an accepted husband and owner of both breweries. The tacit assumption is that romance and homespun community values make the change, but the film doesn’t show us this, it simply tells us it happened.

Visually, the film is competent if not amazing: director Walter Ford and director of photography Ronald Neame do try some interesting tricks – an opening credit sequence where the titles are printed on the side of beer crates that roll into camera along a conveyor belt; matte or process shots that increase the scale of Ironsides brewery; sped-up images of fast car rides; an impressive montage sequence of Ironside vans, beer and newspaper headlines near the end of the film; and strong use of sound effects in key sequences, notably John, Matt and the others breaking in to Ironside’s brewery to spike their beer and dropping a tool down a metal canister – the loud bouncing, echoing and clanging goes on far beyond what is realistic, but it adds to the film’s playfulness and slightly unreal atmosphere.

Always solid, Cheer Boys Cheer may not be a full-fledged ‘Ealing comedy’ but it remains an enjoyable precursor of later Ealing themes and narrative interests.

[UPDATED April 2014: Cheer Boys Cheer is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 9, from Network]

Next time, another of Ealing's Scottish comedies, in The Maggie (1953)