Monday, 30 January 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 40: Let George Do It (1940)

Way back at film 10 on this challenge (Trouble Brewing) I made the comment that it felt like ‘a live action Wallace & Gromit’ film with ‘action, inane comedy, fun slapstick, and unlikely romantic couplings.’ If that was true of the earlier film, it is doubly true of Let George Do It which features a comic bakery sequence which wouldn’t feel out of place in A Close Shave or A Matter of Loaf and Death. Something about the innocuous and clumsy heroics of Formby’s character, notably the visual gags and slapstick, calls to mind those later British animated heroes – likely because Nic Park knows his cinema history and likes a bit of Formby.

This film may be more famous as “the one where George Formby punches Hitler”, but that reputation arguably conceals a more complex narrative than Come on George, while also revisiting most of the basic concepts seen in Formby’s Ealing films to date: mistaken identity, unconvincing romantic couple, ukulele numbers, and broad slapstick. Here, Formby is George Hepplewhite, a ukulele player in variety act the Dinki-Doo’s, who is mistaken for a British spy (posing as a ukulele player) en route to Norway to uncover a spy ring responsible for passing on convoy information to German U boats. In Bergen, Formby meets up with band leader and Nazi agent Mendez (Garry Marsh), his assistant Slim Selwyn (Romney Brent), and receptionist-cum-undercover British agent Mary Wilson (Phyllis Calvert). Formby agrees to help the war effort, mainly to impress Mary (and his mum), finds the key to decode the secret messages (Morse code hidden in radio broadcasts of the band’s performances) and thwarts Mendez’ plans.
While the wartime premise of later Will Hay comedy The Ghost of St Michael’s (1941) felt forced, here it is integral to the narrative, the characters and the setting of Bergen ‘before the war spread.’ That is most obvious in the infamous dream sequence: having been drugged, and dumped back in his hotel room, George machine guns Mendez and Selwyn, only to reveal swastikas on their underwear; takes off in a one-man barrage balloon for Berlin, and ends up thumping Hitler in the face. It is highly unusual, not so much for the propaganda values (everyone from Batman and Donald Duck to Charlie Chaplin were lining up to fictionally take on Hitler), as for the place of dream sequences in Ealing films. Given the studio’s reputation lies in documentary-realism, few of its films feature anything that could be regarded as fantasy, and dream sequences are particularly infrequent (Dead of Night and The Love Lottery are the most obvious examples here), so to find one in a Formby film is unusual, particularly given the film sticks to the familiar structure and content elsewhere.

The film does feel different in other areas: the cinematography departs from the high key, well-lit approach seen in other Formby films to one comfortable with darker tones, and starker use of lighting. Several of the musical sequences feature spotlights on a dancer, with mobile spotlights following her, and leaving the rest of the room in darkness; while the dock-set scenes of blackout conditions are full of dense shadows and sharp angles of light – a lighting technique that plays into the comic fun the film has with identifying characters by torchlight, and Formby and others grabbing the wrong hands in the dark. Alongside more obvious visual techniques, the use of soundtrack is particularly strong: the music parallels elements of the narrative from the opening titles, with little bursts of morse code worked into the score (which recurs later in the band sequences). Formby’s musical numbers are also worked into a more traditional setting of a hotel band performing at a Bergen hotel.
This sense of pushing beyond existing Formby work does not mean abandoning what makes these films work: Formby’s physical antics. Those are most clearly demonstrated in the bakery sequence mentioned above. Continuing on from a scene where George was searching Mendez’ room (and hiding from Mendez), a camera with images of the secret key falls out of Mendez’s window. Following it, George gets an electric shock from overhead wires, crashes into a bakery and tries to grab the camera: it, and George, move from room to room through the bakery, falling into a vat of flour, being doused with water, mixed by a huge machine, chopped up, dumped onto a conveyor belt, thrust into tins, and put into an oven. While not all of these happen to George, the very mechanical, clockwork nature of the process becomes comical – while not as perfectly timed as the Chaplin routine in Modern Times (or, indeed, the Wallace & Gromit films that it obviously inspired), this is pure Formby physical comedy, and it remains the film’s comic highpoint, well ahead of Fuhrer-punching.
Of course, Formby’s other tics also come out: the character is sexually inexperienced, awkward around women, but somehow the focus of romantic attention. When Iris (Coral Browne) attempts to seduce him, Formby reacts like a little kid, rolling around on the bed, and his interest in Mary appears to be closely related to his desire to impress his mother. While the films only flirt with realism, the idea that an undercover British agent would fall for Formby’s foolishness and risk endangering her cover... well, it is another example of a female character acting uncharacteristically in these films, but by no means the first. It is also noticeable that apart from Calvert’s Mary, the only other speaking parts for women are the unidentified wife of Oscar (Bernard Lee), Iris, and a hotel receptionist. That said, Mary is at least professional and intelligent, even if George has to single-handedly rescue her at the end.
So, with strong physical comedy, interesting creative elements, that dream sequence, and the usual mix of Formby elements, this ranks alongside Trouble Brewing as one of the stronger Ealing Formby films, but probably fails to top Turned Out Nice Again. And perhaps one of the more curious elements the film has to offer is a brief flirtation with what we would now describe as intertextuality (or world building): an advertising bill for ‘Yellow Ochre’ at the Pier Theatre on a pillar in the dock’s waiting room – the play that was at the centre of the recently released Ealing film, Return to Yesterday (1940).
Next time, we bid adieu to Formby, but remain at war, in Dunkirk (1958)...

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 39: Whisky Galore! (1949)

Apologies to those expecting the final George Formby film Let George Do It (1940), but that has been briefly postponed so that the blog can celebrate Burns Night with an appropriate Scotland-centric selection. So, with a wee dram in hand (Singleton 12 year old), let me introduce you to one of Ealing’s most well-known and well-loved comedies. 

This is the Ealing film I probably know best, although it is a close tie with Passport to Pimlico (1949) (and, I suppose Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), but that’s because I watched it several times so as to write a decent article on it!). For a film that at one stage appeared to be going so wrong – first time producer Monja Danischewsky (Ealing publicist turned writer and producer) and first time director Alexander Mackendrick, stuck on the island of Barra with a film crew, bad weather, expensive sets, and expenses that would eventually spiral £20,000 over budget – the completed product is almost perfect, a great balance of character work, strong scripting (from Compton Mackenzie’s novel), and solid filmmaking. 

For those that don’t know the plot (famously based on a real event, when the S.S. Politician was wrecked off the island of Eriskay), the islanders of Scottish island Todday are mourning the lack of whisky on their island. With no fresh delivery in sight, the island is at a low ebb; not helped by the antics of Englishman Captain Waggett (the estimable Basil Radford, never more flustered or angrily aggrieved than here), the puffed up martinet head of the Home Guard, who is there to train the locals to fend off a (highly unlikely) German invasion. When a cargo ship, the S.S. Cabinet Minister, runs aground in foggy weather, the islanders are delighted to hear she was carrying 50,000 crates of whisky. After a painful pause to acknowledge the Sabbath, the islanders rush out to sea, grab as much whisky as they can before the ship sinks... but barely have time for a suitable celebration before they have to hide it again as Waggett brings the Excisemen, led by Mr Farquharson (Henry Mollison), to search the island.  

The story is beautifully structured throughout, building up pace at key moments (such as the small boat-led assault on the stricken ship, or the frenetic hiding of whisky when the Excise comes calling – a textbook exercise in visual montage and storytelling), finding time for little character portraits along the way (Old Hector – James Anderson – who takes to his bed when the whisky runs out; The Biffer – Morland Graham – and his childish eagerness to loot the ship; Angus McCormac – Duncan Macrae – downing bottles of whisky to hide them from his superiors), but also presenting great moments that build through narrative repetition, most notably the presentation of the Home Guard’s tactics. In this early scene, the point seems to be presenting Waggett’s stuffy English by-the-books attitude, and an assumed ineptitude or laziness among the locals: yet later, when the Home Guard roar into action (to prevent Waggett taking the whisky), roadblocks spring into place, sentry points are manned, and barbed wire is flung across roads. That this is all done to frustrate and delay Waggett is simply a beautiful narrative juxtaposition. The film also uses potential splits within the island community for humorous purposes, as Waggett is given directions to the whisky stash by the unhappy pub landlord, who knows his takings will be down now the illicit spirit has arrived. 

(the film was retitled Tight Little Island for its U.S. release)

Performances are strong throughout: the grouchiest of the islanders, Joseph Macroon, is played with suitably sly grumpiness by Wylie Watson; Gordon Jackson is a believably fresh-faced and innocent mummy’s boy (who, in some of the film’s funniest scenes, finally gets away from his overbearing mother), and his beau, Catriona (Gabrielle Blunt) is a stronger female presence than main star Joan Greenwood (who, despite being second on the bill, is largely stuck in an unlikely romance plot that is tangential to the main story). 

Mackendrick and Gerald Gibb’s filming style is also strong throughout, with mostly convincing day-for-night filming, and suitable use of both the stark and harsh moorland and the softer, beaches of the island – there is a hint of the documentary realism the studio is known, and the extensive use of location filming really sells the distant, otherworldly nature of the whisky-soaked island. The emphasis on the ocean is omnipresent as well – not only a physical presence (as in the scenes of the great whisky rescue) but a barrier between the islanders and the ‘real’ world, which outsiders have to cross.

Given all this, then, the film’s ending is a partial let-down. The victory of the islanders is secured: the Excise leave, Waggett is beaten, the romantic couples are married and there are stocks of whisky everywhere. Yet, as George Perry notes, an unhappy ending was added for the American market, where temperance ruled over happy alcoholic fun – so, a brief coda shows the islanders miserable again, having drunk all the whisky and living ‘unhappily ever after.’ The only people on the island who remain happy are Peggy (Greenwood) and Sergeant Odd (Bruce Seton), because they are teetotal. The final line ‘And if that isn’t a moral story, what is?’ flies in the face of the fun and gaiety seen in association with whisky throughout the film, and (to be honest) is best ignored. Stop the film 30 seconds earlier and it feels like a much more coherent and cruelly enjoyable narrative.

If you can forgive that one final slip towards respectability, Whisky Galore! remains one of the strongest entry in Ealing Studio’s comedy filmography, one that celebrates its Scottish setting and characters (an idea that would recur in The Maggie), and with sentiments around the regular imbibing of whisky that I’m sure Scotland’s national poet, Rabbie Burns, would have been proud of!

Next time, we will finish the Formby mini-marathon with Let George Do It (1940)...

Monday, 23 January 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 38: Come on George (1939)

Back to more traditional Formby fare here, with a tale of mistaken identity, innocent farcical characters, an underwritten female foil, and a mix of broad verbal and physical comedy. While it could be the law of diminishing returns in action, but this felt less inspired than other Ealing Formby films – lagging behind Trouble Brewing (1939), Turned Out Nice Again (1941) and (as we’ll see next time round) Let George Do It (1940) – but saying that, it still features several fun sequences, songs and ideas.

In a tortuous plot that exists only to get Formby into a series of increasingly unlikely scrapes, George is a race track ice-cream seller who, through various machinations, is mistaken first for a thief and then a pseudo-horse whisperer. As George is the only man who can go near the violent horse Maneater, he is recruited as a jockey by trainer Armstrong (Cyril Raymond) who has been given the chance to tame Maneater by owner Sir Charles Bailey (Joss Ambler) and Bailey’s daughter Monica (Meriel Forbes). To complicate matters further, Armstrong and Monica try to keep Bailey from finding out George is Maneater’s new jockey (Bailey thinks George is a thief), and try to keep George from finding out his new horse friend is the famously violent Maneater (George isn’t aware who the horse is when he first meets it). Throw in local policeman Sergeant Johnson (George Carney), his daughter Ann (Patricia Kirkwood), a local kid called Squib (who is Johnson’s grandson, suggesting Ann is his mother, although it would seem quite progressive / unlikely for Formby’s romantic lead to be a single mother?) and rival trainer Bannerman (George Hayes), and the cast is complete.

Of course, as with most of Formby’s films, the plot is secondary to the series of physically impressive slapstick sequences, a few ukulele performances, and some verbal sparring. Most of the slapstick comes through a series of chase sequences, as Bailey spots George and pursues him in various locations: a train station, Bailey’s own house, through a funfair, and finally back at the race track. Watching these films close together it became clear that many of Formby’s films feature this recurring character type: the slightly older, stuffier character who takes an early dislike to George because he thinks he is an idiot or a thief and who can be called upon to instigate another chase if the plot is lagging. In Spare a Copper it is Sir Robert Dyer (Warburton Gamble), in Trouble Brewing it is AC Brady (Garry Marsh), in Let George Do It, it is Oscar (Bernard Lee), here it is Bailey. The film’s most spectacular physical comedy is the acrobatic sequence where George, inadvertently on stage as the Golden Phantom, is thrown around the stage by acrobats. While ‘George’ is obviously a stuffed dummy at points, much of the stunt work appears authentic (both here, and elsewhere, notably in vehicle-based stunts).
As in Spare a Copper the central romantic relationship is underwritten: Ann seems to like George largely because he is kind to Squib, and riding a horse on which her father has bet their whole life savings. Despite the uncertainty over the parentage of Squib, there is no sense here of the kind of female empowerment or sexuality seen in Turned Out Nice Again. George has a verbal misunderstanding with Sgt Johnson when talking about sex (another recurring feature), and gets flustered when a fair stallholder refers to George and Ann as a couple and gives them a toy baby doll as a prize. The dialogue is not as sharp as Turned Out Nice Again, either, but retreads familiar ground: Formby as a largely asexual figure, an innocent who blunders his way into romance (and a mostly chaste romance at that).

In one sense, watching these films so closely together, they appear to deal with particular ideas of masculinity and masculine interests (even when featuring a star that complicates such ideas): detective stories and beer in Trouble Brewing, police and shipbuilding in Spare a Copper (1940), pigeon-fancying in Turned Out Nice Again (1941). Here, it is horse racing, another field in which George succeeds through luck and bravado, rather than skill (the skill lies in Maneater, to whom George simply clings on). Given George is rarely a protagonist here (things happen to him, rarely because of him), the horse is also anthropomorphised as a silent observer and – at the end – matchmaker for George and Ann.
The film has some decent songs (many of which are performed direct ‘to’ camera – including one where the audience appear to be watching the point-of-view of the horse), a more classic song and dance routine with Formby and Kirkwood, strong location filming around the stables and racetrack... but I can’t shake the feeling throughout that this is lesser Formby. There is one point that stands out – when a doctor ‘cures’ George of his fears (so he can ride again), Formby demonstrates his skills as an actor as well as a performer. For a few minutes, the performance of a fearless George has a straighter back, his shoulders are squared, and Formby loses his more traditional slouched look and gains a cocky, assured manner. It is over quickly, but the sequence shows again that Formby may have been better than the material he was performing in.
Next time, we finish the mini-Formby marathon with Let George Do It (1940)...

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 37: Turned Out Nice Again (1941)

Okay, so I was a bit quick to say that all Formby films were the same. There are obvious similarities between them, but in Turned Out Nice Again the move away from a wartime police/saboteur plot and back to a (presumably pre-war) domestic setting actually revitalises a lot of the Formby shtick. We’re knee-deep in comedy cliché mode, however, with this tale of a Northern lad who keeps pigeons, sees Blackpool as the height of vacationing bliss, and has an overbearing mother who belittles him and his girlfriend/wife. But by focusing on the battle between traditional and modern, generational and gender roles, and revolutionary change in the garment industry, the film is interesting in itself, but also feels like an early draft of issues dealt with in The Man in the White Suit (1951).
Here, Formby is George Pearson, who – in a departure from the bumbling and naive figure of his other comedies – is a well-regarded and successful figure at Dawson’s Underwear. In fact, as the film opens we see him promoted to overseer at the factory through a display of knowledge and skill, rather than fluke or luck. Buoyed by this success, he marries his sweetheart Lydia (Peggy Bryan) and is headed to London to sell Dawson’s wares at an underwear trade show. The film has two narrative strands at this stage – the old-fashioned nature of Dawson’s product (which George tries to do something about, buying a new yarn with his own money) and the relationship between newly-weds George and Lydia, and George’s mum, Mrs Pearson (Elliot Mason). While both dovetail in the final minutes, they are linked thematically, around generational change and modernity (represented here largely by London society, the antithesis of the authentic ‘North’): as Lydia puts it, Dawson’s underwear is ‘like your mother, twenty years behind the times’.

The figure of the domineering mother (and mother-in-law, from Lydia’s perspective) has long been the butt of comedy, and here is no exception. Played as a larger-than-life figure by Mason, who was a semi-regular figure in Ealing’s repertory at this stage, she is interfering, constantly underfoot and calculatedly melodramatic. The film has a lot of fun depicting the wedge she finds for herself in George and Lydia’s life – an early montage of her on honeymoon with them is strong silent comedy (her squeezing into the wedding car, picking the best seat on the train, chasing after the lover’s horse-drawn carriage in a motor car) that ends with the couple triumphant (abandoning her on a train while they get the bus home). That does not last, with Mrs Pearson haranguing Lydia about her cooking, weight, diet, hair at every opportunity.
What is interesting about the triangular relationship that develops between Mrs Pearson, Lydia and George, is that it dramatises incidents in the life of a married couple – an unusual element of any Ealing comedy. It is also good to see Lydia more than hold her own against Mrs Pearson: she is as strong a character and, in the end, saves the day while George remains at home, uncertain of how to act. While the film is all about George, it is Peggy Bryan’s Lydia that sticks in the mind, and her portrayal of a young woman who understands the modern world better than any of the Pearson’s. She also ‘wins’ George away from his mother at several times in the film, particularly at the end, where they decide to move to London and embrace modern society.
In that sense, the film turns many precepts about later Ealing comedies on their head: small (here, represented by Dawson’s, but also George himself) is still beautiful, but only if small changes in relation to the modern world. Dawson’s (the company, and the owners) need to accept that change has happened, and they need to be part of it; George accepts his life has changed and move forward. Small, cosy and traditional is not exemplified and heralded: instead, change, the modern and revolution become central to narrative resolution.

Along with the requisite songs and slapstick (George may be more professional here, but that doesn’t stop him being clumsy), the film also enjoys playing with issues of sex. Early on, George and his Uncle Arnold (Edward Chapman) struggle to write a letter about pigeon sex, not knowing the words or expressions; later, he is confused that the words he knows (knickers, bloomers) are being replaced by others (panties, scanties and step-puts). Formby has rarely been a sexualised actor, his persona is more traditionally innocent and virginal, not worldly-wise. Here, accepting modernity can also be seen as accepting a change in female sexuality – the range of modern lingerie and negligees that challenge Dawson’s traditional ‘cover everything’ flannel nighties  is about the female body as spectacle (as is clear in a routine at the London trade show where attractive girls model various garments) but, as becomes clear when Lydia becomes a sensation for lingerie made using George’s new yarn, also about female ownership of their bodies and their preferred garments.
The film of course, is conflicted about this – modern female sexuality is linked to London, which is also a site where George is distracted by pretty models and champagne, and conned into buying new yarn. Yet it is also the place where Lydia saves their money, and where she convinces George they should go to live. Modern life and the attitudes of the new generation (represented by Lydia, who is also offered a job by Dawson’s because of her understanding of the modern female market), wins out in the end.
This domestic focus gives his Formby film a really different feel to the others, and it is a shame that it was his last with Ealing, as it may have offered a new direction for the star and his writers/directors. Then again, if you take the film’s apparent message to its extreme, Formby might belong to the traditional generation that needed to be modernised and changed: as Ealing moved forward, the stars of this generation of films (Formby, Trinder, Hay) would eventually be replaced by those of the next.
Next time, the mini-Formby marathon continues in Come on George (1939)...

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 36: Spare a Copper (1940)

Reviewing George Formby films is a tricky business, not least because the ones I have seen have a strong familiarity and repetition to them. Even though Spare a Copper is a new film to me, the echoes of Trouble Brewing (1939) suggest the Formby films might stick to a basic narrative and thematic structure. That’s not to say the film is bad, because the combination of naive comedy from Formby and obvious dramatic and musical set-ups remains strong, it’s just that the tropes could become wearing after a while (which is a concern for me, given there are at least three more Formby films on the list!)

Formby is, obviously, the star of the show, and his innocent/accidental/bumbling persona is put to good use in this story of George Carter, a trainee policeman who tries to prevent the sabotage of HMS Hercules at the Brittanic shipyard, but ends up as on the run as the police’s main suspect. Arrayed against him are a series of saboteurs led by amusement park owner Brewster (George Merritt), Shaw (John Warwick) and Jake (Bernard Lee), as well as Sir Robert Dyer’s (Warburton Gamble) Liverpool police force.
Various set-pieces stand out: the musical numbers are strong, including a Pied Piper-style routine in a music shop, and an unlikely romantic number between George and Jane Grey (Dorothy Hyson) that seems to be performed on a set from another film entirely (a countryside scene with water wheel), a police obstacle course where George has to take on Shaw to get a place on the Flying Squad, and a nice climax where George rides around in a tiny car sabotaging the saboteur’s lair and ends up fighting with Shaw (again) round a wall of death (one of the few times the back projection works in aid of the story).

Director John Paddy Carstairs keeps things moving at a fair pace, but does so with an often uneven balance of strong visual moments (there is a nice visual gag about photographs of all George’s male relatives in police uniform that cuts to an image of him in uniform – as the camera pulls back to reveal its on a ‘Wanted’ poster) and unfortunate special effects work (notably bad back projection, sped-up images, footage run backwards and painted backdrops). The film also ends with an extended location-work sequence of an unlikely chase down a series of country lanes and town streets – many of the gags and ideas here would be revisited two years later in The Black Sheep of Whitehall (1942), but they feel fresher here, most likely because of the quicker editing pace and shorter sequence.
This Ealing challenge is now at a stage where films are either creeping into one another, or I’m spotting unlikely crossovers: as well as the Will Hay film above, the focus on a ship launching at the end of this film (albeit a destroyer not an aircraft carrier) could lead straight into Ships with Wings, which came out a year later (and which, I’m sure, shared several of the same special effects team, given the similarity of launch sequences)

The physical comedy remains strong – there is a nice moment where Formby, thinking he is off the hook, walks through a police station full of stunned coppers, realises he is still a wanted man, and then runs, blunders, jumps and careens his way back out onto the street. Equally, an acrobatic chase that leads from one side of a theatre stage to the other (and back again) taking in a trampoline and a Chinese juggler, is impressive.
But overall, this feels like a lesser effort from Formby: the banter between him and Jane isn’t at the level of the Formby-Withers routines in Trouble Brewing, many of the smaller routines feel forced (and the effects can’t always support the gag), and the songs feel tagged on in places.
Next time, does the Formby formula continue in Turned Out Nice Again (1941)...?

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 35: Touch and Go (1955)

Never destined to be among Ealing’s more famous comedies, this light-hearted comic tale of the Fletcher family and the two days before they are due to leave for Australia, is fluffy and inconsequential, but remains an amusing portrait of an idiotic father and his much more sensible wife and daughter. It may be a lesser film in Ealing’s back catalogue, but Touch and Go’s thin narrative works largely because of strong performances and a light farcical nature.

The story itself is simple: Jim Fletcher (Jack Hawkins), a furniture designer, resigns from his job in a pique and decides to move his family to Australia to make a new start. His family, Helen (Margaret Johnston) and Peggy (June Thorburn), agree initially but, two days before they leave, Helen reveals some uncertainties, and Peggy meets Richard (John Fraser). Falling rapidly in love, Peggy wants to stay and marry Richard. Inevitably, all Jim’s plans come to nothing, his old boss agrees to produce his new designs, and the Fletchers choose to stay in London.
Jack Hawkins is a revelation in this much lighter role, a departure from the taciturn roles he played in The Cruel Sea (1952) and The Long Arm (1956). He plays the hapless father with real glee, happily blundering his way through conversations with Helen and Peggy. Unable to understand women’s feelings – in which sense he might easily be considered a stand in for Sir Michael Balcon or Ealing’s production staff more generally, given their obvious uncertainty over how to dramatise female perspective – he drops verbal clangers about killing their beloved cat, Helen’s parents dying, Peggy’s plans to marry her new boyfriend, with no apparent sense of the harm he is doing. And despite Jim’s assertion that ‘So long as I’m responsible for looking after this family, I shall continue to make the decision,’ it is clear from very early on, that it is the women who are actually in charge of the decisions in this household (and whom Jim eventually notes, are the ones who make sense).
Despite this, there remains the usual Ealing problem about female characterisation: although the film makes it clear that Helen and Peggy are in control, they are rarely given any real agency. In a similar vein to Lease of Life (another film where a husband and father is unaware of the impact his decisions have on his family), Peggy’s future is dictated by her father’s whims, and Helen seems willing to go along with the Australia plan even in the face of mounting chaos and difficulties. Even at his most inane, the narrative still wants Jim to be in control. We never really understand why Helen would want to leave (and she seems to change her mind based purely on a last minute conversation with her parents – and the need to bulk the narrative out beyond 80 minutes), and Peggy’s sudden infatuation/romance with Richard is largely explained away by his ability to rescue a cat and talk about engineering (always important components of ‘love at first sight’). Because they are the straight women to Hawkins’ comic floundering they have to carry the more farcical elements of the plot, leaving Jim to float through the increasingly ludicrous situations.

Peggy and Richard’s romance, aside from being illogical, also dramatises another field in which Ealing struggled through the mid- to late-1950s: youth culture. Peggy and Richard go to genteel cafes for knickerbocker glories, and the late night dance they attend, even with its jazz trumpeter, feels more like a school dance than an authentic London hangout. The closest equivalent is The Feminine Touch (1956), where a student nurse and her doctor boyfriend visit a cellar bar with African murals on the wall and a black band playing: Touch and Go’s dance feels genteel by comparison, set in a London that is many years away from being ‘Swinging.’
Like other Ealing films, notably The Ship That Died of Shame, the film also introduces a supernatural air, linked mainly to Heathcliff, the Fletcher’s black cat. Introduced with a recurring glissando, the cat appears to also oppose Jim’s plans to emigrate. The cat’s escape from its basket on Chelsea Bridge leads to Peggy meeting Richard; its illness forces Jim to change plans and agree to take it with them; it trips Jim up on the stairs on his way to discuss Peggy and Richard’s marriage plans; and then the cat goes missing in the final few hours, delaying their departure and allowing other narratively useful events to occur. By the end, the film’s farcical nature has taken over, with local children bringing hundreds of cats into the cul-de-sac, expecting a reward – and, as the Fletchers start to unpack, Heathcliff is seen again, overlooking the cul-de-sac and, seemingly in charge of everything.
Aesthetically, the film is basic, offering functional staging but with no real standout moments for the colour cinematography, despite being filmed by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, whose previous Ealing colour films had proved more adventurous with lighting and design. Here, the style is beholden to the performances, allowing Hawkins free rein to bustle around sets and streets. The cul-de-sac set is nicely constructed, but doesn’t feel much more advanced than that seen in Saloon Bar (1940) fifteen years previously.
So, ultimately, this is lightweight, airy and inconsequential. That it retains its charms is due largely to the performances – Hawkins is centre-stage, but the support from Johnston and Thorburn balance out the film’s farcical nature.
Next time, George Formby returns in Spare a Copper (1940)...

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 34: Davy (1957)

Obviously designed as a showcase for 1950s British television and radio star Harry Secombe, Davy is a difficult film to love, with an often leaden pace, limited narrative development and forced performances from the cast. It is hard to argue with Charles Barr’s assessment of the film as a last-gasp attempt to hold the ‘family’ of Ealing Studios together the same way Davy Morgan (Secombe) hopes to maintain his own family and their music hall act, the Mad Morgan’s. While there are aspects of the film that do work – notably its use of colour, visual composition, some of the musical sequences – its attempt to revitalise Ealing Studio’s fortunes by focusing on the dying art of the music hall appears misguided at best.

‘I think we should all stick together... All families should stick together.’

Davy Morgan is the lynchpin of British music hall comedians, the Mad Morgan’s – an act that also includes his uncle Pat (George Relph), sister Gwen (Susan Shaw), her husband George (Ron Randell) and friend Eric (Bill Owen). Their show is popular, but doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, something that Davy seems oblivious to, but which irritates George, particularly when they might have a big booking agent interested in them. Focusing on six to seven hours of one day, the film shows how the Morgan family react to the news of Davy having an opportunity at the Royal Opera House, Davy’s audition for Sir Giles Manning (Alexander Knox), and Davy’s decision about his future.

Given the slightness of the story, director Michael Relph (a long-standing Ealing producer and production designer) offers little to move the story along, often pausing the narrative for three or four minutes for a music hall routine, or an operatic performance. While the former contains much energy, notably from Secombe, it fails to establish the Mad Morgan’s as anything other than a struggling, second-rate act (yet one the audience is supposed to be rooting for, particularly in the later stages). And with the latter, the film offers two audition pieces: Davy’s (which ends badly, due to an overly signposted piece of slapstick involving his young nephew Tim, who has been wandering around backstage), and Jo Reeves’ (Adele Leigh, in a thankless and underwritten role). While both are well-performed, they offer little narrative information, and are largely static in presentation: a combination of medium and close-up images of the singers, intercut with Manning in the stalls.

This is not to say that film composition should be slaved to narrative, but that the sequences offer little additional spectacle or visually interesting sequences. Indeed, other aspects of the film give stronger examples of how framing or colour can be used to enrich a simple sequence: several scenes are restricted to the Morgan’s dressing room, where Relph and director of photography Douglas Slocombe (one of Ealing’s foremost cinematographers) place the characters across the width of the Technirama screen, and carefully pick out particular colours across the image. As George, Gwen, Pat, Eric and Davy argue, they are getting dressed for their performance: Gwen’s contributions are highlighted by donning a purple dress, Pat by an orange clown-wig, while Davy starts to dominate by adding more colourful layers to his costume (a bright blue shirt, a pink bow-tie, a yellow and orange-striped jacket). Equally, many of the scenes in the main auditorium of the Opera House play with red colours and shadows, most noticeably Jo and Davy’s first sight of the room, small figures immersed in the red and shadowy space at the rear of the stalls.

Yet colour, composition and musical sequences are not enough to sustain the film, particularly when so many narrative and character ideas remain unexplored. There are subplots around Pat’s previous partnership with Dai Morgan (Davy and Gwen’s father), George’s dissatisfaction with the group (and wife Gwen), Gwen’s role as mediator, Eric’s unrequited love for Gwen, and Jo and Davy’s romance, to name but a few. The possibility of romance – tied in with the offer of a career as an opera singer – is one Davy rejects, but the reason (his career, being on the road, Jo’s different trajectory) feels as unrealistic as his decision to stay with the Mad Morgan’s. Given the way the film depicts Pat’s unhappiness at Dai’s decision not to become a serious actor (and break up the Morgan Brothers’ act), Davy appears to be repeating his father’s mistakes, rather than learning from his family.

The film does create a chaotic backstage atmosphere, suggesting some of the liveliness of the music hall tradition that the film wants to celebrate, but the other characters that inhabit this space aren’t fleshed out and are largely ciphers (the cross-dressing singer, the man with dressed-up chimps, the bad comic, the glamorous dancing girls). The film sets up a series of small events – Herbie (Kenneth O’Connor) trying to come up with a gag about shooting a moose, Davy’s tendency to lend money to a gambler and the monkey trainer – that pay off in the end (Herbie comes up with a gag, the horse wins, the monkey recovers), seemingly because Davy has chosen to remain with the show. The suggestion is that his family is not just the Mad Morgan’s, but the music hall tradition as a whole – by staying with that extended family, by continuing the struggle against the odds, Davy is doing the morally correct thing – he is embracing community, not individual opportunity.

But it feels like the wrong message, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons: the film has not given the audience any reason to believe this is Davy’s future – if anything, the lengthy sequence of him at Covent Garden shows he could succeed there. If the themes of Davy are a representation of the final days of Balcon’s Ealing – people staying because they felt morally bound to this makeshift ‘family’, rather than because of any particular burning creative desire – then perhaps the studio was in worse shape than the other later films demonstrate.

[UPDATED April 2014: Davy is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 4, from Network]
Next time, trying to leave the country proves difficult in Touch and Go (1955)...

Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 33: Ships with Wings (1941)

Watching and writing about each of these Ealing films there is often a struggle between considering them as individual entries, and linking them to an overarching and dominant narrative of what Ealing did, or was capable of. It is one of the reasons that Charles Barr’s Ealing Studios and George Perry’s Forever Ealing books are the main points of reference, as they do try and encompass the whole of the studio’s output, and make a coherent argument about the studio across the twenty-one years of activity this blog covers. Yet there are times – and watching Ships with Wings is one of those times – when the focus on the content of an individual film complicates its place within that larger hierarchy.

Here, for example, Barr notes the film seems ‘amazingly dated,’ that Churchill threatened to postpone the film’s release (because its climax could be seen as a disaster for the dramatised Fleet Air Arm), and states the ‘wildly romantic’ triumph lacked ‘anything... for general audiences to associate with.’ (Barr 1980, 24-5) Barring the Churchill note, these are a troubling claims, largely because they see the film in relation only to Ealing’s other wartime productions, and the themes of community, pulling together and inter-class cooperation that are seen to dominate the best British wartime films. The following discussion is, therefore, not an attempt to easily reclaim this film (it remains highly problematic in its depiction of the enemy, and of women, for example) but to think about it as a film in its own right.
Covering four years in the life of aircraft carrier HMS Invincible (the fictional name for the HMS Ark Royal – the ship gets a starring credit after the actors in the opening titles), the film is initially less interested in the ship’s crew, and more in three heroic pilots, Lt Dick Stacey (John Clements), Lt Maxwell (Michael Rennie) and Lt David Grant (Michael Wilding), who will serve on the carrier. Although we see them ‘at work,’ the focus falls on their relationships, notably with the Wetherby family: Admiral Wetherby (Leslie Banks), his daughter Celia (Jane Baxter), who carried a torch for Stacey, and son Mickey (Hugh Burden), who wants to be a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm on the Invincible. Wetherby is an older officer, who dismisses the carrier as ‘a floating garage’ and ‘a block of tenements’: in one sense, he is the film’s Colonel Blimp-style figure who thinks a naval battle should be fought in traditional ways, with big guns, not with fighter planes and bombers.
Lt Stacey falls for Celia, now she’s older, and breaks it off with girlfriend (and famous singer/actress) Kay Gordon (Ann Todd). But the competition between the three pilots for Celia reaches its pitch when, to impress Mickey, Stacey takes him up in a test plane that has a dodgy wing. With the wing threatening to break loose, Stacey tells Mickey to bail out; then does so himself – but Mickey, obsessed with being a pilot, stays onboard, and attempts to land it. His death, and Stacey’s determination to fly a plane he’d been told needed repairs, is enough to get Stacey dismissed from the Navy.
As should already be clear, the first half of the film is more interested in romantic dilemmas than professional ones: and this continues, as the film follows Stacey as he retreats to a Greek island, working as a pilot-for-hire for ‘Papa’ Papadopoulos (Edward Chapman). The outbreak of war has little immediate impact on Stacey, but the arrival of Kay (and some German spies) on the island soon brings the war home to him. Again, the emphasis is on romance and character psychology – Stacey wants to reenlist (Wetherby turns down the request, despite support from Invincible’s captain Fairfax – Basil Sydney), but it is the death of Kay and Papa at the hands of German agents that really propels him back into the war, and back into the seat of a fighter plane.
The final act of the film, an aerial attack by the Fleet Air Arm, when naval passage is blocked by a minefield, brings Stacey back to the beginning, meeting up with Maxwell and Grant (now married to Celia), and (with losses mounting up) ordered back into action by Wetherby. At first, Stacey is absent, left to sit in the mess room while all the other pilots head out and engage the Germans. Inevitably, he is asked to go up in support of his friends on a final raid on the German base. Yet the centrality of Stacey as a character means he is motivated by individual psychology rather than broader wartime concerns – he wants revenge on the Germans for killing Kay and Papa, as much as this is the right thing for Britain. In fact, the film may be unsure how to deal with that kind of individualism, given that Stacey’s fate is dying in a suicide run, flying himself (and a German bomber) into a dam, wiping out a German airfield, armoured division and harbour. Barr’s note that this is a ‘wildly romantic’ ending, while accurate, ignores the fact that the whole film has been romantic, rather than logical. In many ways, it feels like a Hollywood film in places, emphasising the individual contributions of one heroic individual rather than the communal success that British war films would become known for.
But what of the claim this might make the film ‘amazingly dated’? Some elements of the schizophrenic narrative have not weathered well: Kay is underdeveloped, and has two song sequences that feel out of place in the larger film (she appears to have walked in from another film, one about fashion and opulence in London society – the film’s treatment of her big song, a Christmas piece about Santa, could be from a musical, the filming style feels so different); the portrayal of the German, Italian and Greek characters is rooted in stereotype (while Papa gets a hero’s death, standing up to the German invasion of his island, the Italians are derided – often by the Germans – and the British view is simply that ‘You can’t argue with Germans, you just have to kick ‘em in the pants’); but overall, the film stands up at least as well as San Demetrio, London (1943), even if its aims are drastically different.
Ealing’s emphasis on strong location shooting remains prominent here, making a star of the Ark Royal with on-site filming of planes landing, wings folding up, and moving up and down on hydraulic platforms within the ship. Yet this is also another strong outing for Ealing’s special effects department: yes, the effects can appear dated, but that would be an unfair (and retrospective) assessment that ignores how strong such work would have been in 1941. The film’s combination of documentary-style footage of the Ark Royal, and its planes, is (mostly) well-matched with solid model work depicting dogfights, bombing raids, and – towards the end – an attack on German airfield, dam, and battalions of German tanks and vehicles. The special effects are clearly models, but sparingly intercut with the other footage, they do create tension and scale which, again, stands up well in comparison with other Ealing war films.
The final assessment of the film, therefore, returns to this notion of its status as an individual film or part of a larger Ealing war effort. There are obvious links with later Ealing productions: where The Cruel Sea would discuss men being wedded to their ships, Maxwell and Fairfax are both described as being ‘married to an aircraft carrier;’ the focus on officers rather than the broader crew ties in with post-war interest in that specific class; and despite the presence of two female characters, the film is largely uninterested in developing them beyond bland love interests. However, in its focus on the character of Stacey, and the domestic life of the officer class, the film remains interesting in the choices it makes about depicting wartime endeavour and loss.
Next time, the music hall beckons for Harry Secombe and Davy (1957)...

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 32: Johnny Frenchman (1945)

If ever a film brought together the broad stereotypes of what Ealing Studios is famous for, Johnny Frenchman is it. A documentary impulse wedded to a patriotic narrative about communities pulling together, with comic undertones and well-drawn characters, filmed largely on location, this ticks many of the Ealing Studios boxes. It’s also about wartime, serving your country, and the possibilities of post-war society. Although saddled with an episodic narrative, the performances, editing and location work are largely worth the effort.

The story, set between 1939 and 1945, is about the relationship between two Cornish and Breton villages, one born of competition and rivalry (the Breton fishermen are accused of poaching crabs from the sea nearby) which develops through romance and jealousy, to one where everyone pulls together for the common good. From calls at the beginning that ‘Johnny Frenchman’ should be sent back where they came from, to claims that ‘we are friends at last’ and that the two villages have become one, this is fairly populist propaganda about European neighbours and post-war partnership.
The film’s main drama is romantic, as Sue Pomeroy (Patricia Roc, on loan to Ealing from Gainsborough) has to choose between her long-term childhood sweetheart Bob Tremayne (Ralph Michael, in full stalwart but dull mode) and dashing Yan Kervarec (Paul Dubois). Yet while this is the heart of the film, it can be slow-moving, as Sue accepts she doesn’t love Bob, is attracted to Yan, decides she loves Yan, Yan is taken away by the war, Bob returns, and then finally Yan and Sue marry. This element of the plot often drags, as there is no real tension, as Bob is presented as solid and dependable – Charles Barr notes that Bob is never anything more than a sporting loser who displaces his feelings into fishing and being in service. While that does Bob a slight disservice (he and Yan do have a wrestling scene and a punch-up during a French-English singing practice) Ralph Michael has little to work with here to develop the character, and he and Roc share absolutely no chemistry, meaning Bob is never presented as a serious contender for Sue’s affections. Yan, by contrast, is active, charming, sexual and masculine – even if Bob does somehow break his thigh (?) during their wrestling bout. While there is no sense of an homoerotic bond between Yan and Bob, the film does go out of its way to put them together (wrestling, fighting, serving on the same boat, and then pouring drinks together in the pub in one of the final scenes), often abandoning Sue to the company of unidentified village women and children.
But if the Sue-Bob-Yan love triangle is not the film’s main appeal, what is? In terms of performances and characters, that belongs to the relationship between harbour master Nat Pomeroy (Tam Walls) and Lanec Florrie (Francoise Rosay), the elder states-people of their respective villages, and a grumpy odd couple. The film is underpinned by their bickering and one-upmanship: Florrie leads the French poachers, Nat steals her boat keys until she pays harbour taxes; Nat bans Florrie from fishing on a Sunday, Florrie goes out anyway. The scene where Nat and Florrie argue about Yan and Sue marrying is particularly strong, due to Walls and Rosay’s performances, conveying the characters’ shock at realising they actually agree for the first time.
The relationship takes a strange turn in the final third of the film: when Nat bans Sue from his house for marrying Yan, Florrie appears to move in, and is suddenly helping Nat take off his boots, and cooking for him and his younger son. Her role becomes more domestic, and their verbal sparring decreases. That seems to be preparing the way for the final rapprochement between the villages, as Florrie sails out to ward off a floating mine that is heading into the harbour, thus saving all their boats (and livelihoods) and preventing a disaster. For this, she is hoisted on the Cornish villager’s shoulders, and carried to the pub for a celebration: and there, announces ‘I know we are friends, at last. When the war is over and we go home again, don’t think you’ll get rid of us, we’ll be back... we’ll be back because we’ve found another home here.’
So, the theme of community – and of communities coming together, and getting over their differences – is strong throughout, and drives most of the character and narrative dynamics: for all the fighting and uncertainty, both communities help out the other when it is needed (the French hide British soldiers when the Germans arrive, the British welcome French refugees feeling the Nazis). Much of this is also done visually, with the location filming helping to create a strong sense of the small Cornish village based around its harbour and fishing industry. At several points in the film, these streets and alleyways are thronged with villagers rushing to and from the harbour, or the pub, giving a real sense of the wider community beyond the main characters (in this sense, it is reminiscent of similar scenes in Whisky Galore! (1949). The documentary impulse is also strong around community imagery: the fishermen on the beach pulling together to drag in a net full of fish (which is given a commentary from an older fisherman on the hill, functioning almost as a voiceover narrator), or the visit to the Breton village to see a local festival that blesses the sea (which, again, an older Cornish character ‘explains’ to the other characters, and the audience).
Throughout, the work of editor Michael Truman and assistant editor Barbara Bennett is particularly strong, and the link to the montage tradition of the British documentary movement is evident in many sequences (again, the pulling in of the fish, and the sharp cuts between grimacing faces, hands tightening, fish flopping in the net; or the final mine scene, cutting between ship, nets, mine and onlookers, to create a tense sequence in an otherwise slow-paced film).
With strong supporting work among the different villagers and French fishermen, and a series of strong cinematography both on the boats (some scenes make use of back projection, but most are filmed on the water) and along the coastline, the film may be slow-moving in places, but is, overall, an enjoyable little film with a strong central message about working, and cooperating, with European neighbours: from the ‘English and French were never meant to mix’ to two villages becoming one.
Next time, sticking with the war theme, we join up with the Ships With Wings (1941)...