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)...