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)...

3 comments:

  1. Hello,

    I am also trying to watch all the Ealing comedies, but haven't been able to find a copy of this one anywhere. Do you have any advice on how to get it?

    Meet Mr Lucifer is the other one I can't find, but it looks as though you haven't posted about it, so perhaps you couldn't locate a copy either.

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  2. I watched all 95 Ealing films in just under a year: Meet Mr Lucifer is covered in blog entry 63 (April 2012).

    I found copies of it and Davy via 'grey market' means:

    A 'Davy DVD 1957' search on Google takes you to an Amazon page where it is being sold on DVD with 'Postman's Knock'.

    'Lucifer' was more challenging, but there were people selling viewable DVD copies via ebay.

    Hope that helps...

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  3. Davy has been restored and was released on DVD in July, 2013, by Network as part of 'The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection Volume 4' and can be found on amazon uk. It is an excellent 2.35:1 widescreen transfer with superb colour and sound and is 16 x 9 enhanced.

    David Rayner,
    Stoke on Trent,
    England.

    ReplyDelete