Monday, 30 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 91: The Divided Heart (1954)

‘based... on a factual story taken from the newspapers. Part of its appeal for me was that it was about the mother-child relationship... which, I recognise, was a recurring one in Ealing films.’ (Michael Balcon, quoted in Barr, 192-3) 
The idea that the mother-child relationship was a recurring one in Ealing might seem a strange observation, even coming from the man who ran the studio between 1938 and 1959. Maternal issues can, of course, be found across a range of Ealing’s films: there is the mother-battleaxe figure who has to be defeated (often by the new bride) in films like Young Man’s Fancy (1939) and Turned Out Nice Again (1944), and there are mother-child elements to Cage of Gold (1950), Where No Vultures Fly (1951) and Mandy (1952), but it seems a stretch to call this a recurring theme. Children are more visible in Hue and Cry (1947) and The Magnet (1950), but the mother-child theme is less evident; equally, an argument could be made that father-son (The Long Arm, 1956; Pink String and Sealing Wax, 1945) and father-daughter relationships (Lease of Life, 1954; Touch and Go, 1955, The Shiralee, 1957) are equally important to the studio output.

The focus of The Divided Heart can, however, be seen as a continuation of Ealing’s move into more domestic melodramas from the post-war period, a move that paralleled what Charles Barr and others have seen as a move towards the professional male figure of The Cruel Sea (1953) and The Man in the Sky (1957). Barr also saw this film as ‘worthy but tame – sober, academic, actressy, afraid of getting into any deep emotional water’ (192): an assessment that seems to ignore the film’s desire to elicit emotion in quite direct and manipulative ways. It is also very much (to use a potentially problematic term) a ‘woman’s film’, in that the subject matter appears tailored for an assumed female audience – and the film features two central female characters.

The film opens with Inga and Franz Hartl (Cornell Borchers and Armin Dahlen), on the Bavarian ski-slopes and at the birthday party of their son Toni (Michael Ray / Martin Keller). The party is disturbed by two child repatriation officers, notably Marks (Geoffrey Keen), who informs the Hartl’s that Toni’s biological mother is alive and living in Slovenia. During a court case to assess Toni’s future, and to decide which of his mothers he should end up with, there are flashbacks that fill out other elements of the story: the birth mother, Sonja Slavko (Yvonne Mitchell) was held in a concentration camp during the war, and lost her husband and daughters; after finding Toni at a German orphanage, Inga raised him by herself while Franz is away at war, and captured by the Russians. Toni (or Ivan) gets the chance to meet Sonja, and grows to like her, but tells the judges he would prefer to live with the Hartls. Sonja also comes round to the belief that Toni would be better with them. Despite this, the three American justices vote 2-1 in favour of returning him to Sonja, and the final image is mother and son, reunited, on a train heading home.

The film is richer and more complex than Barr’s assessment allows, not least because it is, like Frieda (1947) before it, a commentary from an English perspective, on the post-war German character and identity. At first, the Hartl’s are just a nice family, but as the flashbacks reveal, Franz was a Nazi soldier and Sonja (and other Slovenians) suffered at the hands of the German army. The symbolism and emotion is laid on fairly thick: Toni/Ivan has hysterics every time he sees a Nazi uniform because it (unconsciously) reminds him of being torn from Sonja; in court, Sonja speaks through a translator, but one word ‘Auschwitz’ echoes round the courtroom and is understood in all languages; there is a concern about whether the Hartl’s will tell Toni the truth about German actions in the war, particularly against Slovenia. Those moments aside, the film rarely takes a direct position for or against Inga, and Borchers gets her fair share of lingering close-ups when she talks about her love for Toni, or longing looks across the courtroom at her competitor for his love, Sonja.

It could be argued that Inga gets more than her fair share of the film’s portrayal of this custody case, not least because she speaks English throughout (although, in one of those cases of glorious movie logic, she is actually speaking German), while Sonja – to start with at least – has to speak through a male translator, thus striking her mute for at least half the film. Mitchell makes the most of her mostly silent role and, like Borchers, is given plenty of time for expressive looks and glances – one of the places where the film wades happily into the ‘deep emotional waters’ Barr thinks it incapable of. By the end of the film, when Toni/Ivan has saved Sonja from a snowball attack in his home village, and both mothers have mutely expressed their love, the film is an exercise in manipulative staging, framing and editing. (there are also several nicely composed shots that fir both women into the frame, often with Inga in close-up, Sonja further away, and arguably more distant emotionally) That it ends with clumsy speeches from the three judges giving their opinions is unfortunate, because it shifts the focus from the two actresses who have driven it along so far.

The film is solid throughout, and makes good use of its location work in St. Johann-in-Tirol and Skofja Loka (Yugoslavia), adding a European sheen and a set of different spaces to the tale. Indeed, the Bavarian setting (and much of the story) seems so alien to much of what Ealing was known for – despite Balcon’s claim – that when Sonja gets lost in the streets and alleys of the village, our sympathy as an audience may shift to her, because this is unfamiliar territory for the Ealing audience as well.

[UPDATED April 2014: The Divided Heart is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 10, from Network]

Next time, more Ealing European themes in His Excellency (1952)...

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 90: Mandy (1952)

Mandy is a film that can be defined in various ways. The DVD cover, in a departure from the normal Ealing Studios branding, sells the film as ‘by Alexander Mackendrick' (the back cover also notes he is 'the director of The Man in the White Suit’, but the film also has generic similarities to ‘social problem’ films of the early 1950s (such as I Believe in You, 1952), female-targeted stories (the likes of Dance Hall, 1950; The Divided Heart, 1954) and more child-oriented films (Hue & Cry, 1947; The Magnet, 1950). In the grander scheme of Ealing Studios in the 1950s, it is also the first of five successful collaborations between Jack Hawkins and Ealing (following his brief appearance in The Next of Kin, 1942), and the first to position him as a professional, often highly driven and brusque, individual (a role he would pursue in The Cruel Sea, 1953 and The Long Arm, 1956, among others).

There are traces of all those approaches throughout the films performances and narrative. When Christine and Harry Garland (Phyllis Calvert and Terence Morgan) realise their daughter Mandy is deaf, their responses threaten to tear the family apart. Initially living with Harry’s wealthier parents (Godfrey Tearle and Marjorie Fielding), Christine realises the house has becomes a prison for Mandy, and (against Harry’s wishes) takes her to a special boarding school in Manchester run by Dick Searle (Hawkins). Here, Mandy struggles with her new surroundings, but with individual tuition from Searle, begins to become more confident and starts to speak. Harry tries to force Christine to return to London, and uses rumours of Searle and Christine having an affair to take Mandy back to the family home. At the end, female independence (for both Christine and Mandy) is resolved by Mr Garland’s intervention, and the family is reunited.

Although not a ‘social problem’ film in the classic sense, this is a social ‘issue’ film about the one in sixteen thousand children born deaf: an issue which (in true Ealing style) is married to a domestic melodrama. The film does depict Mandy as a problem that can be ‘solved’ through education but, unlike Charles Barr, I don’t think Mandy stands for ‘all children, for the potential locked up inside the new (English) generation’ (152), not least because we meet several (deaf and non-deaf) children in the film, and their potential seems to be happily unlocked already (in fact, the interplay of Mandy and other children is an element that structures much of the story, despite the clear influence of Searle). It is not just Mandy, of course, that needs to be investigated: her family (parents and grandparents) also need attention. So, the film is an amalgam of several of the Ealing elements identified: social issue, melodrama, about children but also the adults who revolve around them.

What then about star and director? The claim for Mackendrick seems fuelled by the need to demonstrate an author’s vision at work, but the gulf between a critic’s need to discover a vision and the actuality of such a vision appear quite distant here: the film is beautifully shot by Douglas Slocombe, the actors are strong, and the storyline is potent and dramatic stuff – but the dark, satirical and joyful notes of Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Maggie (1954) or The Ladykillers (1955) are nowhere to be seen here. That is not to reduce the often powerful work in Mandy, more to note that it does not have that immediate connection to what came before or after. The film is playful around its use of sound (including early scenes of Christine and Harry making noise to try and attract Mandy’s attention), and in attempts to connect the audience to Mandy’s experience: often the camera will push in on Mandy’s face, and the soundtrack will fade, until we are left with only the visual information. Although not a complete sense of her point-of-view, these occur at dramatically important moments (a van driver shouting at her; a teacher trying to get her to speak). As noted below, the film also isolates Mandy within the frame (in the empty garden of the Garland house, in a park), also helping to visually identify her ‘otherness’ within the narrative world.

Performance-wise, Hawkins is a reliable actor and gives Searle a requisite grumpy passion that matches his calling as a teacher. He is also largely secondary to the Garland family: Calvert and Morgan are solid, but they tend to be overshadowed by Mandy Moore’s startling turn as the title character, a piece of acting that, given her age and lack of dialogue, remains powerful to this day. The film doesn’t give her an easy task, either, with several long close-ups that require the young actor to perform wholly through expression, and convey the frustration of Mandy’s attempts to speak and understand.

However, while Mandy’s story is always central, the Garland family dynamic is at the heart of the film’s concerns, particularly its exploration of female imprisonment, escape and isolation. One of Mandy’s first actions is to try and escape the tall cage of the Garland home, with its ornate hallways, prim rooms, paved courtyard garden: isolated in these spaces, her ‘escape’ is onto the neighbouring bombsite (almost required for an Ealing film at this stage) and streets, where she is almost run over (by a van she cannot hear). The motif of escape continues when Christine and Mandy flee London and the Garland family; yet their new life is isolating for both. Mandy is visually separate from many of her classmates, unable to fit in; while Christine is often pictured alone in the hallways of the school. While Harry sporadically appears to fill some of those empty spaces, Searle is the more comforting figure (it is telling that he is the one who fills the male role in a celebratory montage showing Mandy’s improvement), but he and Christine rarely make a compelling couple, and he ends the film as isolated as the Garland women he has been helping. Returning to the London house, Mandy is visually pictured within door frames that trap her back into this old life. The unlikely saviour to her isolation (and Christine’s) is Mr Garland: after hearing Mandy speak, he reunites Christine and Harry, and they watch as Mandy, on the same bombsite, is included in a game with the local children.

So, in the end, a film that is almost all of the things listed above, but which survives largely because of the committed performance of Moore in the central role.

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

Next time, more child-centred drama in The Divided Heart (1954)...

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 89: Young Man's Fancy (1939)

Between 1938 and 1940, director Robert Stevenson, cinematographer Ronald Neame and scriptwriter Roland Pertwee were part of the creative bridge between Basil Dean’s Associated Talking Pictures (which were based at the studios in Ealing) and Michael Balcon’s new production company called Ealing Studios. While they produced a number of films together, including The Ware Case (1938), Young Man’s Fancy and Return to Yesterday (1940), they were also individually responsible for fourteen of the first sixteen films produced by the new studio, including The Four Just Men (1939) and Let George Do It (1940).

While there is still one film from that period of Ealing’s production history left to watch – The Ware Case – it is already clear that these films exist in that no man’s land between 1930s low budget British studio productions and the infusion of drama-documentary styles that wartime circumstances would force on Ealing, and others in the British film industry. It would be wrong to dismiss these films, either creatively or as a picture of production trends, but they feel more bound by well-trodden narrative structures and thin characterisations than some of the complex Ealing work of the 1940s and 50s. Certain continuities are there to be made – the reliance on ensemble casts, with certain actors recurring across films, can be seen in later productions – but a direct comparison likely reduces the content of these early productions.

Young Man’s Fancy is a faintly absurd romantic comedy sporadically saved by spirited performances from Seymour Hicks and Anna Lee, and some strong comic exchanges (courtesy of Pertwee, Rodney Ackland and EVH Emmett). The story is set in September 1870, with the Duke and Duchess of Beaumont (Hicks and Martita Hall) eager to marry their son Alban (Griffith Jones) to Miss Crowther (Merial Forbes), the daughter of wealthy brewer Sir Caleb (Felix Aylmer). Alban, uninterested in Miss Crowther, meets Ada O’Grady (Lee), a working class Irish ‘human projectile’ (cannonball) at the Cavendish music hall. Hoping to use the scandal of his association with Ada to break off the marriage, and with Ada schooling him in rebellion against his mother, they end up in Paris together where, while the city is under siege by the Prussian army, they (naturally) fall in love. On return to London, Alban has to decide whether to obey his mother or follow his heart.

While it breaks little new story ground (although the introduction of the siege of Paris as a narrative obstacle is a little odd), the film does enjoy some creative flourishes, notably the framing of the whole story by a wedding album motif. While this is initially used to present the crew details, and photographs of the main cast (a hand turns each page during the credits), it also functions to introduce scenes of Paris and London when the story shifts location, and then literally closes the story / album at the end. While such a motif is now commonplace in romantic comedies (the film also ends with an aborted wedding, another standard element) it works well here to establish generic expectations. Director Stevenson also uses editing and optical printing to emphasise travel later in the film: Alban and Ada’s Paris-to-London return journey is told in a simple shot of them in a carriage, over which are superimposed British railway signs, place names and advertisements. It is a striking sequence that offers a simple visual representation of their journey and their descent back into British society and habits.

Given the thin plot, the film relies heavily on its performances and dialogue: the Duke is the broadest comic character, but Hicks is able to perform both drunken well-meaning idiot and thoughtful father roles equally well. Hunt as the Duchess gets some enjoyably scathing dialogue (her dislike of the common brewing family, snide asides to arriving party guests, demands to have bedclothes burned after Ada had slept in them), but her character is largely a one-dimensional posh battleaxe. The Crowther family have little real personality, while Alban is similarly one-note, Jones’ performance often pulled up by Lee’s enthusiasm and skill. She plays Ada as mischievous and loud, emotional and independent: the success of the Ada and Alban romance is fuelled mainly by her work. The film skirts Ada’s working class origins and the Beaumont’s treatment of the poor (they appear to be slum landlords). Ada’s father (Edward Rigby) is given some potent lines about capitalism and social inequality (he’s embarrassed his daughter is associating herself with ‘the idle rich’), but they are thrown away, rarely central to the plot: tempting to see an early element of Ealing’s interest in social issues, but more likely a coincidence.

Given Ealing’s British reputation, it is also curious to see another film where travelling (or escaping) abroad becomes an important element, but returning back to Britain is always essential: Frieda (1947), Cage of Gold (1950) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) would all revisit those themes in later years. That said, the view of 1870s Paris as a besieged and war torn city, with foreigners fighting their way onto the final trains, and buildings occupied by the military, would also prove to be prophetic of what 1939-40 would bring.

[UPDATED April 2014: Young Man's Fancy is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 8, from Network]

Next time, a different kind of 1950s social problem in Mandy (1952)...

Thursday, 19 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 88: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Re-watching Kind Hearts and Coronets for the sake of this blog post (the film is one of the Ealing films I’ve seen several times in my life, although admittedly not in recent years), I’d forgotten how sexual a film it is. Many of the films seen over the course of this challenge have challenged Ealing’s reputation as a studio more at home with restrained and repressed subjects, but this film stands alongside Another Shore (1948), Cage of Gold (1950) and The Feminine Touch (1956) as films that are quite wonderfully overt about sex, lust and longing.

It may be that the perceived knowledge of this film works to soften some of that sexual sting: the pitch-black nature of much of the comedy, as Dennis Price’s Louis Mazzini has his murderous revenge on the D’Ascoyne family (after they disinherit and shun his mother); Alec Guinness’ masterful performance of eight characters from the D’Ascoyne family; the reputation of the film among the ‘Ealing comedies’.

Yet good as Price and Guinness are, Joan Greenwood as Sibella is in danger of walking away with the whole film, developing from an apparently flighty and flirtatious society girl to a sly and cunning mistress, before blooming into a lying and mischievous blackmailer. Despite being almost constantly buttoned up in a series of ornate outfits, Greenwood uses her husky low tones and coquettish manner to position Sibella as a strong sexual figure on par with Mazzini and the D’Ascoynes. It is true that the film often resorts to a simplistic dualism with its main female characters, with Louis caught between Sibella’s machinations and his courtship of uptight and abstemious widow Edith D’Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson), but both actresses bring humour and life to their different roles (Greenwood can be more obviously theatrical, while Hobson is more restrained but equally pointed) that allow some development beyond the obvious virgin/whore dynamic.

The sexual thrust of the film doesn’t end with the women. Dennis Price is a striking and sexual figure throughout: wooing Edith and Sibella, an expert in ladies underwear (from working in a draper’s shop), taunting Sibella’s cuckolded husband with the line ‘you’re a lucky man now, take my word for it’, and apparently also attractive to men, with a strongly suggestive scene with photography enthusiast Henry D’Ascoyne (Guinness) who offers to show Louis his equipment in the safety of his dark room. The D’Ascoyne line, from which Louis is descended, is not short on lust: the family line passes through male and female heirs because of the first Duchess’ ‘relationship’ with Charles II; while Louis murders Ascoyne D’Ascoyne (the younger; also Guinness) while he is on a dirty weekend in Maidenhead. (hardly an accidental choice of venue).

Of course, the film isn’t just about sex. It is about family, murder, the class system... Yet, at the same time, sex lies at the heart of the narrative. Sex is the (unspoken) reason Louis’ mother (Audrey Fildes) left the family home to marry her Italian lover (and was then shunned thereafter); and sex is the initial fuel behind Louis’ murderous decision to wreak revenge on the D’Ascoyne family. While his mother’s death and the family’s refusal for her to be buried at the ancestral home is the reason Louis gives to others, the film shows us he only makes the decision after Sibella spurns his advances and announces she has accepted a marriage proposal from Lionel Holland (John Penrose). Sex is what causes Louis to be tried for murder (after Sibella hides Lionel’s suicide note and insinuates Lionel confronted Louis over their affair); sex is what saves him from the hangman’s noose (Sibella, again, finds the note in exchange for future sexual favour, and the future death of another D’Ascoyne, Edith).

Like many of the Ealing films studied through this challenge, part of the joy of the film comes from the minor characters: notably Mr Elliot the executioner, who keeps forgetting to address Duke Louis by his correct title (Your Grace). By casting Guinness as the family D’Ascoyne, the film highlights the importance of such brief characters, with several short vignettes of the suffragette Lady Agatha (killed in a balloon ‘accident’), the dullard Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne (poisoned port) and pompous Ethelred D’Ascoyne (hunting accident). While most of them remain caricatures of particular British upper class types – the obstinate naval captain, the bumbling priest, the horny playboy – they are well-observed and largely exist as backdrop to Louis’ progression to the Dukedom.

Unlike some of the others Ealing films the visual elements are enjoyable but rarely stand out: there are location shots throughout, notably in the grounds of various D’Ascoyne family estates and houses, but again they feel like a useful backdrop than a potent part of the narrative. The only exception to that might be the scene between Edith and Louis, which continues after potting shed has exploded, and the smoke drifts serenely behind Edith’s head. The film’s humour lies in tone, dialogue and performance as much as its visuals, although it all looks impressive in the restored print released by Studio Canal on Blu-Ray in 2011.
[Kind Hearts and Coronets is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, more upper class romantic chaos in Young Man's Fancy (1939)...

Monday, 16 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 87: The Man in the Sky (1957)

In the forthcoming collection Ealing Revisited (available to pre-order on Amazon here:, Robert Murphy describes The Man in the Sky as a film any national cinema should be proud of. Yet this film is rarely listed among the greats of Ealing’s oeuvre, never mind that of British cinema more generally. While I’m not going to summarise Murphy’s opinion here (you’ll have to read the book for that), I do want to consider how the film sits within broader ideas of what Ealing Studios were capable of, and whether that shifted in the final ‘Ealing Films’ made in association with MGM in 1956-8.

One of the most striking changes to this film is the shift out of the London streets and into a more suburban landscape: here, the new houses and outskirts of Wolverhampton. Rather than the bomb-strewn locations of Hue & Cry (1947) or The Blue Lamp (1950), these are clean and character-less avenues; in place of the community and support of It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) or Lease of Life (1954), we have an absent neighbour, a local laundrette and a shop selling flying saucers and spaceship toys. That is not to say there is no community in the film, but the workers of Conway Aero Manufacturing (who arguably best fill that role) are literally onlookers, commentators, always outside and never part of the drama. That community is also a professional one, to which John Mitchell (Jack Hawkins) belongs, but which has little place for his wife Mary (Elizabeth Sellars). In that sense, the film mirrors the work/home life split seen in Ealing’s other 1956 Hawkins film, The Long Arm (1956).

The storyline here is simple but potent: John Mitchell is a test pilot at Conway’s, which is going to go bankrupt if they don’t secure a lucrative new contract. During a routine test of the new plane, an engine fire causes Mitchell to order everyone to parachute to safety, but he decides to stay onboard, knowing that losing the plane will definitely sink Conway. In an Earthbound precursor of Apollo 13, the ground crew and Mitchell struggle to find a way for him to land the plane safely. Mitchell circles the field for 30 minutes; below, his wife and colleagues watch and wait...

The first element that is striking about the film is its desire to tell the story in real time. The first and third are partially compressed, but the second act is wholly in real time, as Mitchell circles the airfield. (dialogue exchanges and well-placed clocks attest to the real time element) Hawkins is particularly strong here: isolated in the plane set, and with only occasional (and often one-sided) dialogue exchanges, he has to convey Mitchell’s stubborn, scared and uncertain emotions, and convince the audience the character would be committed enough to see this unlikely flight through. Given the brisk nature of the visual storytelling in the opening of the film (in 12 minutes we learn about the Mitchell family, meet their children, understand the financial pressure they’re under, meet the team at Conway, get introduced to seven or eight supporting characters, and then we’re up in the plane), director Crichton pulls that pace back, and allows the film to linger on Hawkins’ face (or one of the other characters), to rely on performance to propel the story along.

The second striking element is the performance of Elizabeth Sellars, whose Mary Mitchell is as close to breaking point in the domestic sphere as her husband is up in the air. This may be billed as a story about the man in the sky (my own narrative recap above focused almost wholly on this aspect), but it is clear that the woman in the house is also holding an increasingly shaky and unwieldy machine together, and the Mitchell marriage becomes the main problem the film has to solve. True, the film initially paints that problem in broad strokes (notably their inability to buy a new dream house), but it continues to cut back to Mary during the airborne drama (of which she is blithely unaware until close to the landing) and emphasises her perspective on the Mitchell’s lives. That the marriage is the main issue is also clear given that John’s (successful) landing occurs almost 15 minutes before the film ends, with the remaining time largely given over to a Hawkins-Sellars confrontation about his apparently suicidal decision on the plane, and their future life. It is a conversation that can seem one-sided, given John physically and verbally dominates it (Hawkins flirts with playing John as a bully here), but the camera often comes back to Sellar’s face while John continues his stern but blustering defence of his decisions (and refutes Mary’s belief he wanted to kill himself). Although this ends with John justifying himself and agreeing to buy their dream house, the visual focus on Mary (and her scenes throughout) suggests it remains open-ended, a papering over of the cracks, rather than a long-term solution.

The desire to play the drama through performance as much as dialogue or event, also reveal the visual strengths of the film: Crichton and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe use deep focus shots in places, particularly when shooting the crowds who gather on the airfield (often shooting down from the tower, with characters in fore- and background action clearly in focus); there is a playfulness around some compositions (the crowd running back and forth across the horizontal length of the frame to keep the plane in sight as it goes behind buildings) and a simplicity to others (the plane, isolated in the sky, while everyone stands together on the ground); while they favour a slow zoom into close-up on characters faces to emphasise emotional shifts (including a shot near the end of Hawkins in the bathroom, just after Mary has accused John of not thinking of the family: the frame pushes closer and closer in on him, and we see him snap)

With nice character moments scattered throughout (the reporter who is told this is only a story if the plane crashes, Conway being promised the contract if it lands, the tea ladies who complain no one is buying their tea because they’re staring at the sky), and some impressive sound design (the creaking and shrieking noises of the tortured plane make it sound alive in the central sequences), this remains a fascinating film, and one that should be better known among the Ealing canon.

[The Man in the Sky is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, is this Alec Guinness' (and Ealing's) finest hour? Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)...

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 86: Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

In the numerous celebrations and commentaries around the 100th anniversary of Scott’s expedition in 2012, few mentioned this Ealing hagiography of Captain Scott (John Mills), the studio’s big budget Technicolor epic of Antarctic exploration. Part of Michael Balcon’s belief that Ealing (and the British film industry more widely) should be producing films of great British heroes and events, the film’s simple narrative is visually overshadowed by strong landscape elements, and the (complicated) production history of its Technicolor imagery.

French film critic Andre Bazin dismissed Scott as a ‘boring and ridiculous undertaking... told with an almost pedantic formality’ (Bazin 1967, 157-8) and it is hard to challenge that assessment. After a brief 1904 prologue, the film jumps to 1908 and follows Scott as he gathers together money and men in England, including Bill Wilson (Harold Warrender), ‘Teddy’ Evans (Kenneth More), Taff Evans (James Robertson Justice), Bowers (Reginald Beckwith), and Captain Oates (Derek Bond). There is no real sense of why these men gather together, although dialogue does pay lip service to the spirits of scientific enquiry, adventure and patriotism. Slowly (it is 27 minutes before it leaves England), the film gets its characters to Antarctica, and off on the route to the Pole, now in a race against a Norwegian team. From there, the story treads familiar ground: the trek across the desolate landscape, the problems of the journey, the final five men arriving too late to claim their prize, and then dying on their journey home.

Any attempt to appreciate Scott, however, likely needs to ignore its narrative and thinly drawn characters, and focus instead on the staggering landscapes, images and Technicolor that sit at the heart of the film. Despite his dislike for the film, Bazin had noted the film was ‘a Technicolor masterpiece’ and ‘lavishly and carefully made’ – and that is an assessment that captures the issue at the heart of the film. That is not to say that such elements save the film (it remains too long, and too deferent) but they reveal its scope and ambition, something quite apart from Ealing’s reputation as a safe and restrained studio.

This is, after all, a film that required three cameramen/directors of photography: Osmond Borradaile shot the Antarctic imagery with a Technicolor Monopack camera; Geoffrey Unsworth filmed location images in Norway and Switzerland; and Jack Cardiff, who had the job of stitching those different colour palettes together with his own studio-bound footage. Sometimes that needlework succeeds (some of the Antarctic work, cutting from long and medium location to close studio images is convincing), at others it doesn’t (the ship’s departure features an awkward combination of a studio-bound ship and dockside with location scenes of a pier that doesn’t match in terms of colour), but there is no doubt that the impressive scale of the landscapes function as the film’s main visual spectacle.

Borradaile’s extreme long shots of the Antarctic landscapes, intercut with some of Unsworth’s location scenes on safer European snow slopes (which often feature stand-ins rather than the actual actors), sells the idea of isolation, with tiny groups of men, dogs and sleds lost in a white sea of icy and snow. Such images fuel the narrative themes more than dialogue and plot points, and provide an atmosphere that the studio work struggles to replicate. While the artificiality of the studio-bound Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948) emphasised the melodramatic nature of that film, here the studio artifice works against the power of the realistic imagery provided from the location work. While Cardiff struggled to match the colours, the unsettling yellow sunset tones and grey-green hues of the tent interiors work to undermine the realism that Ealing was obviously striving for.

Away from aesthetic issues, the film is also a film about men, not women. Kathleen Scott (Diana Churchill) is supportive (‘You knew the Antarctic long before you knew me’), Oriana Wilson (Anne Firth) is not, although that is conveyed through Firth’s largely mute performance. But they are two of only four female speaking parts, and all are dismissed within the first half hour. The male performances are a curious mix: Mills is his usual blank slate, perhaps frozen by the pressure of giving any real passion or life to this legendary figure; only James Robertson Justice stands out of the other men who make it to the Pole, offering some depth and humour to the otherwise po-faced characterisations.

At the end of the film, you know little about Scott, his motivations, whether his decisions (trying new machine sleds and ponies instead of relying purely on dogs) were truly the cause of the deaths, or (perhaps the film’s most crucial fault) why a failed expedition to the South Pole is worthy of celebration and memorialising. There is a curious scene early on where a Yorkshire crowd query why Britain should go to the Antarctic at all: like Scott, this Ealing film has no real answer to that question.

[Scott of the Antarctic is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, time is running out for The Man in the Sky (1957)...

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 85: Convoy (1940)

From the opening credits, which dedicate the film to the ‘Officers and Men of the Royal and Merchant Navy’ and the note that ‘many scenes in our film... were taken at sea under actual wartime conditions’ Convoy is, in many senses, the archetypal Ealing war film. The focus, like the later The Cruel Sea (1953) is on the captain and officers, and the choices they make during wartime; but the film also has time for the ordinary sailors, and their role in the running and order of the ship. The ship’s community, both above and below deck, is quickly but well drawn, although the addition of some of the broader character notes (and narrative developments) is an obvious reminder that this is Ealing Studios’ first attempt to create a war film that could successfully combine documentary footage with dramatic narrative scenes, propagandist tendencies with melodramatic acting styles and characters. Given that Ships with Wings (1941) and The Big Blockade (1942) were later, and less successful, attempts to combine similar aspects, it is telling that director Pen Tennyson – the man Michael Balcon described as the future of Ealing after his first film There Ain’t No Justice (1939) – managed it so convincingly here.

Captain Tom Armitage (Clive Brook) commands the officers and crew of HMS Apollo, as they head out to form part of a North Sea convoy, protecting ships heading into British ports. Joining the Apollo is Lt. David Cranford (John Clements), who had an affair with Armitage’s wife, Lucy (Judy Campbell) years before. Armitage and Cranford clash when it is revealed Lucy is on board a wayward merchant ship, the Sea Flower. Cranford is locked up for trying to send help, but narrative events – including a Nazi U-boat’s attempt to lure ships into a trap using the Sea Flower, and the appearance of a German dreadnought  – bring him back on deck in time to see Lucy, amend bridges with Armitage, and die a heroic death as the Apollo single-handedly takes on the dreadnought (called Deutschland, in a not-so-subtle metaphor).

While that description seems some distance from later Ealing films that make more claim to realism and documentary techniques, many of the film’s visual qualities owe an obvious debt to that developing tradition. Several long sequences pull together three key elements that would be central to Ealing’s wartime filmmaking approach: solid location filming (here, on board destroyers and other boats), strong ensemble performances, and often exceptional model work. The final face-off between the British and German ships, and the earlier submarine / North Sea Patrol battle make particular use of these elements, but the non-fighting scenes of ships at sea are equally strong examples of it.

One key element in the film’s success is the comic touch that would lighten later Ealing wartime films such as The Bells Go Down (1943), and that arises from the largely working class characters. The crew of the Apollo bicker about the lack of leave and have food fights in the mess; the minefield skipper (Hay Petrie) and his mate (Mervyn Johns) are busy fishing as guns boom in the distance; while there is a running joke about Armitage’s batman Bates’ (George Carney) inability to deliver a cup of hot coffee or cocoa to Armitage at the right time (until during the final battle). These small moments of humour do much to lift the creaky melodrama of the Armitage-Cranford-Lucy triangle, and some of the more on-the-nose propaganda (including Lucy reciting Nelson’s prayer on the eve of Trafalgar; the German captain noting ‘Their heart is British, they are attacking again’; or the Apollo crew offering German prisoners a tot of rum).

As a solid if not completely successful combination of drama and documentary, Convoy remains fascinating for what it gets right, and for what it suggests about a future Ealing that could never come, given that Tennyson died after completing this, his third Ealing film. Tennyson may have been one of Ealing’s great ‘might-have-beens’ after the success of There Ain’t No Justice and The Proud Valley (1940), but this film suggests that Ealing Studios were already learning specific lessons from the first ten or fifteen films produced under Balcon’s regime.

[Convoy is not currently available on DVD from Studio Canal]
Next time, Ealing's Technicolor celebration of British heroic failure in Scott of the Antarctic (1948)...

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 84: Dance Hall (1950)

Sometimes, when watching one of the Ealing films that make up this challenge, I am reminded of another film. Most often the link is to another Ealing Studios production or other examples of ‘classic’ British cinema: so, with Dance Hall that list might include female-centred dramas such as Millions Like Us (1943) or Ealing’s own The Feminine Touch (1956) or, prompted by the opening factory floor sequence, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) (a comparison that others made well before me, notably Melanie Williams in The British Cinema Book). Yet it wasn’t a British film I kept thinking of throughout my viewing of Dance Hall, but when harry met sally... (1989).

The film follows the lives of three girls who work together at the local factory, and play together at the local Palais. Carole (Diana Dors), Georgie (Petula Clark) and Eve (Natasha Perry) are first seen as the camera tracks left along the rows of machine, watching them singing and chatting about men and dancing. From here, we follow them getting prepared for a night out at the Palais, where we also meet Georgie’s dance partner Peter (Douglas Barr), Eve’s boyfriend Phil (Donald Houston) and cocky American Alec (Bonar Colleano). The triangle between Eve, Phil and Alec forms the core of the film, tracing Phil’s jealousy over Eve and Alec dancing together, Phil and Eve’s cramped marriage, separation and final dramatic reconciliation. While this is solid, the sub-plots get less focus which, in the case of Georgie and Peter’s progress through a competitive dance competition, isn’t that much of a problem, but the underuse of Carole/Dors is a real oversight. While she is the strongest comic actor of the three (there is a great line where she swears off men and insists she’s going to go and live in a monastery, before Georgie corrects her), Dors’ attempt to imbue Carole with any dramatic purpose is undercut by the script, which gives her little to do and (out of the blue) ends up with her engaged to the largely mute Mike (James Carney). At one point the film appears to be heading for a portmanteau set-up, with segments devoted to each girl (the film returns to the factory three times, and each time it seems like it will follow Georgie or Carole in more detail) but the pull of the Phil-Eve-Alec story proves too strong.

The obvious strength of the film is its openness to dramatising and exploring a group of working class women’s dreams and desires: the film doesn’t chastise Eve for wanting to go dancing, Carole for playing the field, or Georgie for choosing a beautiful ballgown over a dress bought by her mother. The men, particularly Phil and Alec, regularly come off worse in their scenes: Phil is needy and controlling in equal measure, Alec is aloof and smug, Mike is silent, while all Eve, Georgie or Carole want to do is dance at the Palais with their friends. That the film broadly supports their view is done partly through visual means and the amount of time it spends at the Palais: while other locations look cramped, dark and traditional, the dance hall is a vast and impressive set, bright, shining and modern. This set is constantly explored and framed by Douglas Slocombe’s mobile camera: tracking along the edges of the dance floor, sitting alongside the band, crane shots that sweep up to the balcony, and images down on the floor itself, shooting up through the whirl of dancing couples, moving alongside them, focusing on their feet, letting them sweep in and fill the screen. The mobility of the camera, and slick editing, means that scenes in the Palais move to a strong rhythm. The women are the heart of this story, but the spectacle is the dance hall itself: to emphasise this, shots of the women dressing up and preparing themselves are mirrored by images of the hall being swept and decorated for the following night’s entertainment.

So why then does the film remind me of when harry met sally...? At one level, it is the exploration of shifting relationship and romantic worries among a small group of couples, and the centrality of female sexuality and desire within that; while at another it is the culmination of both films in a New Year’s celebration where, in Dance Hall, Eve declares that she hates Phil before this on-an-off couple embrace to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. It is tempting to imagine that, like the later film (where the late Nora Ephron worked with writer-director Rob Reiner), the combination of Alexander Mackendrick and Diana Morgan (and ECH Emmett) is behind Dance Hall’s balance of comedy, romance and drama. That’s not to say Dance Hall is a romantic-comedy, or that its script is as sharp as Ephron’s, but that the attempt to mix romance and comedy, with a dramatic focus on interlinked male-female relationships, feels fresh and new for a 1950 film, as much as when harry met sally... did for a late 1980s audience.

It is a real shame that Dance Hall is not yet available on DVD, because the popularity of the cast (Clark and Dors particularly) and the subject matter would, I think, make it a strong film to be rediscovered and placed more centrally within understandings of post-war British cinema.

[Dance Hall is available on DVD from Studio Canal]
Next time, a final burst of wartime action as Ealing joins the Convoy (1940)...