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)...