The BBC has deposited another tranche of its RKO titles on iPlayer in the UK to enable us to entertain ourselves under lockdown. It’s a mixed bag but I haven’t seen any of them before and I’m always grateful for films without ads. I plumped for Yellow Canary which promised an interesting cast in a Herbert Wilcox production, released in the UK and the US through RKO. I’ve noted before on this blog that Wilcox was arguably the UK producer-director who attracted the largest audiences in the late 1940s for films most often built around the star performances of his partner Anna Neagle. The couple married in August 1943 soon after this film finished shooting. I think I’ve previously avoided quite a few of the couple’s films because the subject matter didn’t appeal but this is another rarity, a wartime spy thriller which isn’t a biopic (like Odette (1950)) and in which Anna Neagle is perceived as a villain.
This is an odd film in some ways, adapted from a story by P.M. Bower with a screenplay by British writer Miles Malleson and the American writer DeWitt Bodeen, who is possibly best known as the writer of Cat People (US 1942) and two other titles for Val Lewton at RKO. The explanation for this is that Wilcox and Neagle were working with RKO in the US in 1940-42 before coming back to the UK. The narrative of Yellow Canary is actually set in September 1940, meaning that the film had a slightly ‘looking back’ feel in 1944 when most audiences saw it. This is evident for me with the constant propaganda messages about ‘careless talk’ etc., much of it involving a character played by Margaret Lockwood. Such ‘warning’ films were more common in the early part of the war. Anna Neagle plays Sally Maitland, a ‘girl’ from a well-off military family who was in Germany pre-war and seems to be still favouring the Germans even after a year of the war. Her character is perhaps inspired by the ‘Mitford girls’. The six girls of that ‘real’ aristocratic family included Diana who was a fascist, the partner of Oswald Mosley, and who was interned during the war. Unity Mitford was attracted to Hitler and attempted suicide soon after war was declared. The film narrative suggests that Sally Maitland is pro-fascist but not dangerous enough to intern, especially as she is intending to leave for exile in Canada. Her parents and her younger sister Betty (an underused Nova Pilbeam), who has joined the Wrens, are glad to see her leave. They don’t know that she has been behaving suspiciously in a London flat where a man has been killed and attempts have been made to signal to German bombers. But British intelligence is watching her and when she boards a train to Liverpool she is followed by Commander Garrick of Naval Intelligence (Richard Greene) in civilian disguise.
The passage to Canada on a modest steamer sees Sally meeting Captain Orlock (Albet Lieven, a Polish officer who has escaped from Warsaw and is making the same trip to meet up with his mother in Canada. Is Sally a Nazi spy and is Orlock in danger? What does Garrick know? The final section of the film is set in Halifax, Nova Scotia where these questions are resolved. Note the exhortations in the film poster above. Years before Hitchcock and Psycho, audiences are advised to watch from the beginning and to avoid knowing the ending in advance. In 1943 screenings might have been in a ‘continuous programme’ with audiences entering a screening at any point.
I can’t quite make my mind up about this film. Anna Neagle is a strong performer and believable as a hard fascist character (though some of the actions and re-actions around her are harder to take). Richard Greene is more problematic for me because I haven’t seen anything of his work in Hollywood or British films up to this point. For me he has always been Robin Hood in the 1950s TV series. I’ve seen a suggestion that his good looks saw him rivalling Tyrone Power as a handsome action lead for 20th Century Fox. But in 1940 he had returned to the UK and enlisted in the Royal Armoured Corps which released him to make propaganda pictures like this one on three separate occasions. His post-war career didn’t meet the success he perhaps deserved but 144 episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood imprinted his action hero image on a generation of British children (the shows were broadcast from the start of ITV in 1955). Yellow Canary is generally well made at Denham with some atmospheric cinematography by Max Greene (Mutz Greenbaum) and it is quite pacey and engaging.
Somehow, however, it just doesn’t ‘feel’ like the other similar wartime spy thrillers and I have to agree with Monthly Film Bulletin‘s reviewer in 1943 (who calls it a ‘spy melodrama’) that although the script is ingenious, it invites a comparison with Hitchcock’s spy films and suffers as a result. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that Sally and Garrick have to work together in the end. The idea that they don’t trust each other and that they might have things to hide recalls Hitchcock films like The 39 Steps (1935). The script for Yellow Canary doesn’t really exploit the potential of this relationship. All spy films by their very nature test the audience’s credibility threshold but in this case the script goes too far. My comparison would be with Michael Powell’s films written by Emeric Pressburger, The Spy in Black (1939) and Contraband (1940). Powell & Pressburger (who joined to become ‘The Archers’) also produced 49th Parallel (1941), one of the best propaganda films ever made by UK filmmakers which was made entirely in Canada under wartime conditions before the Americans joined the Allies. There are some parallels between Yellow Canary and 49th Parallel, especially in the focus on the vulnerability of the Canadian Atlantic coast to penetration by U-boats. But The Archers films are far more exciting, and plausible, I think. I’m intrigued that Anna Neagle played opposite a much younger leading man. There seem to be some doubts about Richard Greene’s birth date but he is at least nine years younger and by most accounts thirteen years younger than Anna Neagle. It says a great deal about Anna Neagle’s status that such casting was possible in 1943 and she presents as a much younger woman. Would it happen today without any notice? I’m not suggesting it is a problem, just trying to understand how the film industry was then.
A trivia note to close on: it was interesting to see Cyril Fletcher in one of his first film roles. At the beginning of the film he is in effect playing himself as a swanky night-club entertainer, delivering waspish short pieces, one of which has Sally as its target. He became one of the first ‘celebrity TV entertainers’ in the 1950s.