Saloon Bar (UK 1940)

Someone’s come into the bar and caused consternation. From left: Jim (Gordon James), Sally (Joyce Barbour) Ivy (Anna Kostam), Wickers (Mervyn Johns) and Joe (Gordon Harker)

Saloon Bar is available on another of Network’s ‘Ealing Rareties’ DVDs, this time Vol 10. It’s an interesting film for several reasons. Michael Balcon had returned to ATP and had changed the studio’s brand to ‘Ealing Studios’ from November 1938. Saloon Bar was released in October 1940 as the 14th ‘Ealing’ film. The film is generally dismissed by both George Perry and Charles Barr, though its IMDb entry suggests that it works quite well for modern viewers and David Quinlan scores it highly. Barr situates Saloon Bar as “the last Ealing film to belong completely, in both form and content, to the old order, an unambitious stage adaptation . . .” Perry argues it suffers from a “verbose script and a pedestrian pace”. One score I can agree with Barr – the film doesn’t seem in any way connected to the Ealing films that respond to wartime Britain even though the war was over a year old and the previous two films, George Formby’s Let George Do It and Pen Tennyson’s Convoy are both set in wartime. In that sense it seems out of place, set as it is in December 1938 according to the Execution Order. On the other hand, the stage play by Frank Harvey Jr. was adapted by Angus McPhail and John Dighton, who would go on to write many of the better-known Ealing films of later years. Saloon Bar is photographed by Ronald Neame who had worked at ATP before Balcon’s return and would become a successful director, writer and producer during the 1950s. It is directed by Walter Forde who had a long history with Balcon and made four Ealing pictures before leaving for America. One of these was Cheer Boys, Cheer (1939) which Charles Barr identifies as a ‘proto Ealing comedy’ – prefiguring the set up of the late 1940s comedies.

Queenie (Elizabeth Allan) is the senior barmaid and the fiancée of the condemned man. Here she is comforted in a show of sisterly support by Sally and Ivy

The Perry criticism doesn’t stand up in my view. Yes, there is a lot of dialogue but is generally snappily delivered and I didn’t find the pace pedestrian at all. The film is only 76 mins long with a hectic finale. The main plot idea is that a young man is falsely accused of murdering his landlady and is then convicted. Despite a petition to the Home Secretary, the minister refuses a stay of execution and the young man is due to hang early next morning. The pub (in Soho?) where the young man’s fiancée is a barmaid, bemoans his fate, but one regular, a bookmaker (a ‘turf accountant’) returning from a tour of racetracks, decides to do some sleuthing of his own. Can he find out the truth in time to stop the execution? This character, Joe, is played by Gordon Harker, a well-known figure in 1930s British Cinema who often played in comedy thrillers, exploiting his cockney charm. He had previously played the role on stage. Other well-known names in the cast include Mervyn Johns, Felix Aylmer and Cyril Raymond. This is a traditional crime thriller/whodunit with comedy elements. It also features flashbacks for the events leading up to the crime.

A noirish shot of the surrounding streets as the chase is about to get underway

The story is set just before Christmas and the landlord of the pub is an expectant father. His wife, never seen, is upstairs, close to delivering number seven. This is the comedy sub-plot which also provides the ‘humanity’ of the Christmas story – a young man might hang at the same time that a child is born. The other Christmas touches include a gaggle of children carol singing and a couple in the bar sat by the window, oblivious to anything else but each other. The stage origins are obvious since most of the action takes place in the bar itself. But the streets outside do figure at various points and Ronald Neame provides some interesting expressionist shots of alleyways in a style which later would be called film noir. For American viewers I should point out that the ‘Saloon’ was the more salubrious of the various rooms of large pubs in England at the time, where middle-class patrons gathered – and where a waiter might bring drinks to your table. The ‘Public’ tended to be rowdier and the ‘Snug’ was usually the haunt of those who didn’t want to ‘mingle’ (particularly women) and were willing to pay higher prices. The pub in question is a traditional ‘local’ which is emphasised when an ‘outsider’ comes up to the bar and is ‘frozen out’ because everyone else is busy discussing the murder. At one point, Joe goes to the pub’s rival establishment, a place that has been tarted up with chrome and art deco interiors. This modernity means in Ealing terms we should be suspicious about it. One of the pub regulars is Sally, a woman who is ‘mother’ to the chorus girls in the theatre across the road – which may be a reference to the Windmill Theatre where static nudes were a big hit in the late 1930s.

The narrative’s unlikely hero, Joe. (Screengrab by ‘Rank and File: A British Cinema Blog’) Note that Wickers hasn’t moved from his perch.

Barr and others tend to suggest that 1930s British films featured older men and occasional younger women, a mainly middle-class milieu and a general sense of tradition triumphing over any sense of modernity. Saloon Bar certainly features many of these elements, but it also has, for me, a vitality that prepares us for the Ealing films to come over the next few years during the war. Keith Johnson from UEA offers an interesting analysis of the film as part of his trawl through Ealing’s entire output. The pub is remarkable as a studio set. For those of a certain age, the ‘Watneys’ brand of beer will cause a sharp intake of breath. In the late 1960s this was the brewery which seemed hell-bent on destroying ‘real ale’ with its keg beer ‘Red Barrel’. I was intrigued that the bar boasted a pinball machine. I only remember pinball machines in cafés, coffee bars and arcades – though they were quite common in Student Union bars! (Intriguingly there are two pinball machines in the rival, ‘modern’ pub.)The other intriguing cultural reference is to cycle-racing at Herne Hill velodrome. Joe claims that cycling there gave him powerful legs and he shows them off in the bar. The ensemble cast is very good with a nice turn by Mervyn Johns as Wickers, the owner of a ‘wireless shop’ (he sells radios). Wickers perches on his special seat by the bar, never moving and downing glasses of ‘Special Ale’. He talks using exaggerated language delivered deadpan and confusing for barmaid Ivy. These touches reveal an attempt to represent a recognisable ‘local’, albeit in the centre of London and the film ends with everyone coming together to celebrate the freed man, the new baby and Christmas round the corner – with a ‘lock-in’ which includes the local bobby.

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