My Brother Jonathan was a major commercial success for ABPC, the only meaningful rival for the Rank Organisation as a vertically integrated British film studio in the late 1940s. Its stars Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray later became a fixture on the British stage and one of the best-loved husband and wife teams in UK films and TV. Denison returned from war service in 1946, but Gray had continued to enjoy a film career with several major films since 1944. It isn’t difficult to see why the film was a success. It was adapted from a popular novel by Francis Brett Young (1884-1954) who had become a successful writer after being invalided out of military service in 1918. Young had been a doctor from a family of doctors in the West Midlands and he wrote about what he knew. My Brother Jonathan tells the selfless story of loyalty and courage shown by a young doctor in 1914 and the years following. It is particularly effective in presenting the class divide in medical care in the early 20th century, especially in the great industrial towns. The film adaptation was released a few weeks before the National Health Service was officially launched in the UK.
The film was another of the treats on Talking Pictures TV and the print used is in very good condition. Experienced director Harold French and DoP Derek Williams (with only a few, but prestigious, credits) are supported by some excellent set design and use of locations in depicting the contrasting worlds of the Shropshire/Worcestershire countryside, the industrial Black Country and society London. The narrative has a familiar structure. It begins at the end of the war in 1945 when Tony, a young RAF doctor played by Pete Murray (later known as a radio/TV DJ), returns home to find his father Dr. Jonathan Dakers (Michael Denison) in pensive mood. When Tony tells his father that he is thinking of leaving the medical profession, Jonathan begins to tell him about the story of his family. The main part of the narrative is then presented in flashback. The film’s title is slightly confusing in that it suggests that it is told by Jonathan’s younger brother Hal (Harold) played by Ronald Howard), but he disappears as a narrator part way through the narrative. In outline, the film starts with the two young Daker boys from a lower middle-class family in a rural town in the 1900s who wander into a cricket match at the ‘big house’ where Hal will display his cricketing prowess and Jonathan will become smitten by the beautiful young daughter of the house, Edie (Beatrice Campbell). Several years later, Jonathan is training to be a surgeon at the ‘North Bromwich Hospital’ (novelist Young’s version of Birmingham) when a family crisis forces him to give up his ambitions to be a London surgeon and instead join an ailing general practice in industrial ‘Wednesford’. He has also to support his younger brother at Cambridge and his struggle to win Edie gets tougher. It’s a story with elements that readers and film audiences would recognise in 1948 from A. J. Cronin’s The Citadel in 1937/8. I won’t spoil any more of the plot, though you will notice Dulcie Gray hasn’t appeared yet!
I wasn’t sure about the film for the first 10-20 minutes, but it grew on me and I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. I think a great deal depends on Michael Denison’s performance. He has to age dramatically from a young man in his early 20s to a father in his late 50s (a little overdone, I think so that some reviewers refer to him as ‘elderly’). Denison was then 32 and he appears very ‘polished’, bright, alert, slim and full of vitality. He’d been at Harrow and Magdalen College, Oxford and his confidence shines through. Many of the British films and their male stars of the late 1940s were dark and brooding. It’s not difficult to see Denison as appealing to a significant segment of the female audience. Denison as Jonathan is perhaps too noble in the early part of his role in the industrial community, but he comes into his own at a public meeting of the hospital board where his charisma and eloquence is displayed very effectively. This scene (reminiscent of Henry Fonda in a John Ford courtroom) also works because of the calibre of the supporting players such as Stephen Murray as the corrupt Doctor Craig and Finlay Currie as Doctor Hammond the older doctor whose new partner is Jonathan Dakers (Dulcie Gray plays Hammond’s daughter, Rachel). Bit players include Wilfred Hyde White on the hospital board, James Robertson-Justice as Jonathan’s father and Thora Hird, inevitably, as a servant.
Two connections to other films suggest something about the way in which British film culture worked in the late 1940s. Dulcie Gray played the youngest of three sisters in They Were Sisters (1945) abused by James Mason’s character. They Were Sisters was also adapted from a popular novel and has a similar time structure with a prologue in the years just after the First World War and then a story played out up to the late 1930s. It also has some unusual ‘family arrangements’. It too was very successful as a film and like My Brother Jonathan became one of the top British films of the year. The theme of families re-uniting during and after wartime was, not surprisingly, important for audiences. Another similar film was The Weaker Sex (1948). A second kind of connection comes through the original author Francis Brett Young who had gone to school at Epsom College and who in later life became a close friend of Hugh Walpole, living close to him in the Lake District. Walpole wrote the novel on which Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill (1948) was based and used Epsom College, where he taught, as a model for the school in the film. I think this kind of connection tells us something about what has been called ‘middlebrow culture’ in the UK in the 20th century. My Brother Jonathan is a good example of that culture. It is available on DVD from Network in the UK.