One of several John Ford films made outside the US, Mogambo is also one of his most atypical films, although in its focus on a group of people brought together in a potential dangerous series of events, the narrative itself is not unfamiliar in his work. I’ve put the film down as an early example of Hollywood ‘inward investment’ in the UK film industry. In fact, Hollywood studios had been making films in their own studios in the UK since at least the 1920s when Hitchcock worked for Paramount in East London. In this case though, the film became part of a major move by both British and American studios into location shooting in colonial British East Africa during the early 1950s with The African Queen as one of the big successes of this move. With interiors shot at MGM’s Borehamwood Studio, the outdoor locations for Mogambo ranged across Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda and Congo. With major Hollywood stars and Ford as director of an American property it’s a Hollywood film, but the supporting cast and many of the crew were from the UK (including the great art director Alfred Junge and cinematographer for the studio scenes, Freddie Young).
Perhaps the the biggest surprise about the film is that there are none of Ford’s stock company on board. Working for MGM (because he needed money after the box office failure of his own company’s The Sun Shines Bright), Ford was forced to accept Clark Gable and Ava Gardner as the two leads. Mogambo (the title is Swahili for ‘passion’) is a remake of the 1932 pre-code film Red Dust with Gable and Jean Harlow. Gardner plays the Harlow part and Ford was able to insert at least an undercover ‘Irishness’ into the project by persuading MGM to cast the young Grace Kelly in the role taken by Mary Astor in 1932. Kelly was from a middle-class Irish-American family in Philadelphia. The film would make Kelly a star as well as reviving the careers of Gable and Gardner.
The setting of the 1932 film was Indochina and Gable was a rubber planter. In the 1953 film he runs a safari business with an important sideline in collecting animals to sell to zoos and circuses. The Harlow/Gardner character is a kind of up-market floosie who arrives at Gable’s base by chance and the Astor/Kelly character is the wife of a husband somewhat less overtly ‘masculine’ than Gable (Gene Raymond/Donald Sinden). In Mogambo, he is an anthropoligist. Originally from a play (by Wilson Collison) the adapted screenplay by John Mahin is full of one liners and the ‘play origin’ is still visible in the large number of interiors balanced by the exterior ‘action’ scenes. Many of the scenes with animals were shot by second unit crews. Ford was particularly sensitive about the treatment of the animals and declined to shoot these scenes.
‘Safari narratives’ were popular with UK/US audiences during the 1950s and 1960s and I remember that TV shows featuring Armand and Michaela Denis were popular on the BBC. Armand Denis was a Belgian filmmaker with a long history of documentary filmmaking in Africa. In the UK, Born Free, the story of the Austrian Joy Adamson who raised lion cubs in Northern Kenya was made into a major film in 1966. Earlier in 1951, the Royal Command Performance film selection had been Where No Vultures Fly, an Ealing picture about the struggles of Mervyn Cowie to establish wildlife conservation areas in Kenya. There were many others. From a contemporary perspective there are two major issues connected with such films. One is the question of animal welfare. Mogambo isn’t actually about the white hunter and ‘game’, but animals are killed, though not deliberately. The practice of collection of animals for circuses is now unacceptable to many audiences but game hunting as a ‘sport’ is still accepted in many countries (including the wealthy in the UK unfortunately). The other concern about these kinds of films is how they represent colonised peoples and the colonial experience. Mogambo as a narrative doesn’t fair too badly on this score. Gable’s character, Victor Marswell treats his African employees in a reasonable way (he’s much harder on his white worker Boltchak) and the main characters don’t make racist comments as far as I remember. Maybe the American story means that British colonial attitudes are less visible? The film credits each of four tribal peoples from Kenya, Tanganyika, Congo and French Equatorial Africa which seems a progressive step, even if there are no named individuals. On one occasion the safari reaches a village where the population is protesting about an aspect of colonial rule, but the party retreats without direct conflict. More to the point in 1952/3 was the impact of the production on the local economy. Ford was in effect the commander of a tented village housing over 300 people and making the film was like a military operation (the film’s producer Sam Zimbalist stayed in Hollywood). Three people were killed in road accidents and since this was the period of the Mau Mau campaign against the British, there were some security issues. In some ways, the representation questions are familiar from Ford productions in the US featuring Native Americans and African-American characters. The production received support from three colonial governments and doesn’t seem to have done great harm to local people while boosting some parts of the local economy. Ideologically the film does underpin the idea of wealthy whites enjoying African scenery as privileged tourists but it does at least give western audiences a chance to see ‘real’ African landscapes, rather than a Hollywood back-lot. My problem would be that Gable’s character exploits rather than conserves wildlife.
But is the film worth watching today – as a film narrative? I would say yes. The central trio of Gable, Gardner and Kelly are to my mind the equal of Gable, Harlow and Astor, though it is many years since I saw the earlier film and I know some critics think Red Dust is more erotic with the advantage of pre-code lack of self-censorship. It’s intriguing that Ford was the one who saw that the virginal, repressed wife of Gary Cooper in High Noon could become the ice blonde with the passion below the surface. Hitchcock latched on very quickly once Ford had shown the way and put Kelly into three films with great success during 1954-55. But Ford’s use of Ava Gardner is the high point of the film for me. The stories from the set suggest that Ford’s relationship with Gardner mirrored her character’s relationship with Gable/Marswell. At the beginning, Gable wants to send ‘Kelly’ (Eloise Kelly) away as quickly as possible, but chance means she has to stay and by the end of the narrative, he views her as a ‘real trouper’. Much the same happens with Ford, who begins treating Gardner with his ‘mean’ act, mainly because he wanted Maureen O’Hara for the part and he didn’t like to have to take orders from MGM. Gardner was of course upset, but she had it out with him and the two became friends. She joined the group of actors who even after his appalling behaviour found that they produced some of their best work for him and ended up praising him. Ava Gardner was often called the most beautiful woman in Hollywood during the late 40s and early 50s. I’m not going to argue with that statement. She is delightful in the film and a perfect foil for Gable and Kelly.
Mogambo makes great use of Technicolor and the location footage (by Robert Surtees) does justice to the landscape. Ford still preferred black and white for its artistic qualities but his time working with Merian C. Cooper and his own sense of visual qualities had already one one Oscar for colour photography (for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1949) The music for the film is not conventional scoring but makes use of traditional local African music plus a player piano which supports a song by Ava Gardner – the combination of folk song and diegetic music reminds us of Ford’s Westerns. Mogambo appears to have been a big hit for MGM and I am surprised by the amount of promotional material still available. There also seems to have been many stories about the shoot, but that’s often the case on large overseas productions like this. The film is widely available today and still worth watching.
Shirley Valentine is an essential title for our list of Liverpool films. It’s also an interesting film in terms of its audience and the group of creatives who made it a big hit in the reviving British cinema of the late 1980s. The film might be described as a ‘feelgood’, nostalgic feminist comedy-drama – a strange and perhaps contradictory description. Looking at reviews, I was interested to see a number of US reviews which are in some ways quite distanced and critically acute, but also quite welcoming and celebratory. Pauline Collins who plays the titular lead was Oscar-nominated and the original play had been a hit on Broadway so the the US reviews do make sense. But the fact that the film is an ‘opening out’ of a successful stage play that doesn’t solve all the problems inherent in that practice and has tended to downplay the artistic achievement in the UK.
If you aren’t familiar with the play or the film, here’s a brief outline. Shirley Valentine was a bright grammar school girl with a rebellious streak who somehow became Mrs Shirley Bradshaw and the traditional stay at home mother of two living in a suburban street in Liverpool. One day, after the kids have left home, her long moans to her kitchen walls finally lead to action and she accepts the chance to go on holiday to Greece with a friend Jane (Alison Steadman). She hopes to rediscover her younger self and surprise herself with what might happen. Her sudden change in behaviour is prompted by her nosy neighbour across the street (Julia McKenzie) who puts on ‘airs and graces’ and her children Milandra (Tracie Bennett) and Brian (Gareth Jefferson) and her husband Joe (Bernard Hill) who have all long ago taken her for granted. The cast also includes Tom Conti with a moustache as a Greek hotel/bar owner and both Joanna Lumley and Sylvia Syms in cameo roles.
I remember enjoying the film in the cinema with my partner, who identified with Shirley just as many other women in the UK would have done at the time. We were also conscious of the Liverpool setting and the fact that nearly everything worth watching in the 1980s in the UK seemed to be set in Liverpool. Willy Russell was the playwright behind Shirley Valentine as well as the earlier Educating Rita which also became a major film, in 1983 (it was filmed in Dublin but at heart it remains a Liverpool narrative). Russell had many other theatrical hits as well as TV drama scripts throughout the 1970s and 1980s and one other film Dancin’ thru the Dark (1990) based on his earlier script Stags and Hens (1978). He was one of the most successful of the Liverpool writers in this period. His work tended towards comedy, music and working-class life whereas Alan Bleasdale had similar success with more politically edged material such as his TV serial Boys from the Blackstuff (1982). Bernard Hill as ‘Yosser’ Hughes in that production became something of an iconic figure of resistance to Thatcherism in the 1980s with his catchphrase “Gizza a job” (“Give us a job!”). Watching Hill as Shirley’s husband in 1989 was undoubtedly different for many audiences in the UK than it might have been for those overseas. Bleasdale and Russell were both trained as teachers in the mid-1960s (they were born in 1946 and 1947) and therefore they were around as teenagers and young men with the rise of popular music and football ascendency for the city’s teams. Pauline Collins was born in 1940, slightly earlier than the writers and her character Shirley might already have been married by the time the Beatles and the other Liverpool bands became so influential. Several of the successful Northern comedies in the 1970s and 1980s have that slightly odd feeling of being written a few years before they emerged as popular films – and therefore have a slight nostalgic feel.
Shirley is very much the central character of her own narrative as emphasised by her conversations with the kitchen walls and with the camera. This latter was also famously an element of an earlier successful film (by a Northern-based writer, Bill Naughton) Alfie (1966), another film adapted from an earlier play. The link between the two films is also through the director Lewis Gilbert. Gilbert (1920-2018) was a remarkably successful British director who succeeded in several different genres. He followed a series of wartime-based dramas in the 1950s with three James Bond films and then both Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine looking back to Alfie. Always seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’, his success directing Julie Walters and Pauline Collins led to the suggestion that he was good with these roles which saw women changing their lives and creating a different identity. The result was that in 1991 he was was hired by Paramount to direct an American version of another similar British play, Steppin’ Out featuring Liza Minnelli. This seems to have turned out slightly less well (like the remake of Alfie?). Although these adaptations each derive from stage plays my feeling is that their referents are mainly a certain kind of British television production.
Although Pauline Collins made a big impression internationally as Shirley Valentine, her UK profile has always been maintained by her theatre work and her TV stardom rather than by cinema and this is true for most of the actors in the film of Shirley Valentine. In 1989 the UK cinema audience had increased significantly but was still not much more than half of its 2019, pre-Covid figure. I think this TV focus explains partly why the film today feels nostalgic for a period before the late 1980s. To give another example, Shirley’s trip to Greece sees her meeting various British holidaymakers still reacting xenophobically to local food and culture. This was one of the points of criticism of the film and it reminded me of British TV sitcoms, particularly Duty Free (three seasons 1984-6) featuring Gwen Taylor and Keith Barron. One of my favourite Monthly Film Bulletin critics, Philip Strick, offers in MFB October 1989 what is I think a typical response to the film which he suggests works because of Willy Russell’s skill with one-liners. What doesn’t work, he argues, are Shirley’s pieces to camera and the whole opening out of the play and peopling it with the characters who in the stage version were mentioned by Shirley but who didn’t actually appear in the flesh. I understand this criticism, but I don’t have any problems with the ‘to camera’ monologues. I also feel that films work with audiences in many different ways and in this case I think I know Shirley and all the characters, because they are ‘typical’ for British social comedy rather than because they are rounded characters in a drama. But perhaps this does date the film and thirty years on it stands primarily for enjoyable nostalgia and for a fine central performance.
(Nick Lacey offers his view of this film in an earlier posting here.)
Street Corner was chosen last week by the cineaste Carol Morley for her Friday night online film club viewing. It was directed by Muriel Box and written by Muriel and her husband Sydney from an original idea by Jan Read. Since I’m keen to see Muriel Box films, I followed the link to a free streaming of the film. It’s an interesting film for several reasons. The semi-documentary style and focus on ‘social problems’ as dealt with by women police officers manages to combine elements from Gainsborough’s ‘social’ films of the 1940s (when Sydney ran the studio) and the range of social problem melodramas that appeared during the 1950s. The film also relates to a sub-genre about women in uniform such as The Gentle Sex (1943) about women in the forces in wartime or the munitions workers in overalls in Millions Like Us (1943) as well as Ealing’s later The Feminine Touch (1956) about student nurses in the NHS.
The three stories, which are interwoven in this procedural about four women working from Chelsea police station, each focus on an issue which seems to be particularly ‘suited’ to investigation by women. This reads very differently now but when “cops in skirts”, as the dialogue has it, first appeared, they were expected to deal with certain kinds of cases. One here is a child at risk from negligent and potentially abusive parents and the second is about a young woman who has gone AWOL from her WRAC posting. The third is about a young mother who is caught shoplifting and then seems to be falling into a classic ‘good-time girl’ narrative. This latter story is the most extended and leads into a familiar crime story about a bungled robbery and its aftermath. The Monthly Film Bulletin review at the time is rather ‘sniffy’ and refers to what it calls ‘The Blue Lamp formula’. I think the film has some saving graces but I have to agree that the four women do appear to “have the makings of a good hockey team”. They seem very middle-class.
The main problem for the film, which is technically very good in its use of location work by Box’s long-term collaborator Reginald Wyer, is that attitudes towards women and police work have changed so much since 1953. It’s also quite disconcerting that the cast is awash with actors who would later become very well known in British film and TV. I’ll name some of them here but there are many others. Fans of the sitcom Porridge will be amused to see a young Brian Wilde, already ‘typed’ as a worried man. In many scenes, that woman in the background or at the front desk in the police station will be Dandy Nichols, Thora Hird or Dora Bryan. Terence Morgan is typed as the wide boy/spiv jewel thief, aided and abetted by Michael Medwin in painted ties and light-coloured suits. Michael Hordern appears as a rather bemused Detective Inspector with Maigret pipe. But it’s the female leads who provide the flavour of the narrative.
Anne Crawford was well-known for her upper middle-class roles in both Millions Like Us (slumming it until Eric Portman as a factory foreman sorted her out) and They Were Sisters (1945). Here she is still recognisable as an older WPC. Rosamund John who featured in The Gentle Sex is the efficient Sergeant and Barbara Murray is the younger and more sophisticated WPC, caught in a posh dress shop trying on hats when she spies a suspect. To be fair all the action is around Knightsbridge and Chelsea. The fourth woman is the plain clothes WDC played by Sarah Lawson. Eleanor Summerfield has rather a thankless role as the WRAC but she does well and Peggy Cummins plays the would-be ‘Good-Time Girl’ (the subject of the Gainsborough film with that title featuring Jean Kent in 1948). At one point the Peggy Cummins character is in a nightclub (see above) which a police inspector later identifies as a place where “escaped girls from Approved Schools hang out” – a direct reference to the earlier film (which Muriel Box co-wrote).
Street Corner is credited as a production of London Independent Producers and made at the ‘Gate Studios, Elstree’. But the film is distributed by GFD (General Film Distributors), the distribution arm of the J. Arthur Rank Organisation. The Gate Studio was a single sound stage bought by Rank in 1950 with the intention of making religious films. Sydney Box decided to go independent when Gainsborough closed but he initially needed Rank for distribution. Muriel Box directed three films for the new company before working on films for other producers. She was in many ways the most prolific woman, as both writer and director, in the British film industry during the studio period.
I’m not sure what to make of Street Corner. It’s lively with some very good action sequences and I found it easy and enjoyable to watch. My main complaint is about the tone of the four women police officers. Rosamund John apart, the other three sound like head prefects talking down to younger girls who should know better. I’m surprised at this because the Boxes had great experience with social issue pictures and working-class characters at Gainsborough and before that for Sydney’s Verity Films. It occurs to me that perhaps the portrayals are realist in terms of the kinds of women who were recruited by the police in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Metropolitan Police was the biggest employer of women officers of all police forces but still had only around 200 women who were given specific roles and segregated from male officers in terms of ranks and facilities until the 1970s and the Equality Laws of the period. The Met is thanked for its co-operation in making the film on the credits. Certainly the film is important not just as a film directed by a woman in the early 1950s but also because of its depiction of working women, using their intelligence, bravery and range of skills in capturing criminals and resolving some social problems. The film was re-titled for the US market (possibly to avoid confusion with an earlier film titled Street Corner). But Both Sides of the Law is not a good title for me – it implies possible police corruption.
Venetian Bird deserves to be much better known. In some ways it’s similar to the Carol Reed films, The Third Man (1949) and The Man Between (1953). In those films, a British/American character finds himself in a post-war city (Vienna and Berlin respectively) involved in a murky investigation which involves an aspect of wartime legacy and contemporary issues focused on a man who doesn’t necessarily want to be found. As the title suggests, this 1952 film is set in Venice which is beautifully rendered on screen by Ernest Steward on only his second feature as DoP. Steward would go on to shoot many films for producer Betty Box in the 1950s and she should get great credit for an excellent overall production. The music too is worth noting, one of several scores for British productions in this period by Nino Rota.
Betty Box and director Ralph Thomas had got together as a team for the first time in 1950 to make another excellent and under-rated thriller The Clouded Yellow. It was a difficult period just then when Rank was re-organising and consolidating its resources. Betty Box survived the closing of the old Gainsborough Studios which she had helped to run with her older brother Sydney. He had run the main facility in Shepherd’s Bush and Betty had run the smaller studio in Islington. By 1952 she was safely housed at Pinewood and working effectively with production chief Earl St. John. Betty and Ralph Thomas would become a very effective team at Pinewood making more than 30 films over the next 25 years. Most of them made money, especially the comedies and with her husband Peter Rogers producing the later Carry On series, the couple could be seen as keeping Rank afloat until the mid 1970s. Betty Box eventually developed a strategy at Rank which involved her agreeing to make yet another ‘Doctor’ comedy (i.e. Doctor in the House, 1954 etc.) if in return the studio would finance one of her own more interesting adventure films. These were often made abroad and particularly in Italy. Her love affair with Italy began with Venetian Bird, almost completely shot in Venice.
Venetian Bird was adapted from a novel by Victor Canning who wrote the screenplay himself. Canning was a prolific writer from the 1930s onwards whose work became more widely used in cinema and then on TV from the 1950s. He had been stationed in Italy during the war and his detailed knowledge of Venice proved useful in deciding on locations. The central character of the film is Edward Mercer (Richard Todd) who arrives in Venice on a mission for a Paris insurance company. He is charged with finding an ex-partisan named Renzo Uccello (John Gregson). ‘Uccello‘ can have several meanings in Italian, some rather dubious, but ‘bird’ is perhaps the most common? Mercer gets help from a seemingly respectable brothel-keeper Rosa (Margot Grahame) who he knows from previous visits to Italy and his investigations lead him to a large house acting as a form of art gallery with a diverse collection of objets d’art and here he meets Adriana Medova (Eva Bartok), a beautiful young woman who at first seems impervious to his charms and who manages to appear to be helpful without giving Mercer any real help at all. In the meantime, it becomes clear that Uccello doesn’t want to be found and that somebody wants Mercer out of the way. Eventually Mercer is investigated by the police who at first let him go before he is framed for a serious crime, making him a wanted man.
I’ve read quite a few comments on the film (mostly American) which complain that it is too ‘talky’. That’s a common American complaint about European films. ‘Too much’ dialogue is perhaps a question of taste, but I think the plot does get over-complex at times and I did get confused. Part of the problem is explained by Betty Box in her autobiography Lifting the Lid (The Book Guild, 2000). The local Italian officials were generally supportive of the shoot but they demanded certain changes for political reasons which although on the surface don’t seem to have made much difference, actually make the political action in the film hard to follow. Some other commentators criticise the camerawork and suggest this is a low budget film, a ‘British ‘B’ film noir‘. This is just nonsense. The film was distributed in the US by United Artists. In the UK it was certainly an ‘A’ picture.
One of the difficulties of a retrospective viewing of the film is that the three main leads were all in the early stages of their careers as leading players. Richard Todd and John Gregson were the same age but Gregson had a lower profile in his early career at Ealing. Todd had found instant success while under contract to ABPC, being nominated for an Oscar in the lead role of The Hasty Heart in 1949 alongside Ronald Reagan and Patricia Neal. The apex of his career was playing as Guy Gibson in The Dambusters (1955) after which it slowly declined through the 1960s. In the 1950s though he offered a young, handsome and virile persona. Some commentators see Venetian Bird as a forerunner of James Bond style thrillers. Ian Fleming is said to have wanted Todd as Bond for Dr No. As a public school and vocally Tory figure he would have made a very different Bond. John Gregson became a star later with light comedy roles such as in Genevieve (1953) probably dominating his other familiar roles as decent men with integrity in war pictures. In this context his Italian partisan with dubious politics seems odd casting but this is the role that might have been most altered by interference from Italian authorities. Although the film was shot almost completely in Venice, all the main Italian characters are played by British actors. Eva Bartok was Hungarian but her English is very good in the film. Betty Box had originally wanted Gina Lollobrigida but at this time her English was not yet good enough for the part. Ms Bartok was quite difficult to deal with but I think her performance works well in the completed film and after this film and the earlier The Crimson Pirate (1952) with Burt Lancaster, she became a familiar lead player in both British and German films.
The chase scenes in the closing section of the film feature rooftops and spectacular shots of Venice. They are reminiscent of those at the end of The Clouded Yellow (which ends at Liverpool Docks). There are suggestions that these sequences might have influenced later Hitchcock films and they certainly look familiar when compared to numerous later European thrillers. Betty Box includes one interesting anecdote about the studio support for the film. Michael Balcon, Head of Ealing was also a major producer at Rank and he voted against making Venetian Bird because it had only one British character and was “a story about Italian people against an Italian background”. For Balcon it wasn’t a ‘native’ narrative. Earl St. John disagreed and the picture went ahead. Balcon’s attitude, which was perhaps justified in wartime, seems way out of date by the early 1950s. Betty Box thankfully ignored Balcon’s limited view and made several more films in Europe in the 1950s and ’60s.
Talking Pictures TV showed another rare and intriguing British film this week with this strange offering from 1959, distributed originally by Renown, the company linked to TPTV. I’ve given both titles as the film was released in the US by Allied Artists and it stars two well-known Hollywood names from the period.
There are many strange aspects of the production. It is an adaptation of an A. J. Cronin novel. Cronin’s work was the basis for many films, most famously The Citadel (1937), The Stars Look Down (1940) and Hatters Castle (1942). These were UK productions, but other adaptations were produced in Hollywood and, I was surprised to discover, in various Indian language cinemas. There have also been several TV adaptations in territories around the world. Beyond This Place is an adaptation of a novel written in 1950 – when Cronin was resident in the US. It had already been adapted for US television with Sidney Lumet directing in 1957. All of this suggests that a Cronin adaptation should still have been a ‘prestige’ production of some kind, yet this 1959 film was shot at Walton Studios (once Nettlefold Studios and in the late 1950s mainly involved in TV productions) by an independent producer. It was made in black and white and presented in 1.37:1, almost as if was produced for television.
But though it may seem a low-budget production, there is a starry cast and some well-known creatives are involved. It’s the second directorial feature for Jack Cardiff, the celebrated cinematographer, and also an early outing for Ken Adam, listed as ‘Art Director’. The camerawork itself is in the hands of Wilkie Cooper, a major figure in British cinema since his first film as DoP on The Foreman Went to France (1942). The two American stars are Vera Miles and Van Johnson and the British actors include Jean Kent, Emlyn Williams and Bernard Lee.
The narrative begins in Liverpool with Irish migrant Patrick Mathry playing with his young son Paul in the park. The time appears to be early in the war when Liverpool was the second most-bombed city in the UK after London. We then see Mathry visiting a young woman, but he leaves angrily when the woman’s room-mate intervenes just before an air-raid. After the air-raid Mathry is arrested for murder. The story then leaps forward to the present when Paul Mathry (Van Johnson) arrives on a merchant ship from America. With four days leave he is determined to find out what happened to his father and he finds a helpful librarian Lena (Vera Miles). Paul discovers that his father was found guilty of murder but was not hanged and instead is serving a long sentence in HMP Wakefield. Shocked by his discovery (his mother had told him his father had been killed during the war and she and Paul had subsequently been evacuated to New York) he begins to investigate the murder case, helped by Lena.
This brief description should already raise questions. The murder was in 1941 so Paul should only be in his mid-twenties (in the novel I think he is a recent graduate, working on ships to see the world). Van Johnson was 42 when the film was shot in 1958. He was always a fresh-faced actor but it doesn’t make too much sense to cast him in the lead. Vera Miles, at the time under contract to Hitchcock after The Wrong Man (1956), would have been in her late twenties, possibly a little old for the part, but otherwise OK. The plot later reveals that she is Canadian, but her accent is not pronounced.
There is a considerable amount of location footage in Liverpool in the film and this is what originally attracted me. As in some other Liverpool set films, there are trips on the ferry, through the Mersey tunnel and around the waterfront and the docks. This latter location raises a set of questions about genre. A chase sequence through the docks at night is atmospherically shot, making great use of bright lights and dark shadows, reminiscent of John Alton’s late 1940s work. This sequence could come from a film noir – as could the delving into a past murder case and the character of the chief witness, the ‘other woman’ played by Jean Kent. But much of the rest of the narrative feels more like a family melodrama. Cronin was well-known as a writer of exciting dramas that often feature a crusading character and conflicts built around questions of social class, privilege and injustice. That’s the case here too. As Paul investigates it becomes clear that his father’s trial was a career breakthrough for both the prosecuting counsel and the senior police investigator. Lena is a potential romantic partner for Paul but she too has a back story that raises questions about social issues. When I watched the film I had the very strong feeling that I was seeing a film from 1950 rather than 1959. The Academy ratio and the noir lighting are probably the main reasons for this. Jean Kent became a star as a young woman in the 1940s often playing ‘good-time girls’, femmes fatales or darker characters in melodramas. A couple of years after Beyond This Place she played Queen Elizabeth I in ITC’s tea-time TV series, Sir Francis Drake (1961-2).
I enjoyed many aspects of the film despite its flaws. The Cronin story was adapted by Kenneth Hyde and the screenplay then produced by Ken Taylor. There are several changes to the original story and I get the impression that too much might have been crammed into the script. I found the film fast-moving but several commentators complain it is slow-moving. Perhaps this is connected to the confusion over genre expectations? The Liverpool setting works well in terms of location shooting but like those other Liverpool set films produced from London (e.g. The Magnet, 1950 or Waterfront, 1950), there are no genuine scousers, or at least actors with recognisable scouse accents, amongst the cast. I’m not sure the UK title helped the film – what does it mean? (The US title is more generic, but at least it offers something familiar.) I realise that I don’t really know the Cronin novels or the other film adaptations, though I have heard episodes of radio serials and of course as I a child I couldn’t avoid the BBC adaptation of Dr Finlay’s Casebook, which ran for 8 seasons between 1962 and 1971. Cronin (born in 1896) was Irish-Scottish by background (Paul in the novel of Beyond This Place lives in Belfast) and trained as a doctor. His medical training perhaps turned him away from religion to which he returned in the 1930s when illness and convalescence turned him towards writing which came to him very easily. Religion and medicine are both important elements in his stories. He was one of several popular novelists whose novels were adapted during the studio period of filmmaking. Some of that solid storytelling is certainly evident in Beyond This Place and I think I’ll now be more prepared to look at some other Cronin adaptations.
Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records is a conventional but very enjoyable music documentary about the brief period of independent success by the record label that introduced Jamaican popular music to the wider British public in the late 1960s/early 1970s and in doing so fostered the development of Black British music. In an interview, the director Nicolas Jack Davies says that he hoped that his documentary would record the history of black and white fans coming together in their love of Jamaican music in the 60s and early 70s and also present the context of an inhospitable and racist culture that young Jamaican migrants were forced to confront. I think the film does achieve this through its interview format and specifically its choice of ‘witnesses’. It’s a useful marker of the 50th anniversary of the emergence of an important record label and a distinctive music culture.
The film is a fairly straightforward chronology of the development of Jamaican popular music from the early 1960s Jamaican interest in American rhythm and blues and soul through to the development of ska and rocksteady and then the emergence of heavier ‘roots’ reggae and lighter ‘lovers rock’ in the UK in the mid-1970s. Much of this history can be found in a range of written music histories, including the detailed study, Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King by Lloyd Bradley (2000). The history might have been familiar to me but it was good to see it brought to life in this film and there were certainly things I learned. Many of the original record producers from the 1960s are sadly no longer with us and others were perhaps not available. Davies decided on a three-pronged strategy. His principal ‘witnesses’ tell us their own personal stories which together provide the historical record. Brief filmed re-enactments alongside archive footage provide the context and illustrate some of the stories. The innovation here is that young actors play some of the older witnesses. This seemed to me to work well. We see a young Dandy Livingstone (played by Kyle Reece Bell) arriving in the UK and his initial reactions alongside the real singer and his memories. Similarly we get witness statements by producer Bunny Lee, performers Derrick Morgan, Pauline Black and Neville Staple, each I think with a younger actor playing their younger selves. Black and Staple were part of the later ‘Two-Tone’ movement, one of the important developments that followed Trojan’s success. Don Letts, Lee Scratch Perry and Marcia Griffith also contribute. The specifically Trojan story is presented in archive footage of founder Lee Gopthal who set up the Trojan label in 1968 in a deal with Island’s Chris Blackwell. Gopthal already had music shops and Jamaican music interests. The story is mainly told through statements by Trojan’s employees at the time plus fans and other commentators.
One of the pleasing aspects of the film is its careful preservation of aspect ratios for the archive material (much of it shot for TV) presented inside the 2.35:1 frame used for the witness statements and dramatic reconstructions. The careful presentation of archive footage helps in one of the film’s major aims – to provide younger audiences with a visual representation of how white working-class audiences became early supporters of Jamaican popular music. This is the history which informs Shane Meadows’ ‘personal’ story, This Is England (UK 2006). The two films together would make an interesting double bill. It was later in the 1970s that white skinheads would be targeted by the racist National Front. This in turn was resisted in the emergence of 2 Tone from 1979.
The actual story of the rise and fall of Trojan as a record label is perhaps the least successful part of the film for me. The label grew very quickly between 1969 and the early 1970s and at one point Trojan had five Top 40 records in the UK with most of the stars of Jamaican music making an appearance on the label at some point. The decline appears to have been a combination of a lack of resources and infrastructure necessary to fully exploit the popularity of the music and a classic ‘over expansion’ which raised costs when the business didn’t have enough capital to sustain its operations. The result was that the label had to be sold and, although it still exists today, most contemporary music fans will have come across Trojan (a name inspired by the type of truck which carried Duke Reid’s sound system around Jamaica in the early 1960s) as a re-issue label. It’s difficult to convey the economics of the music business in a film like this when the natural urge is to hear another interesting anecdote or simply to play another classic song. Music fans will be pleased perhaps to learn that one of the ‘wrong decisions’ was to attempt to ‘sweeten’ the sound of the early 1970s reggae records by adding string arrangements in order to attract more mainstream record buyers. This raised the production costs and alienated the ‘roots’ fans – a familiar story from several periods of music history. The result of the collapse of Trojan became part of the story of the divergence in the 1970s between the heavier ‘roots reggae’ with its deeper Rastafarian political and spiritual tones and the emergence of the lighter ‘lovers’ rock’ in London. But that’s another, and just as complex, story.
Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records has had successful festival screenings and is now lined up for VOD and physical media, initially in the US. I saw it as part of the ‘We Are One Festival’ online and it fitted in very well. I’d love to see it on a big screen and hear the music from a quality sound system. The official website has some info on releases.