A few weeks ago I posted on John Ford’s Gideon’s Day (UK-US 1957) and mentioned Ealing’s The Long Arm as a reference point. The Long Arm turned up on Talking Pictures TV a little while later and offered an opportunity to make a comparison. In this film Jack Hawkins, a regular Ealing player in the 1950s, plays a Scotland Yard Superintendent – as he does in Gideon’s Day. However, the two films are quite different. The Ealing production was made in black and white and broadcast in Academy (1.37:1). IMDb suggests that this was always the intended ratio, even if widescreen was established in the UK by 1956. Unlike the Ford film, with its multiple cases all solved in a 24 hour period, The Long Arm is essentially a narrative about a single investigation spread over several days, perhaps weeks. The common features of the two films are the presence of Jack Hawkins and the family melodrama elements of the Superintendent’s home life. In Gideon’s Day that element is foregrounded by the romance of Gideon’s daughter which is cleverly interwoven with the day’s police action. In The Long Arm Superintendent Halliday’s young son does inadvertently provide his father with a clue that helps the investigation but the theme of romance (and the difficult life of a police officer’s wife) is displaced onto Halliday’s new assistant, DS Ward (John Stratton).
I’ll focus on The Long Arm and return to the comparison later on. The narrative is based on a story by Robert Barr which he adapted with Janet Green for The Long Arm. Barr was a remarkable man who worked in newspapers, radio and then television. He was a radio features writer in 1946 who took the opportunities offered by the re-launched TV service, writing one of the first TV documentaries, a report on Germany under Allied Occupation. He then began to move between non-fiction and drama, focusing on police operations in the UK and becoming something of an expert on Scotland Yard. The Long Arm was the first appearance of his work on film but he was soon to be successful writing for popular TV crime fiction series, mostly police procedurals. He worked on both Z-Cars and its successor Softly, Softly in the 1960s and 70s. Scan down the credits for The Long Arm and you will find Stratford Johns as a Police Constable. Johns would eventually become one of the main stars of Z-Cars and then Softly, Softly. Barr’s collaborator on The Long Arm was Janet Green who had been an actor in the 1930s and subsequently a screenwriter and playwright, writing first for Rank on The Clouded Yellow (1950), an excellent chase thriller, and on another intriguing crime fiction, Eyewitness (also in 1956). She would become best-known for her later scripts for the Basil Dearden-Michael Relph partnership on films such as Sapphire (1959) and Victim (1961). In 1966 Green would be one of the three writers on John Ford’s last feature, 7 Women. I mention these links partly to highlight Ealing’s role in providing blueprints for TV drama series, especially ‘cop shows’ and also the work of ex-Ealing staffers like Dearden and Relph after Ealing collapsed.
The Long Arm was directed by Charles Frend, one of the central group of directors who made multiple films for Ealing. His thirteen films for Ealing comprise a diverse collection which includes major hits such as The Cruel Sea (1953), ‘prestige’ pictures such as Scott of the Antarctic (1948) and the children’s adventure The Magnet (1950). Frend’s reputation seems to have suffered a little since although he made some of Ealing’s best films he didn’t display the kinds of ‘personal vision’ beloved of the auteurists so he is not celebrated like Robert Hamer or Sandy Mackendrick. Nor did he make any of the well-known Ealing comedies. His Ealing career ended with Barnacle Bill in 1957. This was in fact a comedy with Alec Guinness, but like his earlier comedy effort A Run For Your Money (1949), it is now largely forgotten. Instead, I would argue Frend’s most interesting films are San Demetrio London (1943) about an oil tanker miraculously surviving during the Battle of the Atlantic, The Cruel Sea (1953) and Lease of Life (1954).
The plot of The Long Arm pits Halliday against a clever criminal who manages to open the safes of various companies in Central London, the first of which is virtually under the noses of the police. The script is intelligent, though whether it is plausible is open to question. The investigation is thorough and eventually leads to a finale played out on the South Bank by the Royal Festival Hall, then only a few years old. More interesting for me was to see the British European Airways Terminal close by. In the 1950s both BEA and BOAC had check-in buildings in the centre of London and BEA used the ‘Waterloo Airline Terminal’ between 1953 and 1957. The Long Arm was Ealing’s second police-focused drama following The Blue Lamp (1950). That film featured ‘beat bobbies’ and exciting car chases in what was also a ‘social problem’ drama dealing with younger and more reckless criminals. Gordon Dines photographed both films, but The Long Arm features a more ‘opened out’ investigation which takes Halliday out of London, visiting North Wales, and as well as featuring familiar Central London streets it includes Halliday’s home in a quiet street in Bromley.
So what does this all add up to and how does it compare to Ford’s film a year later? Jack Hawkins gives a very strong performance in both films but The Long Arm suffers from weaker roles for women. Despite the modernist poster at the head of this blog post, The Long Arm feels tired and already old-fashioned next to Gideon’s Day. On the other hand it is a proper investigation and in some ways it does indeed resemble the later TV police procedurals. Some crime fiction film fans try to promote it as an example of ‘British noir‘, but I can’t accept that label. There are plenty of night-time scenes but little else that is recognisable as part of the noir crime film repertoire. It is an acceptable Ealing ‘entertainment’ and it points towards later TV cop shows.
The Shiralee is the fourth of Ealing Studios’ Australian films and I think it is an impressive melodrama, revisiting a familiar Ealing genre from the late 1949s and early 1950s. By this point in 1957 Ealing had sold its studio facilities to the BBC and left the uncertain embrace of the Rank Organisation to take up residence at MGM-British in Borehamwood. This did at least have the promise of better international distribution even if the Ealing team did feel that something had been lost in the move.
A ‘shiralee’ is a slang term borrowed from indigenous Australian languages which means a burden of some kind. It was often used to refer to the ‘swag’, the few possessions that an itinerant worker carried with him from one small town or farm to another. Ealing was fortunate to be able to cast Peter Finch, who was born in the UK, grew up in Australia and then became an actor back in the UK, as the swagman. It’s hard to imagine any other actor quite so qualified to play the role. Finch had appeared in a small part in Ealing’s 1949 Australian film Eureka Stockade and had gradually moved into lead roles in British cinema. He had a terrible reputation (gleefully celebrated by the press) as a boozing womaniser. He was also a bloody good actor. The story was adapted from a first novel by D’Arcy Niland. The script was by the director Leslie Norman and Neil Paterson. Norman had been on Harry Watt’s productions for The Overlanders and his other films in East Africa and Australia and by this time had become a director after many years as an editor and associate producer.
A brief outline of the plot reveals Peter Finch as ‘Macauley’ the swagman who returns to his Sydney flat after weeks (months?) away to discover his wife and her lover. Incensed, he grabs his young daughter ‘Buster’ (Dana Mason) and heads out back on the road. In the adventures that follow in road movie fashion he moves from one small job to another as Buster becomes more attached to her father despite the hardships. They travel by means of walking and hitching rides. Macauley makes both friends and enemies wherever he goes and his past catches up with in the form of a woman he once knew well, Linda Parker (Rosemary Harris). His friends prove his saviour with boarding-house keepers played by Sid James and Tessie O’Shea. The narrative begins with the possibility of a social drama structured as a road movie but gradually changes and moves towards melodrama. Macauley is constrained by the need to look after his daughter (she appears to be around seven) even though she is a trouper and quite self reliant. He is used to his freedom and some employers are reluctant to hire him with the girl. We are also not surprised to discover that his wife Marge (Elizabeth Sellars) still has an interest in Buster. The last section of the narrative moves rapidly in melodrama mode. The ending may be considered to be a familiar Ealing restoration of a form of order, although what’s gone before suggests that life for Macauley and for Buster won’t be all quiet domesticity.
The end section of the narrative does seem a little rushed (though the film is 99 minutes) but the ‘darkness’ of the melodrama has been hinted at in some of Paul Beeson’s camerawork. Beeson had begun his career as a focus-puller at Ealing in 1939 and had 18 Ealing productions under his belt before he stepped up to shoot West of Zanzibar for Harry Watt in 1954. The Shiralee was his 4th DoP credit. On the shoot in Australia and back at MGM-British he had around him many of the longstanding Ealing creatives including Jim Morahan as art director, Stephen Dalby as sound designer (though not called that in 1957) and Gordon Stone as editor. His photography captures the landscape which several critics refer to as ‘barren’ or similar but to me looks like open pasture for sheep. It’s also referred to by some as the ‘outback’. I’m not sure how that term works for Australians? Perhaps it is metaphorical for anything outside the cities? I would link it to the idea of the ‘bush’, i.e. land that has not been farmed or ‘fenced’ – though the latter has other meanings in Australia?
The other criticisms of the film include the insertion of Sid James and Tessie O’Shea as a ‘comedy relief’ couple. It’s true that Ealing was fond of inserting characters who might provide comic relief and I have previously worried about Tommy Trinder in various Ealing films (e.g. The Foreman Went to France, 1942) and he did appear in another Ealing Australian film Bitter Springs (1950). But Trinder was a recognised comedian. Sid James had been appearing as a character actor in British films since 1947. True, he had gained fame on radio and then on TV in Hancock’s Half Hour since 1954 and this was perhaps why the charge was made. Tessie O’Shea fulfilled the ‘larger than life’ character type and the jokes appear in The Shiralee, especially in the ‘banter’ when she visits a butcher’s shop. But again, she could play character parts and I think that both James and O’Shea work well in the film. One of the issues here is that British film criticism in the 1950s was still mired in the dispute between realism (good) and any form of expressionism (bad). Social comedy has always been a problem for middle-class critics I think. It’s interesting that Ealing’s late 1940s comedies were praised but in the 1950s, apart from The Ladykillers in 1955, it was the comedies or films with comedic elements that were often seen as failures. One other addition to this film was the attempt to connect to the new pop music of 1957 with a Tommy Steele song. This is sung over a blank screen before the opening credits like the ‘overture’ of a 1950s musical. Unfortunately this title song is poorly recorded and uses an oversweet girl group chorus. It is followed by John Addison’s orchestral score under the credits with hints of an American Western before an Australian voiceover narrates an introduction to the ‘swagman’. Steele has a second unmemorable song written by Lionel Bart later in the film. He had become the UK’s first modern pop star in 1956 as a skiffle performer moving into early rock ‘n roll and his banjo playing might have worked well in a more ‘raw’ version of the title song. It seems Ealing wasn’t quite ready yet for new ‘youth music’.
In his Zoom lecture on Ealing in Australia last week, Stephen Morgan referred to the last two Ealing films in Australia as ‘moving away from the community ideas of the 1940s’. I think he sees this as Australian film beginning to define itself in opposition to the British and American films made in Australia – or possibly it just marks the general (and regressive) move away from collectivism to American-style individualism? But is this what really happens? In The Shiralee, I think that Macauley is in one sense a loner who antagonises some folk but who also makes firm friendships. The film does restore ‘order’ in the community but it’s one mainly on his terms. Having said that, I’m not sure how long the new ‘equilibrium’ will survive. Unfortunately Ealing itself couldn’t last long after 1957. This is, I think, one of the more satisfactory late Ealing films. Ealing itself had lost much of its earlier community feel during the 1950s. I will try at some point to cover the other two Australian Ealing productions and then think about the whole ‘overseas Ealing’ project.
I watched The Shiralee on Network’s ‘Ealing Rareties’ Vol. 5 DVD. It has also been shown on Talking Pictures TV as in the trailer below:
The Siege of Pinchgut is remembered as the fifth film made by Ealing Studios in Australia and also the last film made by Ealing as the entity headed by Michael Balcon. By 1958 Ealing had negotiated a deal to make films at ABPC’s studios at Elstree and release them in the UK through Associated British Pathé (although Rank still distributed The Siege of Pinchgut in various European territories). This last film was made mainly on location in Sydney with some scenes shot back at Elstree. The cast is mainly Australians in the smaller parts but with leading players from the UK and Hollywood star Aldo Ray in the lead role. I’ve known about the title for a long time but delayed watching it until now – in preparation for a Zoom event led by Dr Stephen Morgan, the Australian film scholar based in London. I’m not sure what I expected but ‘Pinchgut’ turns out to be a local name for a 19th century fort built on a rocky outcrop located in the wide entrance to Sydney Harbour. Its official title is Fort Dennison and it was used as part of the penal colony’s operations in the 19th century and as a defensive feature for the harbour in the 20th.
The plot of the film is straightforward. An ingenious prison break sees Matt Kirk (Aldo Ray) evading recapture and seemingly set for an escape from Sydney with his brother Johnny (the Canadian actor Neil McCallum who was based in the UK). British character actor Victor Maddern plays Burt and Italian actor Carlo Giustini plays Luke, the other two members of the gang who spring Matt. But the boat taking them out Sydney harbour breaks down and drifts towards Pinchgut and its three inhabitants, the Fulton family. Matt Kirk believes he was wrongly imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit (but he does have a criminal background). His aim is to persuade the Attorney-General of New South Wales to grant him a re-trial. But now he can’t escape the city and negotiate a re-trial from a safe place. I don’t want to spoil the plot of a suspense thriller but the authorities become aware of the four men on the island and that the Fultons, father, mother and daughter (Heather Sears as second lead in the film in the same year that she appeared in Room at the Top), are hostages. At this point the narrative becomes a tense siege drama because of the presence of an ammunition ship in the harbour. Kirk threatens to use the naval gun on the island to fire at the ammunition ship and its cargo of gelignite. Such a move could kill thousands as had been seen in various wartime explosions such as that in Bombay in 1944 (which one of the gang had observed as a naval rating). On the other hand, the island is within range of sharpshooters stationed on the Harbour Bridge.
The film is in my view a well-made and engaging genre film. It was submitted to the Berlin Film Festival in 1959 at a time when commercial British films were often accepted at festivals and it was shown in competition for the Golden Bear. However, it wasn’t particularly successful at the UK box office and it received a thumbs down from some UK-based critics. The Kine Weekly described it on release in October 1959 as a “hearty action melodrama” and a “very good British booking”. The Monthly Film Bulletin Review by ‘JG’ (possibly John Gillet?) suggests that the central issue of Kirk’s ‘innocence’ is not properly established but equally the some of the dubious decisions of the politicians and the police authorities aren’t satisfactorily worked out. In the end the film strives for its ‘entertainment’ impact with Aldo Ray’s presence appealing to the US market. Charles Barr in his Ealing Studios book takes a similar line but expresses it slightly differently, accusing the film of a confused stance over the violence in the film – as much the violence of the authorities as of the gang. The film gives a kind of moral endorsement to the authorities that they have not earned. Barr suggests that this confusion is “typical of the weakness of ‘fifties Ealing”. I can see that these analyses have some force but it’s a pity that Barr has such a clear agenda in his overall study of Ealing that he doesn’t spend time on any of the plus points about the film.
The Siege of Pinchgut was directed by Harry Watt, the former documentary director from the 1930s who moved into fiction features with Ealing during the war and who made five features as part of Ealing’s attempt to create a ‘Commonwealth’ presence for the company. He made two films in East Africa and three in Australia, beginning with The Overlanders in 1946. Ealing attempted to build up Australian filmmaking facilities by investing in the National Studios in the Sydney suburb of Pagewood but a combination of financial constraints on Ealing initiated by Rank’s John Davis and a lack of support by public funding in Australia stymied future development. The Siege of Pinchgut which used only location shooting in Sidney with interiors back in the UK, proved to be the last attempt by a UK studio to establish itself in Australia. Watt’s documentary background is featured in several aspects of the film including the evacuation of dockside Sydney and the attempts to remove the explosives from the ship. These ‘procedural’ scenes are matched by the excellent cinematography of Ealing regular Gordon Dines. I was reminded of his great work on Pool of London (1951) for the exteriors but also impressed by the studio work inside the fortifications of Pinchgut. I was struck also by the evacuation itself and the sense of an Australian city preparing for a major disaster. I was reminded of the other major disaster scenario of the period, the adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel about nuclear war, On the Beach (1959), shot presumably around the same time but in Melbourne. I think it is also worth mentioning that by making the fourth gang member an Italian, hoping to get back to Italy and buy his own fishing boat, this film, like Michael Powell’s They’re a Weird Mob (1966), points to some of the problems being experienced by Australia’s new migrants.
Overall, I don’t think this film represents the kind of ‘sad’ ending implied by Charles Barr. I note that during the film’s Elstree shoot, Aldo Ray contributed to a fair amount of promotion for the film. I don’t know why the proposed production slate with ABPC didn’t take off – it may have been that the company became too interested in building up its TV interests. I certainly think this film is worth a watch. I recorded it from Talking Pictures TV which broadcast it in the correct 1.66:1 ratio. There is also now a new Network Blu-ray (Region B). Network discs are very good in my experience.
I knew nothing of the background to The Proud Valley but the swerve towards propaganda at the end felt tacked on; as it transpired to be because war was declared whilst the film was being made. Until then the subversive aspects of the film were particularly interesting and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the scriptwriters Alfredda Brilliant and Herbert Marshall were members of the left-wing Unity Theatre. In addition, having a black hero (the incomparable Paul Robeson) nailed the film as progressive. Apparently Robeson was friends of the husband and wife writing team.
Although Robeson’s acting skills are limited he only has to sing eradicate any problems with his presence. He ends up in a Welsh mining village where, because of his singing voice, he is embraced by the choir. Racism, fortunately, isn’t ignored but the ‘problem’ of his colour for some characters is glossed over quickly. Instead, this man-mountain represents workers’ solidarity, particularly in the face of the mine’s owners who are happy not to reopen the pit after an accident. Such was the lot of the working person in those days . . . still is of course.
Originally the end featured the community reopening the pit on their own however the start of war meant the film became the first of Ealing Studio’s ‘war effort’ productions and the characters march to London to petition the bosses to open to help with the conflict. Benevolent ‘Sir John’ agrees to give it a go and all ends well; except Robeson’s character sacrifices himself when they are reopening the mine. ‘Bosses and workers’ pulling together was undoubtedly the propaganda message required at the time but it isn’t necessary today. So I wonder why scriptwriter Anthony McCarten felt he needed to add a fictional scene to Darkest Hour (UK-US 2017) where Churchill rode the London Underground to consult ‘the people’? Worse, ‘the people’ included an Afro-Caribbean man with whom he appears to bond through quoting Shakespeare, so eradicating Churchill’s racism!
I also wonder about the ‘necessity’ of David Goliath’s (Robeson) sacrifice. The romantic interest in the film, as it was unlikely there’d be the odd black woman lurking in the Valleys, is taken by white characters so there could be no happy romantic ending for David; indeed he sacrifices himself for the couple. It creates an emotional ending, but the celebrations for the pit reopening do follow hard behind his death in order to ensure the happy emotion. Couldn’t he have continued just as a member of the community or didn’t he belong after all?
Maybe I’m being over-critical, after all the film is progressive in many ways. As entertainment it struggles; Robeson sings little but there is some sparkling dialogue. It is, however, a testament to Robeson whose connection to Wales continued for many years after the film.
This rather neglected Ealing drama is interesting for several reasons even if its poor box office performance might suggest otherwise. It is a relatively early post-war attempt at a resistance film and one which uses the possibility of location shooting in Belgium. In this sense it can be grouped with other British pictures of the period which attempt to deal with issues such as the ‘displaced persons’ in camps after the war and their back stories of wartime experience (e.g. The Captive Heart (1946) Frieda (1947), Portrait from Life (1949) and later The Divided Heart (1954)). This loose group of films focuses on social issues which are the consequences of war. Against the Wind is about action during the war, but the personal struggles and anguish it explores will have effects for a long time afterwards.
As well as the location shooting, Against the Wind, features a European actor who would go on to greater things. Simone Signoret plays an SOE (Special Operations Executive) operative in the first of her four British films. She had worked in bit parts in French cinema under the German Occupation (her part-Jewish background meant she couldn’t get an actor’s permit) and she was only just beginning to establish herself in lead roles in French films after the war. She had worked alongside Françoise Rosay in 1946 on the French feature Back Streets of Paris. Rosay had appeared in two Ealing films in 1944-5 and perhaps she made the connection with the studio possible? Simone Signoret was following Mai Zetterling who played a German young woman in Frieda and again, later, in Portrait from Life as a European actor giving more authenticity to roles in British films made partly in Europe. Simone Simon appeared in a Georges Simenon adaptation, Temptation Harbour in 1947. The other two French-speaking roles in Against the Wind are played by the French-Canadian Paul Dupuis (in UK films since 1943) and the French actor Gisèle Préville, another occasional visitor to UK film productions.
The film’s story came from J. Elder Wills, adapted by Michael Pertwee and final script by T. E. B. Clarke who continued his partnership with Charles Crichton from Hue and Cry (1947). The story enables one of Ealing’s familiar ensemble films. Top billing goes to Robert Beatty who plays a Canadian Catholic priest who has a ‘mission’ in Belgium (in Brussels, so in a predominantly French-speaking city). At the start of the film we see him arriving at the National History Museum in South Kensington on his way to reporting to the Belgian section of SOE where he meets James Robertson Justice as the section chief and a number of both new and experienced agents, principally Max (Jack Warner), Michèle (Signoret), Picquart (Dupuis), Julie (Préville) and Emile (John Slater). The leader of the group is Andrew (Peter Illing) and the explosives expert is Duncan (Gordon Jackson). The film helps to establish what are now the familiar conventions of ‘secret agent’/commando films.
The first half of the narrative involves training and team bonding and the second half is taken up by a major mission which involves all the group members (except Robertson Justice who as ‘head of the training school’ is presumably looking for the next group). The first half probably condemned the film in the US where the reviewers of the New York Times and Variety find it dull, waiting for the action to start. They might be right in that an early action sequence could work to engage the audience, but I found the script interesting in these early scenes. I do wonder if there is any influence of Rossellini’s war films involved here? The most obvious model would be Paisa (1946) with its narratives about the combined work of Allied agents and Italian partisans. Since Paisa didn’t get a UK release until late 1948 this seems unlikely but perhaps the long shots favoured by Rossellini to show partisan action were known. Lionel Banes, or perhaps a second unit cinematographer, employs the long shots in the final action sequences including an attack on a train. This immediately brings to mind La battaille du rail (France 1946) and the later The Train (France-US 1964). Ealing had good co-operation from the Belgian authorities but their action sequences are on a smaller scale. Even so, I think they are impressive. The long shot technique does help to emphasise collective action. We do get to see closer compositions for each of the characters as their individual narratives reach a climax but we are always aware that they are part of a team.
The key aspect of the film is perhaps its relative lack of sentimentality. With two women in the group, it seems obvious that a romance will be explored. There are already emotions and fears in the group about traitors. But the film’s message for the agents is “never let your emotions take over”. “Look after yourself rather than give yourself away. Your allegiance is only to the group and the mission.” Michèle proves she has the temperament for this work with her actions, dealing with the traitor in the group and remaining calm when one of the others is arrested. Simone Signoret shows all her acting ability in this film. She is a star even after only a few key roles.
Why did the film fail at the box office? The general view is that the film was both too late and too early. It was too late as a screening after the war when its collectivist ideology and lack of sentimentality were seemingly not what the austerity audience of the 40s in the UK were looking for and it was too early for a film which might have picked out Michèle as a more conventional heroic figure or one with a more pronounced romance narrative. Michèle is an assertive young woman who teases Duncan by allowing him to think she is inexperienced as an SOE operative when in fact she knows as much as him. She is in some ways a more familiar figure from the 1960s/70s when sexism began to be challenged more directly. Bob Murphy in his book British Cinema and the Second World War (2000) contrasts the film with Odette (1950) and Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) which focus on the real stories of the two best-known women in SOE, Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo. He also notes that Against the Wind‘s realist take on wartime exploits was matched by the rather different approach by Powell and Pressburger on The Small Back Room (1949) and neither film clicked with the public. In retrospect they seem to me to be among the best British films of the period.
Perhaps the best example of the tone that makes Against the Wind so out of time is the observation that of the seven operatives who are parachuted into Belgium, only three survive, though they do complete the mission and rescue their leader held by the Nazis. One of the seven was a traitor who is calmly dispatched, one dies in an accident. The other two die as a result of a failure to complete a task properly. It’s a tough story. The other interesting referent is the lack of equally ‘realistic’ French films about the résistance in the 1940s and ’50s and the irony that Simone Signoret stars in one of the greatest of all résistance films L’armée des ombres (Jean-Pierre Melville 1969). (There were French films about the resistance in the 1940s but they failed to represent the real issues. Against the Wind failed at the French box office because it was seen as unrealistic, whereas in the UK it was arguably seen as too close to representing issues the audience at the time wanted to put to aside.
The Magnet is an unusual film from Ealing Studios. I don’t remember coming across the film properly until I read that it used a great deal of location footage of Merseyside. Thanks to Talking Pictures TV, increasingly the TV channel of choice for the discerning audience in the UK since the lockdown began, I was able to watch it soon after having started a ‘Liverpool films‘ page on this blog. As it turns out, the film is partly set in New Brighton and Wallasey Village (?) but there are Liverpool sequences as well and the photography by Lionel Banes is a very good reason to watch the film.
In genre terms The Magnet is something of a hybrid. It is a story from a child’s perspective that is part adventure, part comedy and part a kind of moral tale. The original story was by one of the best-known Ealing writers, T.E.B. (Tibby) Clarke and it was directed by Charles Frend. The most obvious reference is to Hue and Cry (1947) written by Clarke about boys whose environment is the bombsites of Central London around St. Pauls and who become investigators of a crime because of their love for comic book adventures. In The Magnet the location has shifted to Merseyside and the focus is a single boy, although he does interact with others. As far as director Frend’s background was concerned he’d been responsible for A Run For Your Money in 1949, a comedy about two Welsh miners in London having misadventures. But Frend had earlier been responsible for The Lives of Joanna Godden (1947), a period drama, but one using location photography to capture the unique environment of Romney Marsh. Finally, we might link the film to the serious drama of the Ealing problem picture/family melodrama Mandy (1952) in which a young hearing-impaired girl and her mother respond to a specialist teacher with new ideas played by Jack Hawkins. It may seem likely that with these kinds of possible connections, The Magnet should turn out to be a confused mess. I can only say that I enjoyed the film and that some discerning audiences have also done so – though many of them might have been looking specifically for a ‘Merseyside story’. The scholarly chronicler of Ealing, Charles Barr in his Ealing Studios book dismisses the film in a paragraph and concludes: “The magnet is a toy at the centre of an elaborate whimsical plot which resists economical summary and does not merit a full one”. Not for the first time, I find myself disagreeing with Barr. The film has flaws certainly, but it is too interesting in what it is attempting to do to dismiss it in this way.
Johnny Brent (played by William Fox, later to become well-known as James Fox) is a 10 year-old schoolboy in a middle-class part of Wallasey on the Wirral. His father (Stephen Murray) is a psychiatrist with a practice in Liverpool and his mother (Kay Walsh) is what was then referred to as a ‘housewife’. Johnny’s (private boarding) school has had a scarlet fever scare and the boys are at home in quarantine before they go back to Kirkby for the last three weeks of term. Johnny is a bright and lively boy with a sense of mischief and has no doubt been frustrated by his quarantine experience. He acquires a large magnet by questionable means and though he enjoys using it, he feels guilty about how he got it. He starts seeing police officers everywhere. He ends up ‘donating’ the magnet to a man who is building a mock up of an iron lung for a campaign to raise money to buy such equipment for a local hospital. Harper, the campaigner, (Meredith Edwards) later decides to use the story of Johnny’s ‘donation’ as part of his public appeal, embellishing the story of the poor boy who gives up his magnet without leaving his name. His funding campaign goes very well and Johnny becomes an interesting mysterious figure for the local newspaper. While Johnny feels guilty about what he has done, he can’t tell his parents and becomes anxious about the mystery of his identity. He is further upset when he overhears something that might mean he has caused the death of another boy. His father the psychiatrist diagnoses a condition that is fanciful. His mother is much more sensible. When, by accident, Johnny is spotted by Harper, he runs away and a chase ensues taking Johnny to parts of Liverpool he doesn’t know and where he meets a gang of boys his own age. With this gang he will have a further series of adventures which will end with an act of bravery that will complete the circle and allow Johnny to be ‘redeemed’ in a generally happy ending.
This is Barr’s ‘whimsical plot’. What is interesting is not so much the mechanics of the plot, though it does allow the viewer to enjoy a many of the local sights. The beach, the pier, the amusement arcade and open air baths in New Brighton, the Mersey ferry, the Pierhead and the overhead railway, the docks and the Anglican cathedral are all in evidence (and many, especially in New Brighton, now no more). It’s not the plot but the way that Clarke’s script attempts to use the concerns of the period that I’m interested in. There are jokes about ration cards and the hospital is not yet part of the new NHS. Scarlet fever and polio were still dangerous diseases and there were outbreaks of both in the 1940s and up to the 1960s. Iron lungs were expensive (though cheaper designs appeared in the 1950s). The first ‘auction’ of the magnet for the campaign takes place at a bathing beauty contest, a particularly popular seaside event in the 1950s (see also The Entertainer in 1960). The narrative is from the child’s point of view and at times it made me think of various children’s films, including possibly those of the Children’s Film Foundation. It’s not that unusual for an imaginative boy to become anxious and to see police officers everywhere and think that they are looking for him (and there were many more ‘bobbies on the beat’ in 1950). On the other hand, some of the visual gags are feeble by modern standards and Stephen Murray seems miscast as Johnny’s father. The script presents him as pompous and generally attacks his ideas about psychiatry. The strongest part of the film is the last section when Johnny finds himself by the cathedral with a group of local lads. These are non-professionals and they have a sense of ‘authenticity’ about them. One has Chinese heritage (the cathedral isn’t too far away from Liverpool’s Chinatown). The boys also have familiar forms of Liverpudlian speech. But there is still a lingering sense of ‘Ealing on location’. Most of Ealing’s films seem to have a London base or they are set in part of the UK where there is a sense of the romantic/fantastical. The location work in The Magnet is as cleverly used as in Pool of London made around the London Docks at roughly the same time. I wonder what made them choose Merseyside for The Magnet? And was there any connection to the production of Waterfront which saw another Rank film, based at Pinewood, also shooting on location in Liverpool around the same time?
Lionel Banes is an Ealing cinematographer I hadn’t noticed before. He is credited as ‘FRPS’ rather than ‘BSC’ and I had to do some digging to find out more. The Magnet was actually his fourth Ealing picture as DoP and earlier he had shot Passport to Pimlico (1949). He had in fact been in the business for a long time by then, originally joining Gainsborough at Islington in 1930 as a ‘photographer’. He worked his way through the apprentice roles and became an expert in special photographic effects. He joined Ealing to work on Next of Kin (1942) and for several years worked as an operator, second unit cinematographer and model work specialist. The link above is to four oral history files about his career. My view is that Ealing employed some of the best creative cinematographers and camera crews anywhere in the world in the late 1940s/early 50s. The Magnet is only 79 minutes and I think it is certainly worth watching for the representation of Merseyside and for its perfectly serviceable narrative about a 10 year-old. (See where the film was shot on Reelstreets.) Contemporary critics thought it was too ‘moralistic’, but it didn’t bother me in that way. My only real gripe is that it would have worked better if Jonny had been lower middle-class rather than middle-class. I think the father’s role could have been written differently too. It struck me that Johnny could have been a young John Lennon living in his Aunt’s house.
Here’s a clip from the scene near the Anglican Cathedral: