George Formby was the top box office star in the UK every year between 1938 and 1944 – an unequalled achievement and, I was surprised to see, Get Cracking stood up very well to viewing beyond nostalgia. The plots of his films were mere vehicles for Formby’s brand of gormless humour where it always ‘turns out nice again’ – his catchphrase. In fact he starts Get Cracking with it, a testimony to how well known he’d become. It’s no stretch to say that Get Cracking has avant garde elements with several minutes at the start featuring a voiceover that, he says, is reading the script and has a conversation with George.
Formby, and massive ’30s star Gracie Fields, both had working class backgrounds and were from Lancashire. No doubt they were seen as fresh in comparison with the Received Pronunciation that infected much of British cinema at the time. There are plenty of regional accents on show though George’s love interest, played by Dinah Sheridan, has unnerving cut glass pronunciation.
Much of the humour, derived from Music Hall, consists of slapstick and daft line, that never fail to tickle me, delivered absolutely straight:
“He has to be on guard on Thursday to stop the Germans if they invade.”
‘What! On his own?”
“No there’ll be six of us.”
Irene Handl (uncredited) is great as a character that’s even more dim than George. The sexual politics of the film isn’t too bad: Vera Frances, a child actor who made her last film in 1948 and is still with us, plays a teenage Cockney evacuee who works in George’s garage and she’s one of the brightest characters in the film.
No doubt people needed cheering up in 1943; as we still do in the UK now.
The Blue Lamp is one of the best-known Ealing films, but it’s also an unusual film in some ways. It begins as an early example of what would become a familiar British film genre, the ‘social problem film’ and it is directed by Basil Dearden who would specialise in such films over the next dozen years (Michael Relph, the co-producer would become Dearden’s partner on social problem pictures). The writers include T. E. B. ‘Tibby’ Clarke, an ex-policeman, and Ted Willis who would later become one of the most significant names associated with the genre. But Willis and the film’s lead players, Jack Warner, Jimmy Hanley and Dirk Bogarde (all three contracted to Rank) were not generally associated with leading roles at Ealing. Jack Warner did appear in several Ealing films but his stardom at the time was mainly because of the success of the ‘Huggett family’ franchise. The social problem, spelt out in a voiceover at the beginning of the film, is the growing problem of young criminals who are ‘clever enough to plan criminal acts, but lack the adherence to the code of behaviour adopted by older criminals’. Because of this the young thugs are more reckless and liable to be shunned by established criminals. (I note that some commentators date the beginnings of the social problem film as much earlier during the war, but I think that the core films, in which there is some form of public service authority figure investigating and attempting to solve the problem, start around the end of the 1940s).
In its second section the film becomes more of a ‘social-realist’ police procedural with Hanley’s ‘Andy Mitchell’, a younger policeman, being taken in by PC George Dixon (Warner) and his wife (Gladys Henson). A line of dialogue suggests that George and Em’s son was killed in the war and would have been Andy’s age by now. Andy represents the sensible younger man (‘up from Kent’) who can be contrasted with the ‘tearaways’. Jimmy Hanley had been playing this type of younger man for some time – he was actually in his early thirties. During this part of the narrative, the police team at Paddington Green begin to investigate a robbery at a jeweller’s. The crime is committed by Tom Riley, the Bogarde character, and also involves his male partner ‘Spud’ and Tom’s girlfriend, 17 year-old Diana (Peggy Evans). Inevitably the first crime leads to a second and in the process PC Dixon is shot. This pushes the narrative into a new form in which Ealing Studio’s well-known use of realist location shooting is used to create a very exciting car chase around the Paddington-North Kensington area and ending with the murder suspect running into White City Stadium during a greyhound racing meeting. Although similar scenes had already been seen in earlier Ealing pictures (e.g. It Always Rains on Sunday, 1947), the intensity of the police chase with radio cars seems to be much greater on this occasion. Many commentators, especially in the US, relate the final chase sequence to the Hollywood ‘semi-documentary’ of the late 1940s, picking out Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948). I think there is something in this, although Fritz Lang’s M and other earlier British crime films are also an influence. The other oft-quoted reference is to film noir and there are certainly several noirish scenes in the film. On the other hand, many Ealing dramas of the period use familiar noir lighting and camerawork for a range of narratives in this period, most of which are not films noirs as such but rather crime melodramas or straight dramas.
The Blue Lamp proved to be very popular with audiences when it opened in 1950 and in 1955 the BBC famously resurrected George Dixon and made him the avuncular older copper at a local London police station in Dixon of Dock Green. This TV series lasted for an astonishing 21 years (by which time Jack Warner was 80 years old) and became something of a laughing-stock alongside contemporary police dramas like Z-Cars and Softly, Softly. The sense of the TV series as ‘cosy’ has, I think, coloured views about The Blue Lamp. The earlier film offers a quite detailed view of the London streets around Paddington, the Edgware Road and the Regent’s Canal and it’s interesting to consider it alongside It Always Rains on Sunday and Pool of London (1951)(DoP Gordon Dines worked on this film as well as The Blue Lamp)as well as the more sensational crime melodramas associated with Gainsborough and other studios. I think that the commentators who pick out the ‘community’ ethos of Ealing as a key factor are on the right lines. Community in this case means the police in the local station, the criminal community of established small-time crooks and the disputatious but still genuine community relations between the ‘bobbies on the beat’ and the people they meet on the street. It is these three working together who nail Tom Riley as an anti-social figure (and an unusual Ealing character). This can be seen as a cosy and perhaps naïve view of community, even in the 1950s, but the scenes of police on a night ‘beat’ certainly resonate with older viewers. Once the police got into patrol cars, the world and the images of the crime film changed. I’ve seen comments that critique the film by pouring scorn on the police officers’ choir rehearsals and darts matches. I think these were genuine activities that happened in most local ‘nicks’ in 1950. Those police choirs that performed at football matches at half-time in the 1960s had to rehearse at some point. I have no doubt that there were occasional bent coppers and pockets of corruption in 1950 just as later, but the bonding of men (female police officers were kept separate then) over sports and recreation was important in the way that police work was conducted. We might argue that contemporary police procedurals push too far in the other direction in order to be ‘exciting’.
But it is also true that The Blue Lamp was sanctioned by the Metropolitan Police and the organisation is thanked in the credits. The film also got past the BBFC and was certified ‘A’ (suitable for adults) with no cuts required. This suggests that the film’s representation of the police didn’t in any way contravene social norms in 1950 – something which by the 1970s was certainly questionable in terms of the police canteen culture in the Met and the various attempts to clean out corruption. At that point it did indeed come over as rosy nostalgia. Today it is very rare to meet a police officer on the street and the common perception of the police is governed by quite different forms of TV crime fiction. As for Ealing, the appearance of Dirk Bogarde is unusual and his performance really singles him out as playing the bad boy. I think he is actually more disturbing when he is cleaned up and wearing what appears to be a ‘spiv’ tie. Tom Riley is a young punk, but Bogarde, who had begun in the theatre was 28 when he made the film. His image was changed again a few years later when he became Rank’s ‘matinee idol’ in the successful ‘Doctor’ film comedies.
The Blue Lamp is well worth watching on Talking Pictures TV and if you want a more informed viewing experience, there is a Blu-ray available with several extras including comments by Charles Barr, one of the leading Ealing scholars.
Touch and Go is an Ealing film I knew nothing about before I watched it on Talking Pictures TV, though most of the cast and crew were familiar. When I looked the title up in Charles Barr’s Ealing Studios book I discovered that it is one of the prime exhibits in his condemnation of the ‘End’ of Ealing in the 1950s. It’s hard to argue against Barr’s analysis of what the film represents in terms of a studio that appeared to have lost its way and indeed its purpose by 1955-6. To emphasise his argument Barr contrasts the film with The Ladykillers, one of the few successful films from the same period. It’s a legitimate comparison in the sense that both films are shot in Technicolor and located in specific districts of London – and both were written by William Rose. But one has great vitality and a real cutting edge while the other is ‘suffocating’ and ‘stodgy’. My own preference is to try to find something of interest in everything I watch and Touch and Go reveals some aspects of British culture in the 1950s, even if the overall effect is indeed ‘deadening’.
The film’s plot is very simple. Jim Fletcher (Jack Hawkins) is a furniture designer who stomps off from his job because the firm’s head man (James Hayter) refuses to consider expanding production of Jim’s modernist furniture. This is a classic Ealing set-up of traditional v. modern written by Ealing stalwart Rose from an idea conceived by himself and his wife Tania. Jim decides that his family should emigrate to Australia – his wife Helen (Margaret Johnston) and 18 year-old daughter Peggy (June Thorburn) having little chance to object. The main section of the narrative then concerns the last few days before departure from Tilbury. The second ‘inciting incident’ is provoked by the family’s ageing black cat, a cunning brute named Heathcliff, who causes Peggy to meet a young engineering student Richard (John Fraser) and very quickly fall in love with time running out before ship sails. Will they actually get on board? Well, what do you think?
Technically, there is little wrong with a film shot by the great Douglas Slocombe and though it may have been Michael Truman’s first directorial credit he had been an editor on many of the Ealing classics of the late 1940s and a producer on similarly well-known films in the early 1950s. This film is edited by Peter Tanner, also a very experienced Ealing hand. The cast too are fine with Hawkins turning his contrasting avuncular charm and rages towards domestic struggles and occasional comic interludes with his neighbour, Reg (Roland Culver). The plotting includes some important details such as Jim’s recognition that Richard will be facing National Service, a concept most audiences under 70 will probably have forgotten about. Richard also wants to be an engineer and seems enthusiastic about something that was once a British strength. By contrast, the script does nothing with Jim’s designer skills, his role as a designer is a plot point and not much else. Heathcliff is actually the most interesting character.
The film’s setting is the Fletcher home in a Chelsea house with a basement kitchen. The house is part of a studio set with a pub handy across the road. It’s very quiet and Jim and Reg can stand in the middle of the road in the late evening, drunkenly talking and larking about. A few yards from the set is the ‘real’ London of the Albert Bridge and the Embankment – which is actually quite well-used as the setting for the romance. Barr’s comparison with The Ladykillers is valid, but the more revealing comparison is with John Ford’s Gideon’s Day (UK 1958). This odd excursion for Ford is a mix of police procedural and family melodrama, filmed in Technicolor with Hawkins as Inspector Gideon and also paterfamilias with a lively daughter played with pizzaz by Anna Massey, a music student who becomes involved with a bright young police constable. Ironically, Ford’s film was co-scripted by the Ealing writer ‘Tibby’ Clarke (writer of Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob). The script is full of comic moments amongst some rather grisly crime stories. My focus in the comparison with Touch and Go is the contrasting characterisation of the daughters. June Thorburn as Peggy is lovely and convincing in her role but she seems a young 18 (she was actually 24) and the script has her attending what appears to be a secretarial school for middle-class girls. The mothers in these films seem to be stay at home housewives even though their children are independent young women. Anna Massey’s music student has the banter of an arts student and the drive and the wit. Peggy looks beautiful on the dancefloor in her rather formal gown, even though the music is trad jazz with a trumpet solo played by Richard’s fellow student. Bill Rose’s script is so timid that the potential in the characters rarely develops into anything. Charles Barr makes the point that the Ealing films in his ‘End’ phase seem almost primed to become TV sitcoms, soaps and dramas. At the end of 1955 the Ealing Studios lot was actually sold to the BBC and, breaking with Rank, Ealing moved to the MGM British lot in Borehamwood in 1957. The Ealing site would now become the production centre for ‘cop shows’. Jack Hawkins made The Long Arm for Ealing in 1956, a ‘police procedural’ film in some ways looking forward to Z-Cars on TV. Pat Jackson’s Ealing film about nurses in training, The Feminine Touch (1956) could also be seen as the precursor for hospital soaps. Following ITV’s Emergency Ward 10 (1957-67), the BBC created Angels (1975-83) focusing on student nurses.
The potential of Touch and Go to tap into the migration narrative of the post-war period seems to have been deliberately ignored and this seems strange given Ealing’s ventures into Australian productions. Between 1945 and 1972, Australia funded an assisted passage scheme whereby migrants could travel to Australia from the UK for just £10. This was part of the ‘White Australia’ policy and was also linked to the movement of children in care, the focus of Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine (UK-Aus 2010). Alongside these dubious policies, Australia also encouraged migration from Ireland and several other European countries. Michael Powell eventually made a film about an Italian migrant, They’re a Weird Mob (1962). I do wonder why Ealing chose to develop drama/action pictures in Australia rather than comedies, especially in 1955? The comedy Geordie (UK 1955) in which Bill Travers plays a Scottish highlander who competes in the Olympics at Melbourne in 1956 attempted to make use of the interest in the games. But perhaps by this stage, Ealing was unprepared to do anything too different? (Ironically Margaret Johnston was born in Australia – and June Thorburn in Karachi). Touch and Go is at best gentle comedy. I laughed out loud just the once.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For Those in Peril is perhaps the best example of the Ealing Studios wartime propaganda film. It’s a very short feature at 64 mins, just long enough to appear in a double bill as a B feature and, although featuring serving armed forces personnel, it does have two well-known professional actors in the lead roles so the film mixes documentary and feature film elements. The main purpose of the film is seemingly to introduce audiences to a little-known role for the RAF, working in collaboration with the Royal Navy. The outcome of the fictional narrative is, however, more problematic and not an obvious choice for a propaganda film.
The film’s title immediately refers to the possibility of lives lost a sea, but in this case of aircrew rather than sailors. The RAF in wartime was supplied with high speed launches (HSL) designed to find aircrew forced to ditch their planes over water. (The film’s opening sequence carefully explains why this was necessary.) The establishment of these units led to friendly rivalry with RN units who had bigger boats with more firepower but slower speeds. The film’s location seems to be Shoreham – although for obvious reasons this isn’t signified. David Farrar plays the F/Lt Murray, RAF officer in command of three launches and the fictional narrative involves the arrival of Pilot Officer Rawlings (Ralph Michael – an established actor and serving airman) who sees his posting as possibly ‘beneath’ him since he insists he should be flying. Murray is an experienced master of small boats since before the war and he tries to gently turn Rawlings’ truculence into something more positive – and gives the junior officer some harsher words when necessary. After a few exercises involving the launches joining naval craft, the film’s action sequences begin with an RAF Boston bomber being shot down over the channel. The three crew manage to launch their inflatable dinghy and their position is notified to air-sea rescue. Murray takes two launches and the larger (and slower) naval vessel follows. A Walrus seaplane is also launched. Three problems face the rescuers – thick fog, the presence of an armed German trawler and the minefield which the aircrew and their dinghy have entered.
The intriguing aspect of the narrative is its potential propaganda. The central narrative involves Rawlings and his development in a moment of crisis so that he can take command when needed with the support of his crew (who are capable and have been well led by Murray). The other propaganda message is that aircrew are not abandoned and all possible effort is expended to save them. But more problematic is the action in the film which sees an eventual ‘victory’ for British forces, but at significant cost in terms of lives lost alongside a valuable ship and aircraft. More lives are lost than saved. This is the dilemma for propaganda filmmakers in their attempt to use realism in their appeal to audiences. Men are brave and they die in the service of their country. Unfortunately, there is little direct evidence of what audiences made of a film like Those in Peril (or any details of its distribution and how many people saw it).
For me, the film works because of three factors – the documentary footage, David Farrar’s central performance and the script by Richard Hillary and Harry Watt, J.c. Orton and T. E. B. Clarke. The documentary photography is by Douglas Slocombe. This was his first credited role as cinematographer and he would go on to be one of the most celebrated figures behind the camera in British cinema history. The interiors were shot by Ernest Palmer, an experienced Ealing man. David Farrar would go on to become a leading man in three classic Powell and Pressburger films as well as two more for Ealing. For Those in Peril was perhaps his breakthrough as a leading man, but his popularity (he later claimed several hundred fan letters each week) was mainly a result of his two Sexton Blake films in 1945. Also making his first solo outing for Ealing was director Charles Crichton as director. Crichton would go on to become one of Ealing’s most important directors and was probably best known for The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titchfield Thunderbolt (1953).
Richard Hillary, who wrote the original story, was a young RAF officer who first fought in the Battle of Britain aged 21. He was credited with 5 definite ‘kills’ but was then shot down and rescued by the Margate lifeboat, having suffered severe burns. During his lengthy hospital treatment he wrote one of the best books about wartime flying, The Last Enemy, which I remember reading as a child. He returned to flying but only a few months later he was killed in a nightfighter crash. His story for Those in Peril was presumably based on his own experience.
The contributions of key personnel such as Farrar, Slocombe and Crichton make this a must-see film for anyone interested in Ealing Studios. I recommend it as worth 64 minutes of anyone’s time.
I couldn’t find a trailer for the film, but this is a Pathé News report with the same title, showing the Air Sea Rescue crews at work:
With Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk due to open in the UK this week [now released, see Keith’s review here], I thought it might be interesting to re-visit this Ealing Studios film from 1958 – the only other film completely focused on the Dunkirk evacuation. Joe Wright’s Atonement (UK/France/US 2007) includes a long segment dealing with events during the retreat and evacuation, but these form only part of a complex narrative about the relationships between three characters. Nolan didn’t mention these films in his Sight & Sound interview with Nick James in the August issue, arguing that his film will ‘fill a gap’ in British storytelling on screen. (James does mention the 1958 film.)
The military catastrophe that saw the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and a significant part of the French Army trapped by German forces in a pocket around the port of Dunkirk in late May/early June of 1940 was turned into a propaganda victory with the successful evacuation of 338,000 British, French and other Allied troops taken off the beaches and brought back to the UK. Military historians still debate the reasons why the German forces failed to destroy/capture the Allied troops before they could leave. All the equipment, including military vehicles taken to France by the BEF was lost. In addition, many of the French troops rescued at Dunkirk were later returned to France to fight for the remainder of their country and were subsequently taken prisoner after France fell. More than 30,000 French troops in the ‘rearguard’ at Dunkirk were captured. Dunkirk was a defeat – virtually all Allied operations up to El Alamein in 1942 were defeats. The propaganda victory which established the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ was based on the contribution of the ‘Little Ships’ – the civilian boats that augmented the Royal Navy vessels in the evacuation fleet. Here was the image of ‘total war’ and of the British people with their backs to the wall.
As I noted in an earlier posting on the recent British film Their Finest (2016), Dunkirk was not an appropriate film for propaganda purposes (i.e. visualising and representing the evacuation was not as effective as ‘spinning’ the story in more indirect ways) but some of the elements of the story did appear in fictionalised wartime narratives, including films made by Ealing Studios such as The Foreman Went to France (1942) and Johnny Frenchman (1945). In the 1950s Ealing did not join the other British producers in creating 1950s ‘heroic’ war films (e.g. The Dam Busters (1955) or Reach For the Sky (1956)). Instead, Ealing opted for more downbeat narratives such as The Cruel Sea (1953) in which one of the most memorable scenes sees Jack Hawkins, commander of a submarine-hunting corvette, risking the lives of torpedoed sailors in an attempt to destroy a U-boat. In The Ship That Died of Shame (1955), like The Cruel Sea from a Nicholas Monsarrat novel, three ex-Roal Navy men buy their wartime motor boat and find themselves sucked into a smuggling racket to service the black market in ‘Austerity Britain’ of the late 1940s. It’s perhaps not surprising then that Ealing’s Dunkirk film was similarly downbeat. Its director Leslie Norman had been the producer on The Cruel Sea.
In 1958 Ealing Studios was in its last incarnation having moved out of the Rank film empire and re-located to MGM’s British operation at Borehamwood. Leslie Norman had spent much of his career working on Ealing’s ‘overseas productions’ and had just returned from directing The Shiralee in Australia. For Dunkirk he had his DoP and editor from the Australian shoot, Paul Beeson and Gordon Stone. The script was based on several sources including an Elleston Trevor novel and two non-fiction books by military men. The screenplay was written by another veteran of Australian and African productions William Liscomb (with a younger writer, David Divine). Dunkirk is one of Ealing’s ‘small-scale epics’ with a long running-time (134 minutes). The plot sees the parallel stories of a group of small boat owners on the Thames and a small group of British soldiers separated from their regiment in Northern France. The two groups are destined to meet on the beaches of Dunkirk and the narrative cuts between them until those final scenes. We also briefly visit press conferences in Central London and Royal Navy bases in Dover and Sheerness plus General Gort’s HQ in France. Other than that, the top brass are kept out of it, only seen in newsreels watched by the troops. The film had a budget of £400,000 and Norman claimed to come in under budget. (For comparison, the first three or four Carry On films over the next few years were budgeted at less than £100,000 each. Ealing’s films were usually more expensive than the norm.) Dunkirk was expensive and a gamble for Ealing. MGM’s distribution muscle promised overseas sales and the film did go into profit, although the North American response was relatively weak. Surprisingly perhaps, the film only boasted two star names alongside a host of familiar character actors. John Mills as Corporal ‘Tubby’ Binns leads the group of Tommies and Richard Attenborough plays Holden, a rather reluctant boat-owner who needs a lot of persuading and shaming to make the trip. In many ways, the key figure in the film is Charles Foreman, a journalist who is also a boat-owner, played by Bernard Lee, a very familiar face but not considered a star. (He would later gain fame as M in the Bond films.)
Despite its commercial success, Dunkirk failed to inspire critics and scholars. Two of the chroniclers of Ealing Studios, Charles Barr and George Perry, are dismissive of the film. Both find it dull. Barr is particularly damning though he seems more concerned with equating its story of a defeat with Ealing’s own demise as a studio. David Quinlan suggests that it is “routinely exciting, but disappointing”. It seems to me that Michael Balcon as Ealing’s hands-on leader had embarked on a nearly impossible task – to make a commercial picture about a defeat and a propaganda ‘miracle’. Dunkirk comes across as ‘realistic’ in its attempts to include as a many different facets of the actual events as possible. There are attempts to create analysis through the juxtaposition of newsreel footage and scripted dialogue, but mostly the intent seems to have been to represent the events as fully as possible. I suspect its success was mainly with audiences who already knew about the events but who wanted to see them ‘documented’ in this way. In that sense, Balcon was justified. I found the film interesting rather than exciting, but it did make me think about how I might have felt thrust into such a situation.
The Bernard Lee character is clearly meant to be the representative of the ‘ordinary’ (middle-class) British man. And it is a very male film – virtually the only women in the film are the boat-owner’s wives. Foreman (Lee) is a journalist, although he never files any copy and we don’t find out who he works for. He clearly has clout as he knows all the foreign correspondents in London and he attends Ministry of Information briefings. It’s through him that we hear the grumbling about the lack of real information about what is happening in France and despair about complacency during the ‘Phoney War’ (the title given to the first seven months of the war before the German invasion of Denmark/Norway and then Holland/Belgium and France). Tubby and his men watch propaganda newsreels in France and in the UK, the women in Holden’s factory listen to Lord Haw-Haw on the wireless. Tubby (presumably a veteran soldier – Mills was nearly 50 at the time) finds the men in his group are sometimes whingeing. Having established this sense of a nation that doesn’t really know what is happening – in the armed forces or on the Home Front – Dunkirk closes with a voiceover that is actually quite balanced. It remembers the dead and the captured soldiers, sailors and civilians left in France and clearly states that it was a defeat, but then asserts that the evacuated men “dazed and resentful” returned to a nation that had learned that it now stood alone but ‘undivided’. The UK was a nation made whole. The very last scene shows a parade ground on which Tubby and his closest mate from Dunkirk are part of a larger squad being drilled by a CSM who warns them that Dunkirk was a defeat and not a victory and they need to work hard (and quickly) to become an effective fighting force. Tubby gives his mate a knowing look.
Dunkirk‘s producers were able to use an array of military equipment that was still in working order. The film was made on Camber Sands and in the Port of Rye in East Sussex, on the Thames and at Borehamwood. Even so they needed model shots and stock footage to convey the scope of military action. Christopher Nolan has advanced technologies and a huge budget. He promises something much more immersive but still aims for the personal stories of soldiers, sailors and civilians – and adds an airman. Nolan only has 106 minutes and he has talked about preferring the suspense thriller mode to that of the war film. It sounds like he will be less interested in the mythologising impact of the evacuation. It will be fascinating to see what kinds of meanings his film produces – and what it leaves out – and how audiences respond.
Ealing’s Dunkirk is re-released to cinemas in September in a restored version which will also be available on DVD/Blu-ray from StudioCanal. Here’s the Australian trailer from 1958:
Barr, Charles (1977) Ealing Studios, London: Cameron & Tayleur, Newton Abbot: David & Charles
Perry, George (1981) Forever Ealing, London: Michael Joseph
Quinlan, David (1984) British Sound Films: The Studio Years, 1928-1959, London: Batsford
Ealing Studios as a brand has become so associated in the public mind with the comedies of the late 1940s and early 1950s that many of its most interesting productions are barely seen or discussed. Fortunately, the ‘Ealing Rarities’ collections of DVDs, first published in 2013, have made several titles available for the first time on disc. The series runs to 14 volumes, each of which comprises a 2-disc set with two features on each disc. The four titles are a mix of films from the whole of the period 1930-1959. This makes sense as a way of selling the older titles but punters can benefit too, picking up unknown gems from the 1930s. The volumes were on a limited sales offer this week and I bought three volumes for £4 to £5 each.
I was most excited by the prospect of watching Lease for Life from 1954. This drama in Eastman Colour offers the major star Robert Donat in his only Ealing role, supported by a fine cast. With a screenplay by Eric Ambler, direction by Ealing regular Charles Frend and cinematography by Douglas Slocombe it promised to be a fascinating watch – and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s worth emphasising that Donat was arguably the major male romantic star of the 1930s in the UK, a man loved by millions who spurned Hollywood and preferred to work in the UK (sometimes on American-financed films). Because of ill-health (chronic asthma) he made only 21 films and died in 1958 in his early 50s. In Lease of Life he plays a country vicar in the East Riding of Yorkshire. He was only 49 at the time but looks much older, possibly because of make-up and greying hair. He hadn’t made a film for three years and he would make only one more after it, so part of his appearance may be down to his own state of health. The plot involves his character being told that he only has a year to live, but if this makes the film sound grim, Donat’s performance soon alters such a view. He’s magnificent.
The plot is very simple (so I don’t think I’m spoiling the narrative pleasure by outlining it in some detail). Ambler gives the vicar (Rev. William Thorne) two problems to worry about (and then lands him with the news that he is going to die in about a year’s time). First he is asked by a dying parishioner to be his executor and to keep the will and a sizeable sum of money away from the man’s younger wife (Ealing regular Vida Hope) – the money is to go to the man’s son, still missing after the war. Reluctantly, the vicar agrees, knowing it is his duty to do so. He’s a kindly but not very inspiring vicar and he hasn’t saved any money. His second problem is that his talented daughter Susan (the fabulous Adrienne Corri who so graces Jean Renoir’s The River, 1950) wants to go to a music school in London, but he can’t afford to support her. A possible solution to his worries is that the local public school wants a new chaplain and the Dean of the cathedral in ‘Gilchester’ suggests Thorne. Thorne himself doesn’t realise why he has been invited to give the sermon at the school’s Founder’s Day service (but his wife Vera (Kay Walsh) realises that it is a kind of test of suitability). The chaplaincy would be a considerable step up in terms of income. The sermon comes halfway through the film and Thorne, in a moment of inspiration, tears up his prepared sermon and delivers an impassioned call to the boys to live their lives without the fear of breaking rules and to simply go out and fulfil themselves in finding God in life. Thorne is ‘re-born’, he has a new ‘lease of life’. The school’s headmaster is not enthusiastic about Thorne’s reference to a ‘Headmaster God’ as the wrong concept of religion for boys to have.
In the final third of the film the two problems prove difficult for Thorne to resolve in a satisfactory way and Ambler complicates things to create a climax. What is important too is that both June and Vera become active in their own right rather than just supporting Thorne. The other main character is June’s music teacher, the young organist at the cathedral, handsome (and quite cruel) as played by Denholm Elliott.
The main attraction of the film is Robert Donat’s performance. In the pulpit delivering his sermon to the school he is transformed and energised but it is his voice and trademark delivery that stands out. I think mellifluous is the adjective often used to describe Donat’s voice. Here it sounds both soft and melodious, but also strong – and a big change from the character’s usually mild demeanour. So, in narrative terms it works to give the vicar in ailing health the energy to continue and to overcome the obstacles that lie before him. One interesting aspect of the film is the media interest generated by the sermon which gets everybody talking. In the early 1950s Ealing made films satirising the rise of television and, like this one, using the media as agencies in moral debates.
The other interesting aspect of the film is the use of location shooting to create ‘authenticity’ of setting and a feature of many Ealing films during and after the war. I was reminded of The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947), also directed by Charles Frend and set on the Romney Marshes. That was a black and white film and here the same cinematographer creates a rural landscape using Eastman Colour. The shoot was located in what was then the East Riding of Yorkshire with Beverley’s Minster standing in for the cathedral (Wikipedia suggests that the Minster is larger than many English cathedrals) and the village of Lund a few miles away acting as the vicar’s parish. The film is a transport enthusiast’s treat with footage of the town centre including the specially adapted buses needed to pass beneath the 15th century ‘Bar gate’. Railway scenes were filmed at Eton and Windsor and there is a scene featuring Susan’s arrival in London in a train hauled by Britannia Pacific 70020, only built in 1951 as a BR standard locomotive. Overall the Eastman Colour on the Network DVD is OK, but I did wonder about the make-up and how it appears in HD on a TV set.
The DVD set includes a slide gallery (see the images above with a lobby card and publicity stills). It also includes a Press Book from the period and I would recommend this for any student of British cinema history. The Press Book includes the kinds of ads to appear in local newspaper display listings as well as competitions and other ways of attracting audiences. It also features interviews and articles on the stars. The piece on Kay Walsh is interesting, pointing out how this ‘glamorous star’ of 1930s and 1940s cinema was prepared to be made-up as the older and ‘dowdy’ vicar’s wife in order to play opposite Robert Donat. There is also coverage of the outfits worn by Adrienne Corri, an important ‘tie-in’ feature for films of the period.
I’m pleased to have been able to view this film and I’m looking forward to exploring more of the Ealing back catalogue in the Network DVDs.
The Overlanders is a highly significant film, an Australian classic helping to re-establish filmmaking in Australia after 1945. The Australian government approached the British Ministry of Information in 1943 in the hope of producing a film celebrating the Australian war effort. The MoI passed the request to Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios and Harry Watt was eventually despatched to Australia. Production began in 1945 at the time the war was coming to an end in Europe. It was released in September 1946 when the war had been over for a year (though ‘policing’ duties carried on in the Dutch East Indies during the Indonesian War of Independence). The film was extremely successful in Australia and sold well around the world. (See this Australian Screen website for more background information.)
Harry Watt was one of the most distinguished filmmakers of the British documentary movement of the 1930s, probably best known for Night Mail in 1936, co-directed with Basil Wright. After directing the documentary Target For Tonight in 1941, Watt moved from the Crown Film Unit to Ealing and in 1943 directed Nine Men, a fictional war combat film set in the North African desert in which a small British squad hold off an Italian attack. In 1945 he was not yet 40 and quite prepared for a gruelling shoot in Australia. He took some Ealing personnel with him but recruited local Australian talent as well.
The story, written by Watt, was based on real events suggested by the Australian authorities. The film opens in 1942 in Wyndham, the centre for meat-packing in the Kimberley region of Western Australia (but in effect on the North coast of Australia). Bill McAlpine (Chips Rafferty) a cattle ‘drover’ has just delivered 1,000 local cattle for slaughter and processing, but the perceived threat of Japanese invasion following the bombing of Darwin in February 1942 sees McAlpine ordered to shoot and burn the cattle as part of a ‘scorched earth policy’. The whole area is being evacuated. McAlpine refuses to abandon the cattle and declares that he will drive them over 2,000 kms to the outskirts of Brisbane. It’s the worst time of year to cross a huge expanse of brush and mountains and rivers and McAlpine struggles to put together a motley crew that includes a sailor (‘sick of the sea’), a gambler, two Aborigine stockmen, two horse traders (facing the same problem) and a local family fleeing south. The family includes an experienced man and wife and their two daughters, one a 20 year-old rider. What follows is a form of ‘Australian Western’ that actually predates the classic Hollywood ‘trail Western’ Red River (dir. Howard Hawks, 1948) with John Wayne.
Chips Rafferty, destined to become one of Australian cinemas first international stars, is an interesting actor – physically tall but here proving a strong leader because of his calm demeanour, knowledge of cattle and terrain and decisiveness rather than his physical presence. Wikipedia quotes a line from what I assume was an obituary notice in 1971, he was: “the living symbol of the typical Australian”. Watt manages to make the drive interesting by carefully structuring the narrative to include potential hazards and set-backs ranging from ‘poison grass’, river crossings with crocodiles in attendance, bogs, drought and dangerous mountain crossings. He also brings aircraft into play, including the Flying Doctor service. Watt’s documentary background enabled him to make good use of these scenes – I especially liked the farmer who pedalled a generator to contact the Flying Doctor by radio.
The presence of an attractive young woman in the shape of Daphne Campbell would have certainly pushed a similar Hollywood narrative in particular directions, but here she is celebrated mainly for her horse-riding skills, even if a brief romantic interlude does lead to a lack of attention to the cattle. (See the poster which certainly ‘oversells’ the romance.)
There are two aspects of the film that seem important in the context of its production. At one point the cattle are taken through a gorge and watching them from the top of the cliffs is a group of Aboriginal men – dressed for hunting as they would have been for thousands of years. The scene is familiar from John Ford Westerns but instead of some kind of stand-off, McAlpine and his drovers simply acknowledge the men on the cliffs who return the recognition. Throughout the film the ‘otherness’ of the Aboriginal characters is not emphasised as such. Given the exposure of institutionalised racism in Australian society in the 1930s in more recent films such as Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) it’s tempting to see the attitudes in The Overlanders as representing a British left/liberal position as set out by Watt. The script still registers ‘difference’ – as when the drive comes across a small town with “The first white man we’d seen” – and the two Aboriginal drovers are not promoted to major speaking roles. But at least they are part of the group. This links to the second key scene picked out by Charles Barr in his book on Ealing Studios.
In several of the British films made during the latter part of the war, especially those from Labour-supporting writers and directors, there is often a short speech about how future plans should work out and what kind of world might be built when peace arrives. In The Overlanders, that speech goes to McAlpine when he discovers that Corky the gambler wants to ‘exploit’ the Northern Territories by forming a private consortium. “No”, he says – “the development has to be national and to involve all Australians”. This is, indeed, the logic of the film’s narrative with the group of drovers representing Australia (including the Aboriginal groups).
Ealing went on to set up a production base of sorts in Australia and produced four more films over the next ten years –but generally declining in quality according to Barr. Two of those four were directed by Harry Watt (Eureka Stockade (1949) and the last official Ealing film, The Seige of Pinchgut (1959)). In the intervening period, Watt found himself in East Africa where he made two features. The first, in Kenya, was the early ‘eco-thriller’ about the struggle to establish game parks in the face of poaching – Where No Vultures Fly (1951). Charles Barr dubs this film an ‘African Overlanders‘ and like the Australian film, it attracted appreciative audiences in the UK and abroad. The two films suggested that there might be an international market for British films (as distinct from ‘Hollywood-British’) with ‘adventure narratives’ and spectacular scenes made overseas, but for a variety of reasons this didn’t really develop in the early 1950s. However, The Overlanders did give confidence to an Australian film industry struggling to recover after the war.