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 Monsatrat 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.
BBC4 is such a blessing. Without it UK TV would be unbearable. This Christmas holiday the channel revived the traditional Yuletide TV schedule and gave us a run of Ealing films. The standout for me was Whisky Galore! which I hadn’t seen for many years. For anyone who doesn’t know the story, adapted from Compton Mackenzie’s novel, it is inspired by a real-life incident in which a ship went aground off the isle of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides in 1941 – enabling islanders to ‘salvage’ much of its cargo of whisky. Mackenzie was himself the local Home Guard commander who turned a blind eye to the salvage operation. In the film, the locals of the mythical island of ‘Todday’ (a play on ‘toddy’?) are offered a similar opportunity during a period when their own supplies of whisky have run out. The only barrier to their enjoyment of the spoils is the local Home Guard commander, the English Captain Waggett played by Basil Radford, one half of the comic duo ‘Chalders and Caldicott’ with Naunton Wayne who appeared in several British films from 1938 onwards. Waggett brings in the ‘Excise men’ to hunt for the whisky hidden by the islanders. In doing so, he finds himself at odds with nearly all of the islanders.
Whisky Galore! is now considered a ‘classic comedy’. Initially it was only a moderate hit in English cinemas, playing better in Scotland but scoring an unexpected success in the US (as Tight Little Island) and in France where the title translated as ‘Whisky a GoGo’. Its release in 1949 alongside Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets, helped to establish the idea of the ‘Ealing comedy’. As Philip Kemp points out in his book on director Sandy Mackendrick, (Lethal Innocence, Methuen 1991), once a film gets the ‘classic tag’ it is often difficult to step back and view it objectively. But let’s try anyway.
The film’s production context is crucial. It was made in 1948 when the UK attempted to keep Hollywood productions at bay through import tariffs as part of the struggle to achieve a balance of payments. Hollywood responded by embargoing British cinemas and UK producers attempted to fill the gap with increased production. Alexander Mackendrick was a young filmmaker at Ealing given his first directorial task on a location shoot (with all available studio space taken). Mackendrick was American-born but part of a Scottish family and he would go on to become one of the stars of Ealing and a director and later film teacher with an international reputation. His first film, not surprisingly was a little uneven and took twice as long as the budgeted 60 days to shoot on the remote (from London) island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.
Watching the film now I’m struck by three immediate observations. First, there is a great deal of music, both in terms of score and the diegetic music used for local celebrations. Second, the location photography and the use of local non-professionals creates a very strong sense of place. Third, the narrative is actually pretty thin with the one central conflict and a couple of romantic sub-plots involving the two daughters of the island’s central entrepreneurial figure Macroon who runs the general store. This means that one of Ealing’s bigger stars, the husky-voiced Joan Greenwood is rather under-used. In fact all three central female roles (the other daughter and Waggett’s wife) are similarly under-used apart from a few one-liners. On the other hand, the film celebrates that Ealing trait of the small community working together and the film succeeds because of the sheer vitality of the camerawork and editing supporting the performances and the direction of the central narrative.
The interest for film scholars now, I think, lies in the film’s representation of certain ideas about ‘Scottishness’ and its relationship with similar films in terms of location and thematics. This dossier of materials compiled by Paul Cronin on the website ‘The Sticking Place’ provides many interesting starting points for debates. I’d like to pick up on what is sometimes referred to as the ‘kailyard’ tradition. This term can be traced back to at least the sixteenth century and it refers to the practice in rural areas whereby worker’s cottages would have attached a small plot of land to grow cabbages or other brassicas such as kale. In the 1890s the term was used to describe a certain kind of Scottish literature perceived as sentimental and nostalgic at a time when the Central Lowlands of Scotland (Glasgow and Edinburgh) had developed into major urban centres within the British Empire. In 1982 Colin Macarthur re-ignited the debate in his book about Scottish cinema, Scotch Reels, and the kailyard and ‘tartanry’ traditions. (‘Tartanry’ refers to the whole paraphernalia of the Victorian construction of Highlands culture.) It’s not for sassenachs like me to lecture Scots on national identity but I would point out that the kailyard has its equivalent in Ireland and the parts of England that I’m familiar with – workers’ cottages with a garden for the spuds and cabbage and a pen for a pig. The kailyard itself is authentic but the problem comes when it becomes the central focus of national identity and is disproportionately represented in comparison with the industrial tenement.
Whisky Galore! with its ‘Highlands and Islands’ setting is certainly rural and culturally Gaelic, but in fact the film makes relatively little of local culture apart from the narrative necessity of a whisky-fuelled celebration for the nuptials of Macroon’s daughters. What is important is that the central narrative hinges on the response by the locals to the actions of ‘outsiders’ – Waggett and the Excise Men. This sets up a romantic, idealised local community opposed to the rational, orthodox ideas of the English ‘colonial’ administrators. This rather than the kailyard seems to be the way in to the narrative and its ideological readings. Whisky Galore! is interesting in its relationship with what went before – Robert Flaherty’s documentary Man of Aran (1934) and Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World (1937) and I Know Where I’m Going (1945) – and what came after, including The Wicker Man (1973) and Local Hero (1982). These films (and several others) all celebrate the resistance of the ‘spirit’ of the Celtic fringe in resisting the intrusion of the ‘modern’ consumerist and regulated world into the organic but fantastic community of the Irish/Scottish Highlands and Islands.
One of the important decisions about the film’s script was to jettison the local religious conflict between two different island communities. In the novel, the wreck presents a salvage opportunity for both the Protestant (Calvinist) community of a ‘Northern Isle’ and the Catholic community of a Southern isle – the ship grounding on the dividing line in the Outer Hebrides. Ealing was terrified of the religious question and Mackendrick himself , although not a practising churchgoer, was a Protestant who said he did not understand the local Catholic community who seemed more Irish than Scottish. The result is that the film fails to convince when the Todday men, confirmed whisky drinkers, are unable to go to the wreck for 24 hours because they respect the Sabbath day (surely more of a Calvinist concept).
I enjoyed watching the film again. I was thrilled by the overall presentation and, like several other commentators, I was intrigued by the use of conventions relevant to 1948 – the noirish lighting of the salvage scenes and the war film references in which the excise men seem like the Gestapo searching houses for contraband whisky. But I would have liked more Joan Greenwood and more of the romance on those wonderful beaches – one day I’ll spend some June nights in the Hebrides!
Whisky Galore! is available on DVD and Blu-ray.
(This post was mostly written last year when It Always Rains on Sunday was in cinemas again. It is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray from the BFI.)
This welcome digital restoration by the BFI brings one of Ealing Studios’ best releases back into UK cinemas. It’s a thoroughly entertaining film offering a range of different pleasures and represents the peak period of Ealing’s output very well. Reading up on the coverage of the re-release however, I think that some of the writing could be misleading about the British cinema of the time. British reviewers refer to this as a ‘precursor to kitchen-sink dramas’ and American reviewers seem to focus on the film noir aspects. Both descriptions have some validity but the film is a mix of genres and the same elements can be found in several British films of the period – other Ealing films and also titles from Gainsborough and other studios. The East End depicted here is not the ‘near slum housing’ and desperate hand-to-mouth existence that some reviewers discuss. It’s a thriving working-class community making the best of enjoying life in ‘Austerity Britain’ (much like the present in fact!). Having said that, there is evidence that some of the residents of Bethnal Green objected to the depiction of their neighbourhood – an indication of a time when audiences were less used to seeing their locality on screen perhaps?
The film is notable for many other reasons, including its presentation of Ealing’s biggest star of the period, Googie Withers, and the direction by Robert Hamer, one of the leading Ealing directors alongside Sandy Mackendrick. The cast is chock-full of British character actors and for those of a certain age offers a treasure trove of remembered performers. The camerawork from Douglas Slocombe is very good, though the budget constraints are obvious and models had to be used for some of the action scenes. 1947 was the year after British cinema audiences peaked at 1.6 billion admissions and there were 30 million cinema visits a week. Production levels were still relatively low, so Ealing did well to release five films in 1947. Googie Withers starred in two of them (the other being the ‘realist historical’ drama The Loves of Joanna Godden in which Ms Withers is an Edwardian farmer on Romney Marsh). It was a vintage year since the other three films were Basil Dearden’s fine Frieda (in which David Farrar brings home from the war a German bride – to the consternation of his family), the Charles Crichton comedy Hue and Cry and Cavalcanti’s Nicholas Nickleby. It Always Rains on Sunday came out late in 1947. Film Review considers it as a 1948 film and reports that the Daily Mail Readers Poll made it one of the 10 most popular British films of the year with Googie Withers and her co-star (and new husband) John McCallum similarly honoured. Film Review also makes what I think is the best critical summary in saying that: “This careful, observant study of East End life bore the touch of genius. Its characters were believable, its actions normal and its background authentic.” The first half of 1948 was an unusual period in British cinemas since a dispute with Hollywood meant that no new American films were released, leaving the field open to British films. Perhaps audiences had more chance to discover the qualities of home-grown films?
It Always Rains on Sunday details one day in the life of East End housewife Rose Sandigate (Googie Withers). Her Sunday routine is disrupted by her discovery of her ex-lover Tommy Swann (John McCallum) hiding in the wartime Anderson shelter in her backyard. He’s broken out of gaol and come to her as the only person he can trust. She hasn’t seen him for ten years but feels compelled to keep him safe despite the need to hide him from the older man she married after Tommy’s capture, her two stepdaughters and her young son. This is the central plotline of the film but there are several sub-plots, mostly involving the two stepdaughters (the elder of whom is played by the Rank starlet Susan Shaw), three petty crooks and a Jewish extended family including such archetypal figures as the amusement arcade owner and ‘fixer’, the musician/record shop owner and the charitable worker. (Bethnal Green had a long-standing Jewish community, also represented in other films of the period.) The script by Ealing regulars Angus McPhail and Henry Cornelius, alongside Hamer and taken from a novel by Arthur la Bern, is full of witty exchanges and the film fairly zips along through its 92 minutes.
Why has this film survived so well while dozens of others from the period have virtually disappeared? It is a good representation of community and that was an important part of Ealing’s success. As George Perry points out (Forever Ealing, Pavilion Books 1981), Ealing’s peak years of 1945-51 exactly match the Labour government of Clem Attlee which did more than any UK government before or since to foster the sense of ‘doing things together’ through nationalisation of major industries and the expansion of the welfare state. Ealing’s films in this period, though never overtly ‘political’, often feature communities coming together to fight for something or at least being represented as having a sense of living and developing with a collective responsibility. Bethnal Green is presented as a place where people are ‘known’ – whether because they help others or because they are up to no good. Jack Warner’s CID man knows everybody and especially the petty crooks.
It Always Rains on Sunday includes several scenes that regularly recur in British films of the period. The action scenes are familiar from I Was a Fugitive (1947) (the escaping prisoner) and numerous films in which police cars with tyres squealing race through East End streets. The chase across the railway marshalling yard is a staple of British crime films and the East End dockland roads with their high walls are perfect for the entrapment of the doomed man. The scenes of cramped family life in a terraced house are similarly familiar but Googie Withers stands out as a genuine film star with real presence. She seems right for the period with that shapely, strong and powerful body and that wonderfully-sculpted mane of hair and she commands the screen. Ealing needed a female star of this magnitude to compete in a period when female stars ruled British cinema (this was the era of Anna Neagle, Margaret Lockwood, Deborah Kerr, Phyllis Calvert, Jean Kent, Patricia Roc, Ann Todd and many more).
I would contend that the greatness of the film resides in the combination of script, star performance and overall ‘quality’ of the Ealing production, both technical and creative. I include in that reference to quality the work of Robert Hamer, but I wouldn’t want to single him out quite as much as some of the high-profile commentators have done. Hamer and Mackendrick are usually singled out as the star directors at Ealing and there are various publications and online resources devoted to them. I’m a supporter of the ‘Ealing as community’ school but Hamer is definitely worth investigating on sites like Screenonline and this Criterion essay by Philip Kemp. Kemp suggests that Hamer was attempting to bring the poetic realism of Marcel Carné to the East End in It Always Rains On Sunday. I’m not sure about that but the film is as important as those French films in its combination of art and entertainment.
This film is one of the classic Ealing comedies re-released in a handsome digital format. Praising films as ‘top of some category’ is a hostage to fortune, but I feel this is not only one of the finest of British comedies but among the wittiest of films in English-language cinema. One remembers the felicity of the narrator and the dialogue; as with Louis’s congratulation to Lionel on his wedding day; or in the sardonic comment by Louis as the river weir claims its victims.
However, it is not just the verbal wit which delights. There is a marvellous moment as Louis carefully ignores the smoke rising beyond a garden wall, unnoticed by his hostess Edith.
The film is famous for the multiple role-playing by Alex Guinness. This is impressive, but so is the acting of the central triangle, Louis (Dennis Price), Edith (Valerie Hobson) and Sibella. Joan Greenwood in the latter role is one of the most sensuous creations in British cinema. And the supporting cast offer many moments of delightful comedy and satire. Miles Malleson’s hangman is especially enjoyable. Whist Arthur Lowe’s Titbit reporter performs a perfectly timed change in the tone and plot at the film’s conclusion.
Like many great comedies the film is amalgam of laughter and darker currents. Louis pursues a path of revenge with admirable and calculated restraint throughout the film. But in the final confrontation there is real power and the oedipal undercurrent comes into the open. The class-conscious antagonism that is so often smoothed away in British cinema here break through the superficially polite surface.
Once seen this is a film to treasure and to return to with renewed pleasure and the discovery of new subtle allusions. And, like all good films, it needs to be seen on the big screen. There is infinitesimal detail to notice and savour. The slight exaggeration of the landscape and mores of Edwardian England is a constant delight. There is the use of one old nursery rhyme, which would no longer past muster, but I think that can be forgiven.
I saw the film at the Hyde Park Picture House at the beginning of the Xmas weekend. The following screening was sold out – you can guess, It’s a Wonderful Life. The latter is a fine film but Capra’s seasonal tale is rich in sentiment, rather like the final course of Xmas pudding. Ealing’s film has the astringent taste of old smoky Highland malts, perfectly rounding off the day.
For a first-time viewer I think the wit and panache of the story line will be fresh and gloriously funny. And if you want to consider the complexities of the film then I would recommend Charles Barr’s excellent discusion in Ealing Studios(Studio Vista, 1993).
Directed by Robert Hamer from a screenplay by Hamer and John Dighton. Douglas Slocombe’s black and white cinematography is beautifully done, as is the special effect of the entire D’Ascoyne family (all Alec Guinness). And the Art Direction of William Kellner and the editing of Peter Tanner are perfectly judged. Released by Ealing in June 1949 and running 106 minutes.