This film belongs to one of the most successful sequences of continuous film production ever achieved by a team of filmmakers. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (P&P) made more than a dozen films together between 1939 to 1949. All of them have stood up well and some of them have come to be seen as the best of British cinema. Having been united by Alexander Korda for The Spy in Black (1939) and Contraband (1940), Powell and Pressburger stayed together in the UK when Korda went to Hollywood to lead the UK propaganda effort in the US. P&P made the highly successful propaganda picture 49th Parallel in 1941. They were surprised that after the commercial success of their Canadian-based film (which was also an American hit, winning an Oscar for Pressburger’s script) they were unable to get funding from Rank to make their next picture when their outline was deemed ‘non-commercial’. Instead they turned to Lady Yule at British National who agreed to fund another propaganda picture (the filmmakers were committed to films that supported the war effort directly). They also decided to pool their talents and form their own production company ‘The Archers’, taking equal credits as ‘Producer, Writer and Director’. Their first Archers title was based on the phrase that Powell heard on nightly radio broadcasts: “One of our aircraft has failed to return”. In late 1941 and early 1942 the RAF was charged with night-time bombing raids on German targets but these were still part of a limited offensive by twin-engined bombers such as the Vickers Wellington, the bomber built in the largest numbers during wartime. The RAF provided a ‘shell’ of a Wellington to The Archers for the inflight shots and a full scale model of was built at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith to shoot scenes of the bomber over Germany and the final crash back in the UK. The interiors were shot at Denham.
The opening of the film is innovative and shows both Pressburger’s ideas about narrative and Powell’s brilliance in presenting moving images. The title on the print I saw was actually ‘. . . One of our aircraft is missing‘ – a snappier title than the original radio announcement. Pressburger begins the narrative with the execution order of Dutch resistance workers shot for aiding British flyers, giving the emphasis to them rather than the RAF crew. Then, having established that the Wellington bomber ‘B for Bertie’ has not returned from a bombing raid, we see that the aircraft is apparently flying itself across the channel, after which it is too low to avoid crashing into an electricity pylon. What has happened? The actual credits roll now with the aircrew presenting themselves and then we flashback to discover what happened to the six man crew who baled out of their aircraft believing it was about to crash. The narrative will then follow their attempts, aided by various Dutch communities, to get back to the UK.
If you’ve seen 49th Parallel, you’ll realise that One of Our Aircraft is Missing reverses every aspect of the earlier film. Where six Germans from a U-boat attempted to cross Canada to reach the neutral US, we now have six RAF crew attempting to escape from occupied Holland. The Canadians were encouraged to look out for the enemy, the Dutch were to be portrayed as brave and resourceful in resisting the Nazi occupation. The film had the support of the Dutch government in exile in London.
P&P made several important decisions about the film. They declined to use any non-diegetic music and decided that the Dutch and Germans should speak their own languages (which aren’t subtitled). English was used only when it was logical to do so given the events (i.e. when the Dutch townspeople talk to the RAF flyers). This realism factor is heightened by the use of locations in East Anglia to represent Dutch houses, canals, fields/fens etc. The film looks very fine. It was photographed by Ronald Neame and edited by David Lean, both of whom would later become directors in their own right. The casting of the RAF crew included well-known actors of the time with Eric Portman and Bernard Miles as the names which are perhaps best remembered from the period. (Eric Portman played the leading Nazi in 49th Parallel.) Smaller roles include Peter Ustinov as a priest, but for fans of Powell & Pressburger perhaps the two most significant roles are taken by Pamela Brown and Googie Withers. Pamela Brown was a successful theatre actor but this was her first film role. She would become one of Powell’s lovers and the two remained close throughout the rest of her life. Googie Withers had worked with Powell in the 1930s when she was still a bit player or a lead in ‘quota quickies’ and comedies. She could speak Dutch as her mother had a Dutch background. The Archers used her again in the second Dutch resistance film they produced but didn’t direct, The Silver Fleet (1943). With these roles she moved up in the British film industry and emerged as a star in Ealing pictures from 1944 onwards.
The script avoids any direct confrontations between the aircrew and the German forces who are mostly seen in long shot or overheard. It is not until the final acts of the escape that the crew have to fend for themselves. Up until then they are protected by the Dutch resistance. One of the ironies of the film is that there is actually very little ‘flying action’. Instead this is much more a ‘resistance/escape’ narrative with the final section involving an ingenious device which again needed permission from the War Office to use.
One final point about the script is discussed at some length by Powell in his memoir, A Life in Movies (1986) sheds more light on P&P’s ideas. They had the idea early on to include an ‘over-age’ member of the aircrew based on a widely-reported statement by an eccentric MP who joined up to fight. (Most aircrew were very young.) P&P wanted to include an older man who would be played by Ralph Richardson but he was unavailable (he was working for the Fleet Air Arm, although P&P did get him for The Silver Fleet). They turned instead to a much older actor, the matinee idol from the 1910s and 1920s who was a Great War veteran, Godfrey Tearle. He is tolerated by the younger airman who don’t really understand him and Pressburger wrote a scene in which he tries to explain to the younger men that he was like them in his youth. David Lean persuaded Powell to cut the scene during the edit because it didn’t advance the plot. Lean supposedly said it introduced a theme that could make a whole film. This became the birth of the Colonel Blimp character in the next P&P film. Powell was fond of telling stories and this may be an exaggerated version of events. Nevertheless it points towards P&P’s understanding of wartime Britain and their stunning creativity at this point. One of Our Aircraft is Missing is a great propaganda film and a wonderful example of wartime filmmaking.
Here’s the trail on Talking Pictures TV with Pamela Brown as resistance leader very much in control:
The BBC has deposited another tranche of its RKO titles on iPlayer in the UK to enable us to entertain ourselves under lockdown. It’s a mixed bag but I haven’t seen any of them before and I’m always grateful for films without ads. I plumped for Yellow Canary which promised an interesting cast in a Herbert Wilcox production, released in the UK and the US through RKO. I’ve noted before on this blog that Wilcox was arguably the UK producer-director who attracted the largest audiences in the late 1940s for films most often built around the star performances of his partner Anna Neagle. The couple married in August 1943 soon after this film finished shooting. I think I’ve previously avoided quite a few of the couple’s films because the subject matter didn’t appeal but this is another rarity, a wartime spy thriller which isn’t a biopic (like Odette (1950)) and in which Anna Neagle is perceived as a villain.
This is an odd film in some ways, adapted from a story by P.M. Bower with a screenplay by British writer Miles Malleson and the American writer DeWitt Bodeen, who is possibly best known as the writer of Cat People (US 1942) and two other titles for Val Lewton at RKO. The explanation for this is that Wilcox and Neagle were working with RKO in the US in 1940-42 before coming back to the UK. The narrative of Yellow Canary is actually set in September 1940, meaning that the film had a slightly ‘looking back’ feel in 1944 when most audiences saw it. This is evident for me with the constant propaganda messages about ‘careless talk’ etc., much of it involving a character played by Margaret Lockwood. Such ‘warning’ films were more common in the early part of the war. Anna Neagle plays Sally Maitland, a ‘girl’ from a well-off military family who was in Germany pre-war and seems to be still favouring the Germans even after a year of the war. Her character is perhaps inspired by the ‘Mitford girls’. The six girls of that ‘real’ aristocratic family included Diana who was a fascist, the partner of Oswald Mosley, and who was interned during the war. Unity Mitford was attracted to Hitler and attempted suicide soon after war was declared. The film narrative suggests that Sally Maitland is pro-fascist but not dangerous enough to intern, especially as she is intending to leave for exile in Canada. Her parents and her younger sister Betty (an underused Nova Pilbeam), who has joined the Wrens, are glad to see her leave. They don’t know that she has been behaving suspiciously in a London flat where a man has been killed and attempts have been made to signal to German bombers. But British intelligence is watching her and when she boards a train to Liverpool she is followed by Commander Garrick of Naval Intelligence (Richard Greene) in civilian disguise.
The passage to Canada on a modest steamer sees Sally meeting Captain Orlock (Albet Lieven, a Polish officer who has escaped from Warsaw and is making the same trip to meet up with his mother in Canada. Is Sally a Nazi spy and is Orlock in danger? What does Garrick know? The final section of the film is set in Halifax, Nova Scotia where these questions are resolved. Note the exhortations in the film poster above. Years before Hitchcock and Psycho, audiences are advised to watch from the beginning and to avoid knowing the ending in advance. In 1943 screenings might have been in a ‘continuous programme’ with audiences entering a screening at any point.
I can’t quite make my mind up about this film. Anna Neagle is a strong performer and believable as a hard fascist character (though some of the actions and re-actions around her are harder to take). Richard Greene is more problematic for me because I haven’t seen anything of his work in Hollywood or British films up to this point. For me he has always been Robin Hood in the 1950s TV series. I’ve seen a suggestion that his good looks saw him rivalling Tyrone Power as a handsome action lead for 20th Century Fox. But in 1940 he had returned to the UK and enlisted in the Royal Armoured Corps which released him to make propaganda pictures like this one on three separate occasions. His post-war career didn’t meet the success he perhaps deserved but 144 episodes of The Adventures of Robin Hood imprinted his action hero image on a generation of British children (the shows were broadcast from the start of ITV in 1955). Yellow Canary is generally well made at Denham with some atmospheric cinematography by Max Greene (Mutz Greenbaum) and it is quite pacey and engaging.
Somehow, however, it just doesn’t ‘feel’ like the other similar wartime spy thrillers and I have to agree with Monthly Film Bulletin‘s reviewer in 1943 (who calls it a ‘spy melodrama’) that although the script is ingenious, it invites a comparison with Hitchcock’s spy films and suffers as a result. It’s not giving too much away to reveal that Sally and Garrick have to work together in the end. The idea that they don’t trust each other and that they might have things to hide recalls Hitchcock films like The 39 Steps (1935). The script for Yellow Canary doesn’t really exploit the potential of this relationship. All spy films by their very nature test the audience’s credibility threshold but in this case the script goes too far. My comparison would be with Michael Powell’s films written by Emeric Pressburger, The Spy in Black (1939) and Contraband (1940). Powell & Pressburger (who joined to become ‘The Archers’) also produced 49th Parallel (1941), one of the best propaganda films ever made by UK filmmakers which was made entirely in Canada under wartime conditions before the Americans joined the Allies. There are some parallels between Yellow Canary and 49th Parallel, especially in the focus on the vulnerability of the Canadian Atlantic coast to penetration by U-boats. But The Archers films are far more exciting, and plausible, I think. I’m intrigued that Anna Neagle played opposite a much younger leading man. There seem to be some doubts about Richard Greene’s birth date but he is at least nine years younger and by most accounts thirteen years younger than Anna Neagle. It says a great deal about Anna Neagle’s status that such casting was possible in 1943 and she presents as a much younger woman. Would it happen today without any notice? I’m not suggesting it is a problem, just trying to understand how the film industry was then.
A trivia note to close on: it was interesting to see Cyril Fletcher in one of his first film roles. At the beginning of the film he is in effect playing himself as a swanky night-club entertainer, delivering waspish short pieces, one of which has Sally as its target. He became one of the first ‘celebrity TV entertainers’ in the 1950s.
I knew nothing of the background to The Proud Valley but the swerve towards propaganda at the end felt tacked on; as it transpired to be because war was declared whilst the film was being made. Until then the subversive aspects of the film were particularly interesting and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the scriptwriters Alfredda Brilliant and Herbert Marshall were members of the left-wing Unity Theatre. In addition, having a black hero (the incomparable Paul Robeson) nailed the film as progressive. Apparently Robeson was friends of the husband and wife writing team.
Although Robeson’s acting skills are limited he only has to sing eradicate any problems with his presence. He ends up in a Welsh mining village where, because of his singing voice, he is embraced by the choir. Racism, fortunately, isn’t ignored but the ‘problem’ of his colour for some characters is glossed over quickly. Instead, this man-mountain represents workers’ solidarity, particularly in the face of the mine’s owners who are happy not to reopen the pit after an accident. Such was the lot of the working person in those days . . . still is of course.
Originally the end featured the community reopening the pit on their own however the start of war meant the film became the first of Ealing Studio’s ‘war effort’ productions and the characters march to London to petition the bosses to open to help with the conflict. Benevolent ‘Sir John’ agrees to give it a go and all ends well; except Robeson’s character sacrifices himself when they are reopening the mine. ‘Bosses and workers’ pulling together was undoubtedly the propaganda message required at the time but it isn’t necessary today. So I wonder why scriptwriter Anthony McCarten felt he needed to add a fictional scene to Darkest Hour (UK-US 2017) where Churchill rode the London Underground to consult ‘the people’? Worse, ‘the people’ included an Afro-Caribbean man with whom he appears to bond through quoting Shakespeare, so eradicating Churchill’s racism!
I also wonder about the ‘necessity’ of David Goliath’s (Robeson) sacrifice. The romantic interest in the film, as it was unlikely there’d be the odd black woman lurking in the Valleys, is taken by white characters so there could be no happy romantic ending for David; indeed he sacrifices himself for the couple. It creates an emotional ending, but the celebrations for the pit reopening do follow hard behind his death in order to ensure the happy emotion. Couldn’t he have continued just as a member of the community or didn’t he belong after all?
Maybe I’m being over-critical, after all the film is progressive in many ways. As entertainment it struggles; Robeson sings little but there is some sparkling dialogue. It is, however, a testament to Robeson whose connection to Wales continued for many years after the film.
This is a film that I’ve known about for years but never before managed to see. Now, thanks to Talking Pictures TV and their season of films compiled by the Imperial War Museum, I have – and it is certainly worth seeing. This is propaganda with real bite and I’m sure many audiences might have been quite shocked in 1942. Who knows how many lives it might have saved?
Originally intended as a military training film emphasising the danger of service personnel speaking carelessly about any aspects of their work, the commission was eventually developed by Ealing Studios (which increased the budget substantially) and an array of well known faces. Ealing’s work paid off and the film was a great success, both as propaganda and as a rather alarming form of entertainment. (But Ealing only covered its costs – the War Office took the profits.) It was a clear step forward from earlier propaganda efforts and morale-building war combat films, both in its production qualities and its approach to finding ways to achieve its objectives.
The plot involves an attack on a German U-boat base in a small French port which intelligence from a French military agent has discovered is only lightly guarded. An infantry brigade with appropriate training is identified and sent to a training area to practice the skills necessary for a night-time landing and the subsequent demolition of port facilities. A security officer is assigned to the brigade, but German intelligence soon begins to pick up clues that an attack is in preparation. A set of parallel narratives develops in which German spies attempt to discover the target and British intelligence attempts to stop them. In the final section of what is a comparatively long film for the time (102 minutes), the raid goes ahead but the Germans discover enough information through ‘careless talk’ and the ingenuity of German agents to identify ‘Norville’ as the target and to reinforce the local garrison. The final action sequence is very impressive. A well-planned and executed raid succeeds in its prime objective but loses many, many men killed, injured and presumably captured. The film’s title (it seems to exist with and without the ‘The’) is referred to in a voiceover that tells us “Next of kin will be informed”. The final scene sees the comedy pairing of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne in their familiar roles as bumbling middle-class English ‘chaps’ on a train talking ‘carelessly’ and being overheard by the film’s chief villain played by an unlikely Ealing favourite. As Charles Barr in his Ealing book suggests, instead of defusing the horror of the loss of life in the raid, this properly brings home how dangerous frivolous talk can be.
Next of Kin was written by familiar Ealing figures Angus MacPhail and John Dighton alongside contributions from director Thorold Dickinson and Basil Bartlett as military advisor. The key figure here is Dickinson, at the time heading the Army Kinematograph Service Film Unit, who really deserves an entire post to himself. If you want to know more about him I recommend Geoff Brown’s entry on Screenonline. Dickinson is another of the left-wing Oxbridge intellectuals who became interested in film in the late 1920s. Unlike Humphrey Jennings and others he didn’t focus on documentary but engaged in commercial cinema. I was struck by one scene in particular in the early part of the film when the soldiers in question all visit a local theatre to watch an extraordinary ‘classical striptease’ in which a dancer (Phyllis Stanley) gracefully descends a gothic staircase discarding layers of a diaphanous dress. Dickinson, DoP Ernest Palmer and art designer Tom Morahan use shadow and an enormous (and suggestive) silhouette of a static female figure to create a highly expressionist presentation. This looks as if it might have come from a later Michael Powell film with the set much too big to be accommodated on the stage of the theatre. The dancer is just one of the German agents, all depicted as shrewd and skilled, who wheedle information out of the soldiers. At the head of this post is an image of Nova Pilbeam, the fearless young woman from Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (UK 1937) who is playing a Dutch refugee, forced to spy because the Nazis hold her parents. The dancer is a cocaine addict who is easily manipulated but others are ‘good Nazis’. None are the stiff Prussian types or buffoons of the earlier propaganda films. Although some of these spies are caught, others are successful.
Dickinson went on to make one of the most distinctive British films of the post-war period, Men of Two Worlds (1946), a Technicolor drama shot in East Africa for Two Cities focusing on the dilemmas faced by an educated African caught between the village culture of his people and the world of the coloniser. Like Dickinson’s later film for Ealing, Secret People (1952) about refugees in London in the 1930s and a plot to kill a dictator, Men of Two Worlds fell awkwardly between the ideals of Dickinson and his co-writer Joyce Cary (on both films) and the commercial imperatives of the time. I remember finding both films to be worth seeing. Dickinson finally became the UK’s first Professor of Film at the Slade School in 1967.
But in 1942, Next of Kin worked and it paved the way for an even more hard-fitting propaganda film by another unusual figure at Ealing – Went the Day Well?, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and released in December 1942. During 1942 there was a raid on the French coast when 5,000 Canadian and 1,000 British troops landed at Dieppe. I don’t know of any claims that this was ‘leaked’ but the Germans were aware, possibly via French agents, that some kind of attack was planned. The raid was in many ways a complete disaster and many of the men, especially the Canadians, were killed, injured or captured. A great deal then seemed to be learned before D-Day in 1944 about how to prepare for a landing – and how to keep the target secret.
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 F/Lt Murray, the 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 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: