It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

When most people think of Ealing Studios they think of the comedies – Whisky Galore!, Passport to Pimilico and so on. Very few would think of Film Noir but that the best description of It Always Rains on Sunday (dir. Robert Hamer, 1947). It features a woman, Rose Sandigate, (Googie Withers) who helps her former lover, Tommy Swann (John McCallum)  who has escaped from prison, thus jeopardising her family life because of her sexual desires and a fair amount of shadowy shots. So far so noir but this is British Noir. It isn’t about glamour. Set in and around Bethnal Green, much of the action takes place in Petticoat Lane and gives a realist snapshot of post-war Britain, cheese rations and blackout material included. It Always Rains on Sunday

The action all takes place on one Sunday (which as the title suggests is a rainy one) and begins with a normal family waking up and going about their business, with a fair amount of bickering. Little do they know that the matriarch’s past is about to come back to shatter their peace. At the start it appears that there are several disjointed storylines – the escaped convict, the unhappily married woman, her step-daughters’ love lives, the local criminal networks and the unfaithful band leader. Hamer takes these storylines and weaves them into a story that although complex is brilliantly executed and brings to the fore Jack Warner as Detective Sergeant Fothergill who is occupied trying to find Tommy Swann and also one by one arresting the gang of crooks. Largely through their own incompetence.

The film culminates with a very good chase sequence which acts like a needle, sewing up all the loose ends until the film comes to a bleak and real ending, much more akin to the Kitchen Sink dramas of the late fifties and sixties than the Ealing comedies we know.

There are several recognisable Ealing comedy moments including the neighbour disturbing Rose whilst she smuggles Tommy into her house to discuss the meat they are each having for Sunday lunch or the fact the central gang of crooks have bungled a warehouse raid and ended up with a truck load of Roller Skates.

This surprising film deserves to takes its place next to the finest post-war British films.

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Meet Me in St Louis (1944)

Meet Me in St. Louis
Meet Me in St. Louis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

*Contains Spoilers*

I remembered Meet Me in St Louis as a nice film with Judy Garland and that song about a trolley. It is a nice film with Judy Garland and it does have The Trolley Song (Clang, clang, clang goes the trolley. Ding, Ding, Ding goes the bell. Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings as we started for Huntington Dell. – try getting that out of your head now) but it is far far funnier than I had any recollection of. Directed by Vincente Minnelli Meet Me In St Louis is set at the time of the Lousianna Purchase Exposition’s World Fair coming to St Louis, Missouri.

The story centres around the Smith family and predominantly the eldest girls’ desire to get married. Esther (Judy Garland) and Rose (Lucille Bremer) Smith are the original rules girls. They yearn for romance and fantasise over the objects of their affections. Plotting to get their men:

Rose: Oh, Es, isn’t he simply enchanting? And so mature!

Esther: Well, how did it happen? Where did you meet?

Rose: I was coming out of the shop and he was coming in. We bumped into each other!

Esther: Accidentally?

Rose: Almost!

But then feigning indifference when Warren (Robert Sully) phones in the much anticipated long distance phone call which is supposed to contain a proposal to Rose.

Rose follows the rules to the letter:

Warren: Wait, Rose! We still have… 36 more seconds!

Rose: I have an engagement. I think I can hear Joe’s voice, now?

Charlotte York from Sex and The City couldn’t have played the game better (maybe when it is referred to in the first SATC film there is more to it than Jennifer Hudson’s character coming from there).

I’m not sure 1944 audiences would have found all the same jokes funny but most don’t date, partly due to the historical setting of the film. I expect the 1944 audience also must have thought a small girl, Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), killing off her dolls and burying them in the cemetery was a little bonkers. When she decapitates the snowmen it is also all a bit surreal, but even disturbed children are hilarious in this film and there are so many one liners and quips that we laughed throughout.

Plot wise this is largely about the elder sisters falling in love whilst making comments on family and home. Being made in 1944 I can’t help but wonder what place in America’s official wartime narrative it had. I guess comedy boosted morale and there is some social commentary on the family, largely the role of the father or rather the lack of role of the father. Poor Alonso Smith (Leon Ames) is kept in the dark about pretty much everything his family does, he might as well be away. Grandpa (Harry Davenport) puts it well “Your papa’s not supposed to know. It’s enough we’re letting him work hard every day to support the whole flock of us. He can’t have everything”

Of course it is the songs which get in your head both the Trolley Song and the eponymous Meet Me In St Louis are catchy. The Trolley Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas give Judy Garland the chance of two big solos but there is none of the star posturing you might expect. There are other solo songs, including Over the Banister which suggests the domestic confines Esther feels while looking at the promise of love with the boy next door. Early on Esther is shown as a modern woman in the exchange with Rose:

Esther: I’m going to let John Truett kiss me tonight.
Rose: Esther Smith.
Esther: Well, if we’re going to get married, I may as well start it.
Rose: Nice girls don’t let men kiss them until after they’re engaged. Men don’t want the bloom rubbed off.
Esther: Personally, I think I have too much bloom. Maybe that’s the trouble with me.

When Judy Garland sings she is incredible and floors the rest of the cast but it isn’t entirely about her, Tootie and Agnes (Joan Carroll) supply most of the comedy with Tootie frequently stealing the show.

The historical setting of the film is interesting, allowing not only an escape from the realities of war but also because it is full of the folklore of St Louis in the songs and the scenes such as the throwing of flour on Halloween. However whilst it feels very different to the films set in 1944 it is worth remembering that it is only 40 years after the world fair. There is a nod to the speed the US has developed.

Oh and in case you are wondering whether it is Louis sounding like Lewes or Louis sounding like Louie then Tootie thinks she has the answer (she is the only one who thinks this):

Mr. Neely the Iceman: Well, I got a cousin who spells it the same way, and we call him “Louie”.

Tootie : He’s isn’t a city though, is he?

Mr. Neely the Iceman: No…

Tootie: Is he a saint?

Mr. Neely the Iceman: Uh, no.

Tootie: Then there’s no comparison.

If you want to be cheered up, have a laugh and aren’t too worried about the plot then this is the film for you.

Meet me in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the Fair
Don’t tell me the lights are shining
Anyplace but there

The Muppets (2011)

The Muppets (film)
Image via Wikipedia

Nostalgia and laughter. Essentially that is what the Muppets film promised and it gives you both in spades. Apparently children enjoy it too, or so Claire tells me, which suggests it is definitely a film that works for adults and children. Although in the nature of successful cross generational films I suspect adults and children experience very different films.

We’d been looking forward to watching this since we found the trailer in the Autumn and we weren’t disappointed. Even the cynic amongst us was able to forget that essentially this was a merchandising exercise for Disney, who resurrected the Muppets for their first film for 12 year after a pitch by Jason Segel (How I Met your Mother, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) in 2008.  Part of the pre-release publicity included several spoof trailers and the day before its release and iPhone app was launched.
Cynicism aside the scene where they recreate the opening credits took me right back to Wednesday evenings watching it(I think it was Wednesdays) and there are catchphrases a plenty. How I wish I could “go by map” sometimes! The oscar winning song “Man or Muppet” is show stopping.
This is the story of how three fans help The Muppets to save their old  theatre from greedy developmers.  Cue chases, villainous deeds, musical numbers and many, many cameos. It is a real caper and provides so many nods at past Muppet shows that you can’t help but be engaged. Writer Segel stars with Amy Adams as two of the fans. They look like they are thoroughly enjoying themselves and that helps the enjoyment of the audience.
If you don’t have a child to accompany you don’t worry, the cinema was full of adults. The plot is a little flimsy but it is fun so who cares? We left with smiles on our faces and a skip in our step.

The Woman in Black (2012)

The play of The Woman in Black is often studied by GCSE students to show them how thrilling theatre can be with a minimal cast and scenery. In many ways the film follows the same idea. James Watkins creates fear out of empty spaces and builds the tension to just the right level that audiences jump out of their seats, and occasionally nervously laugh with relief afterwards.

My memory of the play (I haven’t read the book) is hazy. I remember jumping a lot in that too and I know it is different, the shell of the plot is the same but it takes many different turns. Jane Goldman has dispatched of the narrator in her screenplay and the cast is considerably larger but between her and Watkins they make use of film as the medium of fear in a similar way to the use of theatrics in the stage version. This is made by the re-opened Hammer studios and is dark and gothic enough to live up to the studios reputation. You don’t see a lot but it is nonetheless terrifying. In fact this is possibly the most terrifying part of it. Its 12A certificate should not be taken as a sign this is light weight. It is full of things that make go bump in the night.

Of course other than “is it as good as the play” the main question people will ask about this is “didn’t you spend the whole time thinking – that’s Harry Potter.” I didn’t. In fact I briefly thought “ooh doesn’t he look grown up.” but quickly forgot about it. The character is very different to Potter (being a human and a grown up and all) which helps. He does brooding very well and seems to have chosen his first post Potter role well. I am sure some people will feel differently but I thought he was good. Also worth a mention is Janet Mcteer – she’s not in it much but her scenes are excellent. Reall Hammer horror stuff.

Go and see this if you want a good old fright without any blood and gore. Don’t go and see this if you are particularly nervous or if you are just going to laugh out loud throughout. We know you are really scared and the laughter is just a defence …

Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca never seems to date. Watching this at the BFI the audience was totally absorbed and clapped at the end, although I am sure most had seen it before. I ought to declare that this film has been amongst my favourites for at least 20 years and I don’t see it leaving that list any time soon. It may well have been a large reason for my choice of dissertation topic – “A Kiss is Still a Kiss: Women and Romance in British Cinema during World War Two” (I know it isn’t British but believe me it was why I chose it).

A film that has influenced filmmakers from the Marx Brothers (A Night in Casablanca (1946)) to Woody Allen (Play it Again Sam (1972)) and has provided possibly some of the most famous movie quotes (or misquotes) of modern times it is unsurprising that its 70th anniversary is being marked around the world but if you haven’t seen it then why should you? “Yes, indeed, the Warners here have a picture which makes the spine tingle and the heart take a leap.” – New York Times critic Bosley Crowther (My favourite film critics name) upon its release.

This film has it all. Glamour, adventure and buckets of romance all offering a clear wartime message. They really don’t make them like this any more. It is based on a play Everybody Come’s to Rick’s which was written by Murray Burnett, a New York high school teacher and Joan Alison, a socialite. Burnett was inspired to write it after a visit to Europe before 1939 during which he saw a black pianist in a bar called La Belle Aurore entertaining refugees from across Europe on their way to Casablanca. (Lebo, H. 1992). Warner Brothers turned the play into Casablanca, keeping many of the themes and the central character of Rick Blaine. Originally it was planned to be released in summer 1943 but as rumours of a US landing in North Africa, specifically Casablanca, started circulating the studio sped up release and the film’s premier was on 26th November 1942. 19 days after the Allies landed in North Africa. The film was a patriotic masterpiece.

Of particular interest to me is the fact this film epitomises the change in the portrayal of romance in both British and American films. During the pre-war years screwball comedies such as His Girl Friday (1940) and It Happened One Night (1934) were the typical romantic stories. Strong women meeting with men and ending up together (not unlike some modern romcoms). However the wartime message is one of sacrifice to be made for the greater good or as Rick (Humphrey Bogart) puts it “… The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Underlying the entire plot is the suggestion that without Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) Victor Laszlo won’t be able to do his work to subvert the Germans and he is vital to the resistance across Europe. The message is clear. Now is not a time for romance, it is a time for putting the war effort first. Indulging in romantic fantasy was selfish and un-patriotic and Casablanca was a reminder that sacrifices have to be made for the greater good, as much part of the official narrative as films such as A Yank in the RAF (1941).

Throughout the film modern audiences are amazed at the themes discussed. Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) has escaped a Nazi concentration camp and there are many references to the Gestapo and German brutality. One can only imagine the effect the scene where Laszlo instructs the band to play La Marseillaise as the Germans are singing had on rousing contemporary audiences.

There is humour, not least in the pickpocket and general corruption and there is glamour. Largely brought to the screen by Ingrid Bergman. She is shot like a star. Often dressing in white (as is Bogart) so she literally seems to glow on the screen while all around her are dressed in duller colours. Her hats are something else, allowing her to look out from under them. In fact Bergman’s part is all about the glances and lingering looks. The eyes have it.

Music also plays an important role. Dooley Wilson plays Sam who provides most of the music as well as being Rick’s one true friend. The previously mentioned playing of La Marseillaise is one of the more powerful scenes in the film but As Time Goes By is the signature tune. Its lyrics* contain the essence of the story being played out on screen. The message is that love continues, even with a background of war. A reassurance, perhaps, that love will endure whilst the audience focuses on the war effort.

“And when two lovers woo
They still say, “I love you.”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.”

If you get the chance to see Casablanca then do. It may well start a love affair that lasts As Time Goes By (Sorry couldn’t resist).

Crowther, B. (1942) Casablanca (1942), New York Times Retrieved 19/2/2012 http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C06E1DF1039E33BBC4F51DFB7678389659EDE

Lebo, H. (1992) Casablanca: Behind the Scenes. New York: Simon & Schuster

*Lyrics to As Time Goes By:

You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.
And when two lovers woo
They still say, “I love you.”
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.
Moonlight and love songs
Never out of date.
Hearts full of passion
Jealousy and hate.
Woman needs man
And man must have his mate
That no one can deny.
It’s still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die.
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
Oh yes, the world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by.
© 1931 Warner Bros. Music Corporation, ASCAP

The Descendants (2011)

Teaser poster for the Descendants - source WikipediaBilled as a film where George Clooney plays a father who is struggling to connect to his daughters while his wife lies comatosed in hospital I wasn’t expecting that much. I thought, despite being written and directed by the great Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt and Sideways), it would be a typical saccharine American story of a man “finding” himself but it was much much better than that. It wasn’t just about his immediate family crisis but also about the important role we all have in protecting our heritage. “The Descendants” of the title are not just his children but the descendants of his great-great grandparents, the son of a missionary who had married a Hawaiian princess. There is a large extended family who have been left land in trust which has slowly been sold off leaving one large area. They must decide what to do with this land. Matt King (George Clooney) is the executor of the trust which his cousins and their forebears have benefitted from over previous generations, ultimately he must decide what to do. At one point Matt’s narration suggests his family is like an archipelago ” all separate, but parts of the same whole and also drifting apart.” He also reflects that while appearing to be a paradise Hawaii isn’t. Life and its problems goes on even when you live in beautiful surroundings.


Back in his immediate family his eldest daughter, seventeen year old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), has clearly had a wild adolescence filled with drugs, alcohol and unsuitable men  and his younger daughter, ten year old Scottie (Amara Miller), has a precociousness which mixed with an “advanced” vocabulary belie a few issues. Matt has been emotionally removed from the family for what appears to be several years, he describes himself as the backup parent, working in his legal practice and leaving the parenting to his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie). Early on he acknowledges that the last time he had been alone with Scottie was seven years previously when she was three. Because he has been working he quite simply doesn’t know his daughters or, as it transpires. his wife.



A lot has been made of Clooney’s performance. I don’t know if it is his best (Goodnight and Good Luck is pretty impressive as is Syriana) but it is good. It is just the right balance of understated emotion, humour and tenderness. You can believe this is a man who is feeling real pain, angst and who believes in his bloodline. Of course he is always very pleasant to watch so that helps with any performance he gives! (OK that may belie a total lack on impartiality but if he was bad I would say).


Payne’s other films all centre around men in crisis and so it is no surprise that this is really what this is about. Adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings book by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. There is a point where this film feels like a travelogue for Hawaii and it certainly works as it looks beautiful but otherwise this is well crafted, slowly bringing the story to its conclusion. Payne acknowledges the fragility of life and human relationships but also remindsus we are part of a chain going back thousands of years and which (we hope) will go on for thousands more. Without using the usual sledgehammer often applied to these tales The Descendants shows us that money has little value in the face of loss, families and heritage. Don’t go and watch this to be cheered up, although it is at time funny it is also heartbreaking. The Descendants is a film which I like even more now I can reflect on it than I did when I was watching it.


The First Born (1928)

Silent, black and white and full of drama. Not The Artist but The First Born, a British film made in 1928 and with all the drama and suspense of any film out today. Directed and written by Miles Mander, based on his play. Mander is the lead Sir Hugo Boycott, Madeleine Carroll his wife Madeleine and John Loder is David, Lord Harborough. All give great performances with the requisite over the top gestures and dramatic looks.

This is a tale of adultery, deceit and double standards with twists you don’t expect. All to a backdrop of English Manor houses and political intrigue. Who needs Downton Abbey with all this lurking in the archives? It also has one of the best death scenes in cinema. Whereas The Artist is all about staircases (one day I will bore you with a long post about staircases in The Artist) it is doors which feature in First Born, everything happens with the use of the door. You can even tell which house they are in by the door.

It is the story of a caddish aristocrat who marries a beautiful young woman but when she doesn’t provide an heir he leaves for Africa. She then sets in motion a plan winger him back. Little does she know what she has started. A lot of the narrative is moved forward by letters and telegrams which works very well.

There are many things that are questionable about this film to modern eyes, the depiction of Africans and the giving a child a pipe to smoke to name just a couple. However the storyline and film techniques seem well ahead of their time.

The BFI have restored First Born as part of a project to restore films from the hey day of silent cinema in the UK. Part of the restoration included matching a 16mm print with the 35mm orignal and there are a few points where there are slit jumps however by using shot-by-shot analysis the amazing team at the BFI have met the challenge and delivered a film of great quality.

Jess and I saw this at the BFI with a live score written by Stephen Horne performed by himself (piano, flute and accordion), Janey Miller (oboe) and Martin Pyne (tuned percussion). The score appears perfect, it reflects what is happening on screen and doesn’t give anything away. I am amazed at the skill of fitting a piece to match the film so well.

Watching this made me think again – what is film? Without words you are transfixed to the screen because everything that is happening is happening visually. It is aided by the score but without the images the score is just some nice music. We didn’t need anything else to know what was happening. I have seen a fair few silent films over the years but this is the first original silent film I have seen at the cinema and it is at the cinema that the experience really hits home. Nothing can distract you and you are immersed in the pictures.

Of course the experience of watching silent films in the 1920s would have been quite different, reports suggest people chatted while watching and, as continued for many years, they came and went throughout the film so they may have come in 20 minutes before the end.

I think one of the most interesting things about The First Born was that it had a Hitchcockian feel to it. The focus on eyes, the use of psychology and many shots I can’t mention without ruining the plot. The thing is Hitchcock’s name doesn’t appear anywhere on the credits however Miles Mander worked with Hitchcock and Alma Reville produced the scenarios alongwith Mander and she is otherwise known as Mrs Alfred Hitchcock. It makes me think back to arguments about Auteur Theory. It is well known Reville was Hitchcock’s closest collaborator but how much did they influence each other’s work?If you are lucky enough to get the chance to watch this on the big screen I suggest you don’t hesitate.