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.
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.
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!
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
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
Billed 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.
As shown in my post on cinema-going in wartime despite the potential threat to life and limb people needed to occupy themselves and people flocked to the cinema. According to Kinematograph Weekly’s annual round ups (Table 1) the most popular films at the British box office were often melodramas and part of the counter-narrative. Few of the critically acclaimed films such as Millions Like Usappear in the listing with only This Happy Breed featuring.
Although it doesn’t appear on the Kinematograph Weekly’s list, the most popular film released in the UK during World War Two was Gone with the Wind which showed continuously between April 1940 and D-Day. It remains the most successful film of all time at the British Box Office (BFI 2004). The Wicked Ladyis often considered a wartime film despite featuring in the list in 1946. It was produced during the war and was the most successful of the Gainsborough melodramas.
Best British film
The First if the Few
In Which We Serve,Casablanca, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Hello Frisco Hello, The Black Swan, The Man in Grey
In Which We Serve
For Whom the Bell Tolls, This Happy Breed, Song of Bernadette, Going My Way, This Is the Army, Jane Eyre, The Story of Dr. Wassell, Cover Girl, White Cliffs of Dover, Sweet Rosie O’Grady, The Sullivans, Fanny by Gaslight
It is clear a large number of the most popular films were American and the idea that American films could be the films consumed in Britain was something to be feared during the pre-war years
Of all people they [Americans] are closest to ourselves in mind and spirit. But to allow these cousins of ours to put a stranglehold on this fundamental power of national expression, which is the British cinema, is carrying blood-relationship a trifle too far.
Editorial essay 1937
The reasons for the appeal of American films included in large part the perceived glamour. Something that the films produced by Gainsborough Pictures began to address. They signified an increase in escapism. The importance of glamour in British wartime cinema will be explored in later posts.
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.
During the research for my dissertation I looked at the experience of cinema-going in wartime and unearthed some great quotes from contemporary resources about why cinema was so popular.
It has been well documented that cinema was at is most popular during world war two with admissions rising from 990 million in 1939 to 1585 million in 1945 (Browning and Sorrell 1954, 134) Browning attributes the increase in admissions of nearly fifty per cent between 1940 and 1943 to the financial prosperity of the British public due to full employment and the lack of other ways of spending money (1954, 135). His view is backed up by Wallace (1941)
The war has made no difference to the cinema-going of my friends. Everyone I know has ample “pocket” money so that the loss of matinee prices does not affect them much. Actually they tend to go to the cinema more in the evening as there is no advantage to get there before 3 o’clock as there used to be. I go to the cinema just as many times as I used to before the war, on an average, during 1939, one visit to every 10 days. Sometimes I go twice a week and then not for a fortnight, varying with the quality of the releases.
While this certainly explains some economic reasons for the upturn in attendance the desire for escapism appears to be a reason as valid as the economic ones as people wouldn’t have paid repeatedly to see films they didn’t enjoy. The high level of admissions and mass observation contributions (Richards and Sheridan 1987) suggest that many people saw films more than once.
I like the cinema because I get ideas, ideas about politics, make-up, wit, life, service – in fact, you go in and you don’t know what you are coming out with. One might come out with a new hair-style, or a solution to the world’s problems.
Have seen as many as three films in a day, and don’t feel tired. If there is a double feature programme and there is one film I don’t want to see, I time it so that I do not have to sit through the one I don’t want to.
(Cross, Beryl. 1940)
People commented that the war had made people more vocal while watching a film:
Wartime cinema audiences are definitely more responsive than they were before the war, except possibly for the short period immediately before the outbreak. With regard to chorus-singing, for instance. People will sing perfectly happily in a music-hall, and extremely unwillingly in a cinema, yet, when I went to one of our larger local cinemas on the evening of Sept. 2nd, everyone, myself included, bawled happily at the tops of their voices. This chorus-singing, mainly with an organ, is catered for to a much larger extent since the war….
To sum up, it would appear that the war has made the cinema more popular, especially for afternoon and early evening entertainment, but it has also made it dearer. However, in their rush for enjoyment, the audiences have not lost their interest in the films they see. They are just as critical, and certainly much more carefree whilst they are in the cinema. Hence the chorus-singing1. In fact as far as the general public is concerned, the war will probably do the cinema good rather than harm.
(Carley, R. 1940.)
Children, by the way, are amused at the sight of any Germans “Goose Stepping,” they shout with decisive laughter. They also boo loudly at any picture of Hitler.
Not everybody appreciated the increased interaction in the cinema ‘there is much more clapping, cat-calling, whistling during a feature film. This can be directly connected to the enormous numbers of evacuee children and of soldiers now billeted in this neighbourhood.’ (Wallace 1940, 5) It is difficult to know if the bad behaviour was directly attributable to the influx of soldiers and evacuees but another Mass Observation correspondent commented on increased noise at her local cinema:
‘…there is now a strong “Foreign” element of Welsh,MidlandandNorth countryfolk (the result of the trainee system). These keep the cinemas in a state of continual murmur… if a film goes wrong, even a momentary blackout, the whistling and catcalls are very nasty. We ‘natives’ sit quietly to wait for the film to go on, knowing that operators cannot hear anything in their ‘box’ and not wishing to fluster them as they mend a broken film. But the noise now is really disgusting, though the films are listened to more quietly.’
The increased interaction led to some interesting reactions to newsreels …
Quite a different aspect of people’s rather free-and-easy attitude in the cinema was shown by the fact that quite large numbers of the audience booed and hissed when Hitler appeared on the screen. Rude remarks were shouted too such as “I’d like to wring his bloody neck”, and “Pity somebody doesn’t bump him off.” These, however, have died down not, although there are occasional humorous remarks when any members of the German Government appear on the screen. The sudden outburst of songs and jokes about them have made the German Cabinet appear to the average man in this country to be a secondary “Crazy Gang.
Even when escaping to the cinema the public was reminded that this was a war very much on British shores not in a distant land. Cinemas displayed notices advising that the programme would continue during air raids and each cinema had an Air Raid Warden attached to it. Some managers stopped showing the warnings because they felt it turned people away.
Well, one evening I was sitting in the gallery just behind a party, I should say a son and his wife and his mother, the mother coming to the pictures for the first time since the war broke out, and obviously the old girl had got out of herself. Then came this air raid warning notice. And within five minutes they had left the theatre. May be they had seen the programme round. I don’t know. But as soon as they saw that notice they became very quiet and within five minutes they had left. Now it’s been cut out.
Once the air raids began it was clear many would stay and watch the film. Len England1 reported
It is true that less than one fifth of patrons leave on hearing that a warning has been sounded – observation and official pronouncement agree on this point – and it is also true that many people go into the cinema when the warning is heard.
As the war continued people became more immune to bombs falling as this conversation overheard on 25/9/1940 shows:
S: The other night when we were in the cinema the sirens went and the manager said his little peace [sic] and I don’t think one person left. I tried to see because Graham always likes to know.
F: I’m not surprised, when this trouble started quite a number left, but now I’ve noticed hardly anyone leaves, after all one is as safe in a cinema as out in the streets.
S: Unless a direct hit occurs on the building.
F: That might happen anywhere, even when one is in a shelter, though I saw Tussauds cinema last week and there wasn’t much of it left.
S: Oh well, I’m never going to leave until I’ve seen the program right through.
(Mass Observation Film 17/2/H)
Some cinema-goers were sceptical before the bombs started falling about whether it would be sensible to stay in the cinema during an air raid:
“A good cinema is not necessarily a good air raid shelter, and a bomb on a cinema-full of people would make a nasty mess.
What these quotes show is that the experience of escaping the war was important to boosting morale and this is demonstrated by the fact people chose to stay there rather than go to air raid shelters.
Ausden, Joyce. 1940. Film Report. Mass Observation Archive TC17 M36Box1.
Browning, H.E., and A.A. Sorrell. 1954. Cinema and cinema-going in Great Britain. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series A (General) 11:133-165.
Carley, Robert. 1940. Report on the War and the Cinema – observations. In Mass Observation Archive TC17 M36-50 Box 1.
England, Len. 1939. Interview with the manager of the Classic Cinema, Tooting. Mass Observation Archive TC17Box4.
———. 1940. Note on the Film Trade. Mass Observation Archive TC17Box2.
Wallace, G.L. 1940. The Cinema in Wartime. Mass Observation TC17 Box 1 page 5.
1 Len England was responsible for Mass Observation’s film work and after the war became acting director of the project.