Director: Harry Watt, Sinclair Hill, Walter Forde, Harry Hughes
Screenplay: Harry Watts, Walter Greenwood, G.H. Moresby-White, Sidney Gilliat, Frank Atkinson, Aveling Ginever
Producers: Michael Balcon, Harcourt Templeman, Basil Humphrys
Starring: Guy Middleton, Stanley Holloway, Chips Rafferty, Peter Finch, Gordon Jackson, Sonnnie Hale, Alexander Knox
Year: 1935, 1937, 1938, 1949
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 327 mins (total)
While Ealing Studios has always been a big name in cinema, especially for their legendary comedies, the studio actually produced a great deal more than the handful (or couple of handfuls) of films upon which their reputation rests. While most people will have seen at least one of their most famous films (among them Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob and Passport to Pimlico), there are many lesser known gems to discover too. Although a boxset of Ealing Rarities may rouse cynicism, setting expectations for a clutch of weak films that have been forgotten for a reason, my previous digging through Ealing’s lesser-known filmography has unearthed gems such as Went the Day Well, A Run for Your Money and Champagne Charlie, all of which raised my expectations for this boxset. Sadly, for the most part, in the case of the films included here the cynicism would be well justified.
It isn’t that all these films are bad per se. In fact, I enjoyed two of them very much but overall this is a slight collection, so much so that I felt a full individual review for each film would be close to impossible, lest I fall into tedious repetition by trying to stretch points about such thin material across a wider frame than it deserves. The main offender in this respect is 1937’s Take a Chance, a torturously shrill, clumsy comedy about horse racing and adultery, in which a bored wife passes on too much information about her husband’s racehorse to a suitor with ulterior motives. It was during my viewing of this painfully dated, irritatingly acted clunker that I realised I could not write more than a couple of lines about this particular failed effort. While I’ve reviewed worse films at length, that was because there was plenty to criticise, while in Take a Chance there is just so little of anything that all I could do was repeat a chant about its shallow failures.
Fortunately, the rest of the films here were not nearly as excruciating an experience. In fact, I enjoyed all three to varying degrees, even as their various failings were obvious. The worst of the remaining three is the amiably amusing Play Up the Band, a ragbag of vaudeville turns hung on a thin plot. It follows the adventures of the Heckdyke Steam Wagon Works Brass Band as they travel from Yorkshire to the Crystal Palace to play in a prestigious music competition. There’s some slight nonsense involving jewel thieves but this is secondary to a series of music hall style songs and a couple of the monologues for which Holloway was famous throughout his career. Holloway is practically the whole show here, although he gets spirited support from the likes of Betty Ann Davies, Frank Atkinson and Amy Veness. Play Up the Band is perhaps most interesting today as a glimpse of old-style entertainment transferred to the screen but it was always done better in the underrated films of George Formby. When Formby struck up on his ukulele the audience always got an effectively lively recreation of his legendary live performances for the troops of WWII. In Play Up the Band, when Holloway starts delivering his trademark monologues and the camera simply holds on him for a lengthy period of time, the film grinds to a halt and feels like an unsuccessful attempt to blend two mediums. The aforementioned music hall based Ealing comedy Champagne Charlie is a much better attempt at this and stars Holloway in a completely different role, showing the versatility of this oft-underrated performer.
More ambitious in scope and successful in tone is Eureka Stockade, an attempt to make a National epic about the Australian Gold Rush no less. Although it makes a decent attempt to create something expansive and beautiful with its wide-open spaces, weighty thematic dialogues and lively montages, Eureka Stockade still feels very much like a small film, its epic aspirations scuppered by its limited budget. There are some big hitters in supporting roles here, including Peter Finch and Gordon Jackson, but the film belongs to Chips Rafferty. With his likable, laid-back manner and Abraham Lincoln beard, Rafferty emanates decency and dignity as he and his cronies battle against a colonial regime that imposes ever stricter regulations on prospectors. Although it doesn’t quite reach its goals, Eureka Stockade is a modestly lovely film whose failures are part of its considerable charm.
By far my favourite film in this boxset is The Gaunt Stranger, an adaptation of Edgar Wallace’s novel The Ringer, written by British film stalwart Sidney Gilliat whose once popular films alongside his partner Frank Launder as writer, director and producer are underseen and underappreciated today. Stuffed with charming curios, this filmography includes such great forgotten films as London Belongs to Me, Waterloo Road and the masterful Green for Danger, as well as the script for Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. By comparison with his best work, Gilliat’s script for The Gaunt Stranger stands up reasonably well but he crucially receives strong support from Sonnie Hale, a comedian whose role here as a convict reluctantly drawn into a murder scheme is a plum chance to show off his comedic skills. Critics frequently speak of The Gaunt Stranger as emphatically not a comedy but it clearly is, even if its grim themes of murder and suicide suggest otherwise. As a despicable lawyer awaits the midnight deadline when a notorious murderer has sworn to kill him, Gilliat packs the film with comedy business to while away the time. Much of it works (Hale’s well-timed antics, Alexander Knox’s sharp putdowns as the sardonic Doctor), some of it doesn’t (a strained comedy aside involving a stereotypical drunk Scotsman) but overall The Gaunt Stranger is a well-constructed, consistently enjoyable murder mystery that should amuse anyone willing to set aside stringent demands for cinematic perfection.
All in all, I had some fun with Ealing Studio Rarities Volume 7 and discovered at least one film I will gladly watch again but I doubt this volume will feature any films that anyone has been crying out to see released. There isn’t anything on this boxset to touch the greatest Ealing films. The frequently flawed but always enjoyable work of Gilliat and Launder is actually a better reference point of what to expect. Fans of British cinema in particular will be interested to see these curiosities but it’s quite clear from watching them why our National cinema was frequently seen as somewhat trivial at the time of their release. With the benefit of hindsight we’ve dug out the masterpieces but what’s on offer here is more representative of the majority of what was being released, in other words the less remarkable films without which the masterpieces could not be defined. Don’t go in expecting to find anything akin to even the lesser known Ealing gems and you shouldn’t be too disappointed.
Take a Chance
Play Up the Band
The Gaunt Stranger
Ealing Studio Rarities Volume 7 is realeased on 14th October 2013 by Network. There are no extras.