Director: Pat Jackson, Robert Stevenson, Penrose Tennyson, Reginald Denham
Screenplay: Iain McCormick, Roland Pertwee, James Curtis, Sergei Nolbandov, Basil Mason
Producers: Michael Balcon, S.C. Balcon, Hugh Perceval
Starring: Peter Haddon, Anna Lee, Griffith Jones, Jimmy Hanley, Phyllis Stanley, Belinda Lee, Delphi Lawrence
Year: 1956, 1939, 1935
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 310 mins (total)
Last month I reviewed Volume 7 of The Ealing Rarities Collection. Having long been a fan of the sort of flawed but charming British cinema represented therein, I was disappointed to find the boxset to be even more of a mixed-to-weak bag than I was expecting. Undeterred but with significantly lowered expectations, I set about watching the films that make up The Ealing Rarities Volume 8 set. Perhaps the lowering of my expectations was key to my different reaction but I found Volume 8 to be a significant improvement which piqued my interest to explore the previous volumes, something that Volume 7 had made me doubtful about. While the previous volume featured two films I quite enjoyed and two I didn’t, Volume 8 featured one film I really enjoyed, two extremely-flawed films which I liked in parts but, crucially, one film I loved.
In the interest of better reflecting my overall reaction to this collection, let’s start with the weaker films and work up. Having so enjoyed the Volume 7 film The Gaunt Stranger, a comic crime caper, I was very much looking forward to The Silent Passenger, a crime film that marked the first screen adaptation of Dorothy L. Sayers detective Lord Peter Wimsey novels. An extremely clunky piece of film, Reginald Denham’s The Silent Passenger actually failed to deliver on my modest expectations, proving to be the weakest film of the four. It has an intriguing enough set up in which a man is framed for murder, but after that the promised tension never builds and we are instead smothered by an over-the-top performance by Peter Haddon, overplaying the silly-ass aspects of Wimsey, who proves to be aptly named. John Loder, as the wrongly suspected man, never seems to be in much trouble, calmly waiting for the case to be solved as if he is among the film’s viewers who are well aware that Wimsey must triumph in the end. As 1935 potboilers go, The Silent Passenger has its moments but anyone would be hard pushed to call it a great or even a good film. It is, at least, passably amusing. I saw it while off work sick and this hazy-headed afternoon viewing was probably the ideal way to see The Silent Passenger. It’s very much a weekday afternoon kind of film which is likely to prove conspicuously disappointing if screened as an evening main feature.
The other weaker film in this set is far more enjoyable. One of Ealing’s last films, Pat Jackson’s The Feminine Touch is a Technicolor tale of a group of student nurses as they pass through their training and first placement in a hospital. Again, I watched this film while off work ill in the afternoon and, again, that was the perfect way to see it. The Feminine Touch, though it aims for a docu-drama style approach as it follows the nurses through their daily routines, achieves nothing so much as the feel of a lunchtime soap. This is not meant to be a criticism per se, although I do avoid soaps as a general rule. However, when I sit down in front of one it is easy to get caught up in a plotline, which is surely the strength of this televisual phenomenon. Simple stories which are instantly identifiable even if you join them midway through, which you can immediately tap into and enjoy for their predictability and straightforward narrative pleasures. So it is with The Feminine Touch, although the writing occasionally rises above this level and the action is less histrionic in its attempts to capture the everyday. Perhaps the film is most soapy in its set of stock characters. We are immediately presented with the good-hearted, naïvely angelic protagonist, the waggish, handsome doctor who captivates her, the strong-willed Irish belle, the cynical realist who melts, etc. It’s all highly predictable but mesmerizingly familiar.
One nauseating vignette involving a sweetie-pie poppet who has lost faith in God aside, The Feminine Touch features some enjoyable little stories as we weave freely through the nurses’ days. A little less emphasis on the tepid central romance in favour of fleshing out some of the other characters would have improved the film. However, the most irritating thing about The Feminine Touch (Adrienne Corrri’s abysmal crack at an Irish accent excepted) is how, in a film clearly meant to be about women, the top billing in the credits is still given to George Baker as the male doctor. It’s a telling glimpse of gender politics of the 50s that the romantic male lead has to have the highest place on the credits even though he is far from the star of the film (and his acting ability here shows no signs of the solid TV turns he put in many years down the line as Inspector Wexford). I glimpse too a hint of the hierarchical professional structure of hospitals seeping through into the fictional portrayal of them. Of course the doctor is the main character, those pretty little nurses are just his support!
If The Feminine Touch entertained my undemandingly soft-hearted side while also pricking my liberal indignation and bemusing my agnosticism, the remaining films in the set entertained me in a far more pleasingly uncomplicated fashion. While this may betray their lack of thematic ambition in comparison to The Feminine Touch, it also speaks of their cinematic triumph over it as successful films on the level of pure entertainment. Penrose Tennyson’s There Ain’t No Justice is a working class boxing picture very much in the gritty Warner Bros. tradition but significantly toned down for the British market. Adapted by James Curtis from his own novel, There Ain’t No Justice shares the predictability of plot and character (don’t trust anyone with a moustache!) displayed in The Feminine Touch but here the familiar plot drives forward continuously and without any distracting asides to slow it down. The story of a vain but basically likable young man who finds himself forced reluctantly into the grimy world of professional boxing where events conspire to set him up with a dodgy promoter, There Ain’t No Justice is like a lighter, more exaggerated take on the later kitchen sink dramas of the 60s, exchanging their realism for an engaging set of caricatures. Sometimes it goes a little over the top, such as the moment it illustrates a femme fatale’s attraction to the protagonist by having her literally lick her lips in close-up, and the happy ending, though right for the film, contradicts its melodramatic title and throws in some broad strokes in which any character who has even showed a glimmer of likability is allowed to redeem themselves in the face of their former crimes. But these flaws were also strengths as I beamed throughout the triumphant finale, its enjoyable boxing scenes and the warm glow it left.
In There Ain’t No Justice I felt I’d found a little unknown gem but it was the final film in the boxset, Robert Stevenson’s Young Man’s Fancy, in which I discovered the sort of treasure you hope to uncover in this kind of collection. Stevenson is by far the biggest directorial name here and, while he is rarely mentioned in lists of great directors, his canon includes a barrage of classic family films including Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Love Bug, Blackbeard’s Ghost, One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, Darby O’Gill and the Little People and more. The magic of these later films is prominently evident in this more adult but still family-accessible tale of a young aristocrat who forsakes his parents’ wishes to marry him off to a wealthy brewer’s daughter when he instead falls in love with a human cannonball at the music hall frequented by his father. This unusual set-up makes for a series of wonderful scenes and moments as the exceedingly witty screenplay pulls in all sorts of unpredictable directions. Though the climax may be obvious, the journey there is thrillingly unmapped. The performances here are exaggerated but spirited. In particular, Anna Lee makes up for another wavering Irish accent with a forceful, feisty turn as the human cannonball, Edward Rigby, fresh from his equally fine performance in There Ain’t No Justice, relishes getting his teeth into the class-related issues that strengthen this whimsical films themes immeasurably, and Seymour Hicks particularly scores highly as the Duke of Beaumont, a good man who suffers at the hands of his overbearing wife (Martita Hunt, who always had a knack for spitting cutting dialogue and agreeably hamming-up a double take). The wonderful sets and costumes are beautifully shot to emphasise the sense of the fantastical in this delightful fairy tale of a film. Although it differs in tone significantly from the celebrated Ealing comedies, Young Man’s Fancy deserves to be placed alongside them as a classy, wildly enjoyable work.
The Ealing Rarities Collection Volume 8 is a fantastic package which I would recommend to all fans of British film. Although I’ve rated two of the films below three stars, the overall entertainment value on offer here is more than adequate to justify the bargain price, with the lesser films being worthy of one viewing and the two gems being films I’ll relish coming back to in future, especially Robert Stevenson’s charming minor classic.
The Silent Passenger
The Feminine Touch
There Ain't No Justice
Young Man's Fancy
Ealing Studio Rarities Volume 7 is realeased on 4th November 2013 by Network. Extras include the US version and an extended final reel of The Silent Passenger.