Director: Robert Stevenson, Basil Dean, Charles Frend, Reginald Denham
Screenplay: Margaret Kennedy, Angus McPhail, Reginald Denham, Dorothy Farnham, Miles Malleson, Eric Ambler
Producers: S.C. Balcon, Hugh Perceval, Basil Dean, Jack Rix
Starring: Victoria Hopper, John Loder, Roger Livesey, Robert Donat, Kay Walsh, Denholm Elliott, Dame May Whitty, Clive Brook, Anna Lee, Donald Wolfit
Year: 1935, 1936, 1940, 1954
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 314 mins (total)
The Ealing Rarities series has now reached its eleventh instalment and it’s still a joy to be able to get hold of these films that, until now, have probably only existed in dusty nooks and in the dusty nooks of people’s memories. Certainly a film like Calling the Tune (included here) is the sort of thing that someone probably saw once decades ago and has spent years trying to recall if this was a half remembered memory or a trick of the imagination. The vindication of these uncertain recollections is enough reason to celebrate another of these boxsets, although the quality of the films on offer is not always equal to the enigmatic promise.
It’s always a pleasure and a fascinating experience to receive another of these Ealing Rarities boxsets but unfortunately Volume 11 is closer in quality to the mediocre Volume 7 than the surprisingly excellent Volume 8 (both of which I reviewed previously). One of the great excitements of Volume 8 was that long hoped for moment of uncovering some actual buried treasure, in this case Robert Stevenson’s Young Man’s Fancy, a superb comedy about a young aristocrat falling for a human cannonball. I fell in love with this film instantly and it made me curious to seek out more of Stevenson’s work. Most famous for directing Mary Poppins, Stevenson eventually became Disney’s most prominent director of live action films, with two Herbie films and such well-loved family classics as Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Darby O’Gill and the Little People on his CV. This has made me suspect that he may be one of the great underappreciated directors, excelling in an area that many critics can be a bit sniffy about.
But Stevenson was not always a director of solely family oriented films as Young Man’s Fancy proved, and I was delighted to find that there was another Stevenson film included on Ealing Rarities Volume 11. The stage seemed set to uncover another little gem. The description of the film, like Young Man’s Fancy, sounded ripe for the inclusion of just a hint of the magic that was pushed to the forefront of his later family films, but wrapped in a semi-realistic Ealing whimsy. Perhaps I sat down with foolishly high expectations but sadly Stevenson’s Return to Yesterday was not the film I expected. While not a total loss, it singularly fails to exploit its excellent premise and drifts away from the promise of whimsical delight in favour of hackneyed and, in this case badly misjudged, romance.
The plot of Return to Yesterday goes thus: Hollywood idol Robert Maine is nostalgic for his old life as a poor but happy boy living in a run-down boarding house. On a whim, he cuts his return to Hollywood short and ventures incognito back to the scene of his happy childhood. Meanwhile, a struggling theatre company are battling lack of public interest and the tyrannical owner of a seaside theatre in order to generate interest in their new play. Could this Hollywood star, hiding himself in plain sight under an assumed name, be the answer to their prayers?
While a little corny, the set-up for Return to Yesterday sounds like it has the potential for a deeply satisfying and warmly appealing tale of the little people triumphing over adversity. Unfortunately, while still diverting enough, it is a film riddled with flaws in all areas except Stevenson’s direction (which is still strong, leaving my hope unshaken for having discovered a lesser known talent hidden in plain sight, as it were!). The flaw most readily picked out by the few people who have seen Return to Yesterday is the casting. Clive Brook, as the Hollywood darling, is amusingly verbose but wholly unconvincing. His age is often cited as a problem here, although it is more his lack of distinctive charisma that fails to persuade us that he has made it as a great film star. His age is perhaps more problematic when we get to the central romantic plot, in which Anna Lee’s nineteen year old amateur player falls for his charms, forsaking her engagement to a young playwright to pursue the Hollywood glamour so inadequately represented by Brook. Lee, so memorable for her gusto-filled role in Young Man’s Fancy, is here reduced to the part of silly little girl who doesn’t know her own heart. Brook’s final act of self-sacrifice feels like another in a long line of scenes in which men step in to show foolish women what they really want.
The limp romantic plot of Return to Yesterday is particularly frustrating because it completely derails the plot we were lead to expect. The satisfying early scenes of the ragbag troupe of actors finally getting their big chance and razzing the money-obsessed theatre owner seem to be completely forgotten once the unlikely central love triangle steps in. The delightful collection of quirky characters, including Dame May Whitty and O.B. Clarence as a lovable old couple and Garry Marsh as a jovial drunk, seem to be forgotten about and the play, which should be central to the plot, is barely spoken of, with only the briefest of rehearsals punctuating the sickly love scenes. We don’t even get to see any of the finished product at the film’s climax, the film having by then been completely consumed by the love story. Return to Yesterday, then, is a deeply frustrating and ultimately less than successful piece that stood as Ealing Rarities Volume 11’s biggest disappointment.
While Return to Yesterday may be the most disappointing film here, Basil Dean’s Lorna Doone is the worst by some distance. Unlike the previous film, I came to Lorna Doone with no expectations whatsoever and, even at the relatively short running time of 80 minutes, found it a slog to get through. Even as an artefact from the early days of sound cinema, Lorna Doone feels utterly inept. A literary adaptation of a romantic adventure story comparable with something like Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Lorna Doone’s source material has plenty of potential but the execution is dogged by awful direction by Dean and terrible acting on everyone’s part. It’s hard to believe that a cast so consistently unconvincing could be assembled in one place but right from the off, with early scenes of the worst child actors you’ll ever see, Lorna Doone is stiff and dull. Even when familiar faces such as Roger Livesey (who would go on to do great work with Powell and Pressburger) and Margaret Lockwood (in her screen debut) turn up, they seem to have been directed to act as if they were on stage; that is, to make everything exaggerated and over the top. With direction and cast severely lacking, the final nail in Lorna Doone’s coffin is the script. Co-written by the wonderful Miles Malleson, a stalwart presence in British films of the 40s and 50, it seems too committed to being faithful to the book, trying to cram in superfluous events and then sweeping them aside quickly purely for the sake of literary accuracy. If there is no other reason to watch Lorna Doone, then it should at least be seen for its climactic fight scene, in which the ineffectual hero John Ridd fights villain Carver Doone in hand to hand combat. This truly dreadful scene is one of the funniest fight scenes I’ve ever come across and its position as the climactic flourish is a good indication of just how feeble Lorna Doone is.
Reginald Denham’s Calling the Tune is similarly dogged by bad plotting and acting but it is a fascinating oddity that is well worth seeing at least once. The dull story of men working in the gramophone industry, Calling the Tune’s dramatic thrust is provided by an unengaging tale of unscrupulous business men and the love between their offspring. If the plot seems underwritten and badly performed, that is because it is essentially a hook on which to hang the performances of a group of real recording artists of the day. Calling the Tune has clearly been conceived as a showcase for these talents first and foremost and tellingly it only comes alive when they are performing. These showcase slots include some impressive orchestral performances conducted by Sir Henry Wood, Charles Penrose performing The Laughing Policeman and, best of all, two songs by George Robey. Robey’s performance is the highlight of the entire boxset. This popular music hall performer’s stock in trade is eloquent, innuendo-laden ditties and it’s clear from seeing him in action just what a huge influence he was on the great Frankie Howerd, who seems to have taken several of his most famous tics directly from Robey. It’s a shame that the rest of Calling the Tune doesn’t live up to its star turns but I ultimately enjoyed it for its time capsule qualities far more than its flaccid storyline.
The best film of this boxset by far is Lease of Life, a prestige production that was designed as a comeback vehicle for the great Robert Donat, who had spent the years leading up to it incapacitated by the chronic asthma that finally killed him. Presented in colour, Lease of Life is a lovely film that may not quite reach the heights it aims for but manages to be an enjoyable, well-told story nonetheless. Unlike the lofty aspirations of Lorna Doone, Lease of Life keeps its scope small and consequently achieves its aims to be a quaint drama about small town and village life. Donat gives a variable performance as a vicar who finds out he has a year to live and, far from descending into despair, discovers a new verve which reignites his dormant enthusiasm for life and religion. Donat is largely fine if unremarkable in the lead role but he comes to life when the script demands it, in a couple of terrific scenes in which he sermonises to a crowd of enthralled rebels and disapproving authoritarians. One extended scene in particular is beautifully written and performed and elevates the rest of the film significantly. Lease of Life’s main misstep is unnecessarily focusing fairly heavily on a subplot about the vicar’s talented pianist daughter and the family’s need for money in order to nurture her into becoming a concert pianist (she is also vigorously encouraged by an amusingly obnoxious Denholm Elliott, in an impressive early turn). While this provides an increased dramatic thrust, Lease of Life would have been better advised to stick to the more rewarding angle of the rejuvenated vicar. If this film was made today if would probably be called Rogue Parson and would see a Jekyll and Hyde transformation in which the mild-mannered vicar becomes an ass-kicking rebel overnight. Lease of Life’s greatest strength is a subtlety and restraint that modern films often struggle to get away with. The result is a lovely little film that may not be quite as profound as it hopes to be but is solidly entertaining and, in bursts, beautifully written.
The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection Volume 11 is not a collection I’d avidly recommend to the majority of people. Anyone who, like myself, has a great interest in British cinema, will find it fascinating but anyone just searching for a good film to watch will likely find little to please them here. While it is the worst of the three Ealing boxsets I have so far reviewed, The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection Volume 11 is also a continuing sign of an encouraging determination to get these formerly rare films into the public consciousness and I look forward to the release of more of these commendable, if not always enthralling, collections.
Young Man’s Fancy
Calling the Tune
Lease of Life
The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection Volume 11 is released by Network on 3rd March 2014.