Director: James Flood, Maurice Elvey, Graham Cutts, William Beaudine
Screenplay: Miles Malleson, W.P. Lipscomb, Gerard Fairlie, Ivar Campbell
Producers: Basil Dean
Starring: Clive Brook, Arthur Wontner, George Formby, Ann Todd
Year: 1932, 1936, 1937
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 70 mins, 74 mins, 74 mins, 78 mins
The Ealing Studio Rarities Collection: Volume 14 is the final instalment in this wonderful series of DVD releases. I say ‘wonderful’ but anyone who has seen any of my previous reviews of earlier volumes of Ealing Rarities will know that I’ve found each one to be something of a mixed bag, often uncovering little gems in amongst films that seem to have been forgotten for a reason. Volume 14 is no exception, with one great film nestling between mildly diverting curios and limp quota-quickies. And yet, in my research for this review, I stumbled across an online message board in which one person was having a conversation with himself at intervals of several months. The person in question was seeking a copy of Lonely Road, a film that he clearly had fond memories of even if he seemed to be the only person who remembered it. His desperate quest had kept him coming back to the same message board for a five year period, despite receiving no responses to his questions. I watched Lonely Road a few days ago and found it to be nothing special. But clearly there is at least one person out there for whom the release of this almost entirely forgotten film will be a dream come true. And this is why I consider the Ealing Rarities series to be wonderful.
Lonely Road, an odd little thriller about a former naval officer who drunkenly stumbles on some criminal activity, is typical of many films available in the Ealing Rarities boxsets, in that it never quite seems to settle down and comfortably head in one direction. Instead, it begins as a thriller, then drifts towards a romance, and then seems to aim for an uncomfortable blend of the two, while also maintaining a vague semi-comedic throughline. The pacing, after a fairly brisk early leap into the plot, grinds quickly to a crawling halt and its tentative steps forward after this are so lacking in the intrigue to which it aspires that viewers may be perplexed as to exactly what kind of film this is meant to be. In a perversely contradictory way, Lonely Road is actually quite fascinating, as it is so unlike the frantic, overstuffed thrillers of current times. But while those films might benefit from a greater focus on slowing things down for the sake of character, Lonely Road’s characters are, and remain too flimsy and unchanging in their stock types to hold any interest when the faltering main plot, based on Nevil Shute’s novel, vanishes from view.
The Water Gipsies, an adaptation of A.P. Herbert’s novel, is a melodramatic tale of riverfolk who live on barges and become involved in various romantic entanglements with each other. Adapted by British film stalwart Miles Malleson, best known for his scene-stealing turns in many later British comedy films (many people will know him as the hangman in Kind Hearts and Coronets), The Water Gipsies also has a fairly wandering narrative, although it has a more consistent atmosphere than Lonely Road. Clearly knocked out on the cheap to fill the B-portion of cinema bills, The Water Gipsies cannot transcend its budgetary concerns, with the feeble acting and unengaging storyline unfortunately overshadowing some nice riverside locations. Malleson ambitiously attempts to pack quite a lot of incident into a short running time and things end up happening unconvincingly quickly and without sufficient introduction to the characters or their motives. Having not read the source novel, I cannot be sure if this is Malleson’s fault or if Herbert’s book really is this underdeveloped.
In order to avoid any further shortcomings of this kind in my review, I actually decided to read Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four in preparation for reviewing this 1932 adaptation starring Arthur Wontner as Sherlock Holmes. I’m very glad I did read the novel, as otherwise I doubt I would have followed what was going on in the film at all. Conan Doyle’s novel is a great adventure involving hidden treasure, poisoned darts, tiny footprints and unexpected romances, surely the perfect source material for the cinema. Unfortunately these particular filmmakers do not seem to have had the required budget to do the story justice. But budgetary concerns are not the primary problem here. What really scuppers this adaptation is the script, which curiously opts to move the ending of the novel to the beginning, immediately revealing the full details of the case, including the murderer, and offering the audience all the facts 20 minutes before Holmes and Watson are even allowed on screen. This unfortunately drains away all the intrigue, as we watch Holmes discover things we already know. Wontner’s Holmes, despite many preferring him to Basil Rathbone’s more famous take on the character, is sadly charmless and often appears smug, especially in the embarrassing scene in which he speaks to Gilbert Davis’s Inspector Atherly Jones (his name curiously altered from Athelney Jones in the novel, as if Atherly is a more recognisable name to audiences). Davis’s Inspector has an underdeveloped pantomime double-take reaction to Holmes’s quips, which makes him seem like Oliver Hardy on downers. The unfolding of the plot, despite us knowing the killer from the outset, is clumsy and confusing and by the final showdown the film is messy to the point of boredom, having thrown in a pointless tattooed man who was not in the book while casually introducing a crucial character in a way that you could easily miss if your attention was (understandably) diverted for a second.
Thus far, then, The Ealing Studio Rarities Collection: Volume 14 has been the weakest I’ve yet reviewed but the final film is a grand prize that many fans of British film have been awaiting for many years. 77 years to be exact, since Feather Your Nest, the long lost George Formby film, has not been seen since its original release, conspicuously missing amongst the recent release of all Formby’s other underrated comedies. Exactly why this lovely film has languished in the archives for so long is unclear. If anything, you’d think it would have been one of the first of Formby’s films to find a distributor since the plot is constructed around one of his most famous songs, Leaning on a Lamppost. One of the rare Formby films in which he plays a character not called George, Feather Your Nest follows the story of Willie, a clumsy worker at a gramophone record factory who, having broken the master copy of a new recording, replaces it with his own version and unexpectedly scores a hit. Although the plot is simply folksy, it is beautifully constructed in its telling, with its big musical number neatly incorporated into the plot in a way that would not be done so successfully again until Formby’s greatest film, Let George Do It, three years later. Formby’s films have long been out of fashion and yet, watching Feather Your Nest, it’s hard to fathom why since they are consistently (if somewhat quaintly) funny, upbeat and well-paced. The musical numbers are always highlights and, in this case, Leaning on a Lamppost really is a joy to hear and see performed. Formby was hitting his stride at this stage of his career (perhaps explaining why this was the last time he would play a character with any name but his own, as audience knew and loved him as George) and only a tediously frenetic set-piece in which Willie is mistaken for a prize fighter and forced through a rigorous training schedule breaks up the enjoyment. From here, Formby would get better and better, making a brilliant run of more ambitious films including the aforementioned Let George Do It, Come on George, Trouble Brewing and It’s In The Air, the latter pairing him once more with his charming Feather Your Nest co-star Polly Ward.
The long-awaited release Feather Your Nest will surely be the big selling point for The Ealing Studio Rarities Collection: Volume 14 and it presence here happily ensures that this lovely series of DVDs goes out with at least one final great find. Sadly, other than for Formby fans I can’t recommend this set, since the other three films are all well below par, and even uninitiated Formby fans would be better directed towards Studiocanal’s excellent Comic Icons boxset, which features most of his greatest films in one package. Still, I can’t go out on a negative note and must once more laud Network for this great series that has brought a smile to the faces of cineastes who have finally been able to rediscover films they probably considered lost to them forever.
The Water Gipsies:
The Sign of Four:
Feather Your Nest:
The Ealing Studio Rarities Collection: Volume 14 was released by Network on 25th August 2014. There are no extras.