Director: Robert Hamer
Screenplay: Diana Morgan
Based on the play by: Roland Pertwee
Producers: Michael Balcon
Starring: Googie Withers, Gordon Jackson, Mervyn Johns
BBFC Certification: U
Duration: 95 mins
Say the word ‘Ealing’ to a film fan and the word ‘comedy’ is naturally what springs to mind but, while it was largely in this genre that the famous British studio excelled, there are many forgotten classics which bypass the funny-bone in favour of dramatic aspirations. Chief among these Ealing dramas is It Always Rains on Sunday, an overlooked gem which in recent years has begun to receive due attention as one of the most significant British Noir films and a precursor to the ‘Kitchen Sink’ dramas of the 60s. It Always Rains on Sunday was directed by Robert Hamer and starred Googie Withers, the third in an unrelated trilogy of collaborations between them which began with the effective ‘Haunted Mirror’ sequence of Ealing’s cult horror anthology Dead of Night. While both Dead of Night and It Always Rains on Sunday have picked up latter-day reputations for excellence and historical significance, the middle film of the Hamer-Withers trilogy, Pink String and Sealing Wax, has long languished in obscurity. With Studiocanal’s new Blu-ray and DVD release, the potential to discover another lost classic seemed like a thrilling proposition.
Sad to report then that Pink String and Sealing Wax is undoubtedly the weak link in the trilogy. Although it is not entirely without worth, Pink String and Sealing Wax aligns itself more with the barrage of unremarkable pot-boilers that dominated British cinema at the time, damaging its international reputation and making it easy for a great film like It Always Rains on Sunday to get lost in the shuffle. While they are undoubtedly unworthy of lengthy analysis, I have always had a soft-spot for the workmanlike British melodrama in the same way that I love the frivolous British comedies of Terry-Thomas, Alistair Sim and Margaret Rutherford. ‘Cosy’ is probably an overused term for these films, as is the seemingly arbitrary hypothetical setting of a ‘wet Wednesday afternoon’, but it was not purely coincidental that I watched Pink String and Sealing Wax under a big duvet and felt pretty good about life as I did so.
This said, Pink String and Sealing Wax is not a merry caper and while it does have some very minor comic touches it is largely a fairly grim melodrama with elements of domestic violence and murder. Two films down the line, Hamer would prove that the latter did not always have to be a bleak affair, with the blackly hilarious parlour games of Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which the laughs mount up alongside the body count. But in Pink String and Sealing Wax, murder is regarded with stony-faced sombreness, the moral ambiguity of the perpetrator being an abused wife largely muddied by the fact that the characters are broadly written, cruel hedonists. This is a shame, as there is much that a good writer could sink their teeth into here but it is brushed aside in favour of simple scandal.
Aside from historical curiosity, there are other reasons to watch Pink String and Sealing Wax, chief among them the performance of Googie Withers as one of Britain’s few real femme fatales. In the role of Pearl, the callous, devious but also oppressed wife of an alcoholic pub landlord, Withers is mostly believable, lapsing into overacting only when the ropey storyline allows for nothing else. The seedy goings-on down at The Dolphin pub are sadly repeatedly marginalized by the film’s insistence on focusing on a central set of family dramas within the household of stern patriarch Mervyn Johns, a chemist who does all he can to keep his children in line exactly the way he sees as proper. That means nipping his son’s romance in the bud, halting his daughter’s potential singing career and sickening his other daughter with his cruel treatment of guinea pigs. This latter plot wrinkle is particularly strange as it goes nowhere. It may be a symbol of his cruelty towards his own children but as he inevitably softens in later scenes, the guinea pigs (whom his daughter has been secretly feeding and treating as pets) vanish altogether, never to be spoken of again. The plot involving the son agreeably dovetails with Withers’ storyline but the other plot about the daughter who wants to be a singer is given far too much screentime, her frequent bursts of shrill singing leading me to wonder whether the soundtrack of guinea pig torture had been accidentally applied to the wrong scene. In one particularly interminable sequence, she warbles her way through the entirety of the song ‘There’s No Place Like Home’, slowing the already dragging plot down to a crawl.
Fortunately, as Pink String and Sealing Wax progresses, we get more of Googie and less of everyone else but unfortunately the story just isn’t strong enough to support the film. Basically, a woman commits a crime and then gets caught, with very little investigation or revelation to season the meatless bone. A final confrontation between Withers and Johns has much promise but comes to very little other than an abrupt ending which ties everything up quickly and neatly like the symbolic chemist’s parcels of the title. There’s a real sense of frustration watching Withers battle with this limp material and fortunately It Only Rains on Sunday would soon give her a much more complex character and storyline to compliment her acting skills. Pink String and Sealing Wax, then, can be consigned to that list of debut films stamped with the shrugging slogan ‘everyone’s gotta start somewhere’.
Pink String and Sealing Wax’ is released by Studiocanal on Blu-ray and DVD on 25th April 2016. Special features include interviews and a stills gallery.