Another Saturday, another review of another DVD set from Network’s The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection. Following last week’s engagement with the first release, today’s post is concerned with Volume 2. Here is another quartet of lesser-known British feature films shot mostly (location filming is minimal) on the stages at Ealing between, this week, 1935 and 1942. Embedded below is Network’s trailer for the quartet – and across the jump are my thoughts about each of the four films.
• The earliest of the films in the set is definitely the least interesting. Midshipman Easy (1935) is the tiresome tale of a priggish young naval officer who gets into a series of scapes on and off a nineteenth century ship of the line. Producer Basil Dean apparently built a substantial nautical set in the gardens of Ealing and then supplemented this with some location shots on the Dorset coast. For those with memories of sixties and seventies television it is marginally interesting to watch a teenage Hughie Green, later to be a notable small-screen gameshow host, in the title role. The credits also reveal that the director was Carol Reed who would go on to make The Third Man (1949) and other classic British movies. This is not one of those.
• Brief Ecstasy (1937) is a remarkable film, and the stand-out title of the set. A melodrama with expressionist touches, it has strong echoes of its near namesake, Brief Encounter (1945), but there is a bit of Rebecca in there too with a sinister housekeeper threatening the young wife of an older man. You can find the jealous obsession of Othello as well in a tale of a young woman (played by the beautiful – and beautifully lit – Linden Travers, above) who misses out on marrying a man she meets in a tearoom, then weds the professor for whom she works, only to have the first lover turn up five years later.
The film is full of imaginative visual flourishes (the cinematographer is Ronald Neame), using mirrors and montage sequences, but its great strength was highlighted by Graham Greene when he was writing regular film criticism: ‘The subject is sexual passion, a rarer subject than you might think on the screen and the treatment is adult: there isn’t, thank God, any love in it.’ For a film from the 1930s, it still carries a noticeable erotic charge.
One of the last films to be made using Ealing’s facilities by the short-lived production company Phoenix Films, Brief Ecstasy was directed by the French director Edmond Gréville, who worked in both Britain and France before and after the Second World War. For BFI ScreenOnline, Geoff Brown and Bryony Dixon write:
In his visual language and attitudes to sex he stayed defiantly continental, although several post-war British ventures led him closer into British society than any of his 1930s films. Soho prostitutes and vice racketeers peopled Noose (1948), a vigorous, slyly comic spiv drama adapted from Richard Llewellyn’s play; over a decade later, Beat Girl (1960) deployed Adam Faith, Shirley Ann Field, and other signs of the times in a lurid tale of Soho strip clubs and murder.
Also, thinking about the later work of those involved, it’s worth noting the wise words of critic William K. Everson:
The beautiful camerawork of Ronald Neame reminds us again that it is usually a mistake for first-rate cinematographers to give up that career to become routine directors.
• In 1938 producer Michael Balcon, who had resigned from overseeing Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s British production unit, arrived to run Ealing Studios. The next two or three years are seen by scholars as a ‘transitional period’ during which the studio continued to turn out low-budget comedies and thrillers, of which The Four Just Men (1939) is a decent example. The film is an efficient but forgettable spy thriller drawn from a tale by crime writer Edgar Wallace, directed by Walter Forde with Ronald Neame again as director of photography (he shot eleven of the first fifteen features under Balcon). The nonsensical tale is about a plot to bring down the British Empire and there’s a feisty female would-be crime reporter (who is put in her place by the end) and a stirring patriotic epilogue shot when the film was released during the war.
• In the introduction to the important collection of essays Ealing Revisited, editors Mark Duguid, Lee Freeman, Keith M. Johnston and Melanie Williams write
Arguably, [the] transitional period ended with the moral certainty of World War II and a broader understanding of how the ‘thoroughly national’ could fuel a seriues of films that claimed to represent (or construct) a national identity.
The Big Blockade (1942) belongs to an early phase of this process and aims to explain why the work of the Ministry of Economic Warfare is essential to the war effort. It’s an interesting but ultimately unsuccessful mix of documentary with dramatised sequences, most of which seem to feature caricatures of Germans who are smug, cowardly, domineering, definitely nasty and burdened with funny names.