Ealing before Ealing

10th August 2013

Neither rhyme nor reason seems behind the choice of the four films in the first volume of the DVD series that Network have called The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection. Which is most excellent – the apparently random selection , that is, as well as the four-film DVD. Each DVD set in the series features a quartet of titles from the StudioCanal archives (yes, Virginia, a French company owns the legacy of this most British of film producers) drawn from the lesser-known and even downright obscure output of Ealing Studios. Thrillingly (at least for those of us fascinated by the by-ways of British cinema), the choices come both from the studio’s glory days (1938-59) under producer Michael Balcon and from the years before this when Basil Dean‘s Associated Talking Pictures was chief among the companies that made movies on the Ealing stages. Five DVD sets have been released, with three further ones announced, and many of the films on offer are rich and remarkable. And the unmotivated gathering on each set positively encourages sampling of titles of which you have probably never heard.

The least interesting film on Volume 1 (currently available from Network for a bargain £9.18) is perhaps the best-known, but even then only marginally: the negligible late-Ealing colonial drama-cum-travelogue West of Zanzibar (1954), directed by Harry Watt.

Rugged game warden Antony Steel and demure-but-sexy doctor Sheila Sim save a Kenyan tribe from the baser instincts of its members in a farrago of intercut wildlife footage, distinctly retrograde attitudes and some glorious Technicolor cinematography. Ealing made eleven colour films in the 1950s, including of course The Ladykillers (1955), and West of Zanzibar is a spectacular showcase for the cinematography of Paul Beeson.

From the other end, as it were, of the Ealing story is the true rarity Escape (1930). This was filmed on location in the west country and at Beaconsfield by Basil Dean even before he began to work at Ealing. One of the earliest British sound films, this remains a very watchable drama of a war veteran toff  sent to Dartmoor Prison after accidentally killing a cop.

Our hero escapes and is helped by various people on the moor before he gives himself up to save a vicar from having to choose whether to lie for him or not. Fascinating both for its innovative use of sound and for its presentation of class positions, this would alone be worth the price of the DVD set.

If all of this interests you, you need a copy of the BFI/Palgrave book published last year, Ealing Revisited, edited by Mark Duguid, Lee Freeman, Keith M. Johnston and Melanie Williams. I have hymned this volume in an earlier post, and it is an essential partner for these Network DVDs (which I intend to review volume by volume). Steve Chibnall’s chapter outlines the history of Ealing from 1931 onwards under theatrical entrepreneur Basil Dean when

a studio headed by a West End impresario, based in a London suburb, and that would later become so closely identified with metropolitan locales such as Pimlico, King’s Cross and Southwark [was] so successful in producing pictures that had them queuing north of Watford in the depths of the Great Depression.

Dean’s success ‘up north’ was grounded in the films made at Ealing with George Formby and with Gracie Fields, and another of Volume 1’s films appears to have been pitched at the audience that that made these two modest entertainers into stars. Penny Paradise (1938) is a tale of a Liverpool tug-boat captain who wins big on the football pools only to discover that his forgetful mate had failed to post the coupon. All of which, of course, is to the good, as is underlined by a handful of songs from Betty Driver (later a stalwart of Coronation Street). The comic drama is predictable and the accents occasionally impenetrable, but there is a small amount of interesting location footage shot on the Mersey.

The film is also notable for its contributions by future talents of the British film industry. Not only was it directed by Carol Reed, later to make The Third Man (1949), but Ronald Neame, later to be an eminent producer and director, receives a co-cinematography credit, and second unit direction Basil Dearden, who would have a fascinating career as a director at Ealing and elsewhere. Dearden later made Pool of London (1952) and was, I assume, responsible for the Liverpool dock scenes.

Penny Paradise, like Escape and Cheer Up! (1936), the fourth of the films in this first set, was one of the many, many British films made as a short (72 minutes) second-feature during the 1930s. Often derisively called ‘quota quickies’, these were movies financed by American distributors to fulfil the obligations imposed on the industry by the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act. Coupled with the expectation of cinema double bills from the early 1930s, the legislation brought into being during the pre-war decade hundreds of fast-shot, cheaply-made comedies, thrillers and musicals.

Cheer Up!, however, is an example of how interesting – as well as entertaining – some of the ‘quota quickies’ can be. It’s a tale of a down-on-their-luck pair of entertainers desperate to get a backer for the musical they have written together.

The plot hinges on ridiculous coincidences and misunderstandings but Stanley Lupino plays the lead with great charm and the female lead is the beautiful and intriguing Sally Gray. (Ms Gray appeared in a host of interesting British films, including They Made me a Fugitive (1947) and was offered a long-term contract by RKO if she would move to the States. But in 1952 she secretly married Dominick Browne, 4th Baron Oranmore and Browne, retired from acting and went to live in Ireland. Her husband lived to be 100 and she was 90 when she died in 2006.)

For me, perhaps the main interest of Cheer Up!, which was made by Lupino’s production company,is its constant slippage between the conventions of filmmaking and the forms of the musical theatre. There are several imaginatively staged musical numbers before a climax which purports to be the opening night of our protagonists’ musical. This is centred on a big production number that begins on the stage, in front of painted and stylised sets (including one depicting the BBC’s Broadcasting House, above, which had opened in 1932) before breaking away into studio shots sets filmed against projected location footage of London, and then returning once again to the theatre. The effect is distinctly odd but it only adds to the interest of the film – and of the DVD set as a whole.

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