Ealing Studios Rarities Collection (The): Volume 9
One of the big benefits of the non-stop flow of Ealing Rarities is that it helps to build up a fuller and truer history of Ealing Comedy than we get from cherry-picking the old familiar titles. This ninth set includes two missing pieces in the jigsaw, produced pre-war and post-war by Michael Balcon – along with two early non-comedies from the Ealing years of Basil Dean, a thriller and a biopic. It adds up to a startlingly varied quartet, none of them exactly a masterpiece, but all adding new knowledge and new pleasures. The major surprise and pleasure is the earliest of the four, A Honeymoon Adventure, directed by Maurice Elvey in 1931.
Dean had moved from theatre into cinema only after the industry committed itself to dialogue films at the end of the 1920s. He quickly shot some stage adaptations himself, starting with Escape in Rarities One, and brought in others from theatre like director Reginald Denham. For contractual reasons, he also used two men with long cinema experience in Elvey and Graham Cutts, and in his memoirs he refers to them patronisingly as silent directors who never properly adjusted to the change, and whom he was not sorry to lose. But A Honeymoon Adventure is more cinematic, and more fun, than any film by Dean or Denham. It moves rapidly between London and Scotland and back again, with location shooting in and between both places, including scenes at Euston station, taking in the iconic Doric Arch that was so scandalously demolished in the 1960s. Many years earlier, Alfred Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville had worked for Elvey, and she went on to contribute to some of his scripts – not this one, but it unmistakably anticipates Hitchcock’s 1932 film Number Seventeen, co-written by her. Both films have an exhilarating chase between rail and road; long mysterious encounters in a sinister house; a protracted fist-fight with comically unrealistic sound effects; and a classic ‘Maguffin’, here a secret formula for an industrial process, whose safe retrieval is dramatically revealed, with great comic timing, at the very end. It makes you seriously wonder if Reville and Hitchcock saw A Honeymoon Adventure and learned from it. Elvey would continue his busy directing career – always more modest than in his silent heyday, but still honourable – until 1957, long after Dean had abandoned the medium, or been abandoned by it..
His own film Whom the Gods Love could not be more of a contrast: a high-prestige biography of Mozart, using extensive European locations, and music conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham. This was the third film in which Dean directed his discovery and second wife, Victoria Hopper – before this, she had played the heroine of the 17th-century British rural melodrama Lorna Doone, coming up in Rarities Eleven. This of course is 18th-century Europe, moving between Saltzburg, Paris, Prague, and Vienna. In both films, the elaborate period settings and dialogues and costumes and wigs tend to get in the way of clear dramatic narrative. Neither Stephen Haggard (a casualty of WW2) as Mozart nor Hopper as his wife have much charisma. And yet the film is worth watching for the way it builds to a strong climax, via two strands of suspense. Mozart struggles to complete his score for The Marriage of Figaro in time for the premiere, and his wife hesitates whether to stay and support him or to keep her assignation with Prince Lobkowitz (John Loder), who is waiting in his carriage, ready to sweep her off to a life of luxury. The finale wraps things up quickly by resolving conflicts, warning of Mozart’s imminent death, and cutting repeatedly between the applause of the rich people in the boxes and the poor in the cheap section – as if to hint at a parallel between 18th-century opera and 20th-century cinema as art forms which, like Elizabethan theatre, unite all classes. Sadly, the film itself had little success with audiences of any class. Its failure began the process of estrangement between Dean and the Ealing board which would lead to his departure three years later. But at least give the film, and Dean, credit for high ambition.
And so to Ealing Comedy. To some extent anticipated by Carol Reed’s Penny Paradise at the end of the Dean period (see Rarities One), Cheer Boys Cheer, an early Balcon production, provides a clear pre-war template for the genre that would come into its own a decade later, reworked in post-war terms; one of its writers is Roger MacDougall, credited later for The Man in the White Suit (1951). As often, a small community bands together to resist hostile outside forces. Here the Greenleaf brewery, dedicated to benevolent teamwork and to a quality product, resists the takeover bid from a big and ruthless industrial brewing concern, Ironside. On the eve of war, this works as a metaphor for British opposition to Hitlerism: the Ironside boss (Edmund Gwenn) is even shown relaxing with a copy of Mein Kampf. Ironside's son (Peter Coke) goes on a mission to try to persuade, or trick, the small company into submission, and finds himself confronted by Greenleaf daughter (Nova Pilbeam). Well, anyone could fill in the rest of the story from this point, but it is no less satisfying for being predictable.
In contrast, Meet Mr Lucifer is marginal to the main Ealing comedy genre, being based on a play with no Ealing connection, and directed by an Ealing outsider in Anthony Pelissier after no insider was found ready to take it on. But it is fascinating in its own right as an account from 1953 of the fast-developing phenomenon of television: a time-capsule preserving examples of early output, and of attitudes to the upstart medium which was challenging the dominance of cinema. All of the TV is live transmission, five years in advance of the development of video-recording, but it is already becoming a threat to the security of a studio like Ealing, and will become more so year by year. Meet Mr Lucifer offers less in the way of colourful roles and narrative drive than Cheer Boys Cheer; the technology is the star, and the film acquires ever-increasing value – enhanced by this re-release – in the charting of media histories.
A global byword for cinematic quality of a quintessentially British nature, Ealing Studios made more than 150 films over a three decade period. A cherished and significant part of British film history, only selected films from both the Ealing and Associated Talking Pictures strands have previously been made available on home video format - with some remaining unseen since their original theatrical release.
The Ealing Rarities Collection redresses this imbalance - featuring new transfers from the best available elements, in their correct aspect ratio, this multi-volume collection showcases a range of scarce films from both Basil Dean's and Michael Balcon's tenure as studio head, making them available once more to the general public.
MEET MR LUCIFER (1953)
Knocked unconscious while playing the Devil, an actor finds himself somewhere considerably hotter – where his host has something to say about television...
Black and White / 78 mins / 1.33:1 / Mono / English
CHEER BOYS CHEER (1939)
Ironside, an inferior brewer, enlists his son John in a ruse to acquire venerable rival Greenleaf’s; but a romance between John and Greenleaf’s lovely daughter intervenes.
Black and White / 82 mins / 1.33:1 / Mono / English
WHOM THE GODS LOVE (1936)
The story of Mozart and his wife Constance, set against a background of court intrigue and professional jealousy, with music conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.
Black and White / 80 mins / 1.33:1 / Mono / English
A HONEYMOON ADVENTURE (1931)
An exciting tale of international crooks and stolen plans, in which an inventor is kidnapped by foreign agents whilst honeymooning in Scotland.
Black and White / 65 mins / 1.19:1 / Mono / English