Ealing Studios Rarities Collection (The): Volume 12
Some of the Ealing Rarities from the 1940s and 50s have been intermittently visible, for instance via TV screenings; the four films in this set are rare indeed, and thus all the more welcome. All four date from between 1932 and 1936, when Basil Dean rather than Michael Balcon ran the studio. All four show us important figures from a new angle, at an unfamiliar stage in their careers. Among film-makers, Carol Reed, Graham Cutts and Thorold Dickinson, as well as Dean himself. Among performers, Katie Johnson, 20 years before she starred as Mrs Wilberforce in the last great Ealing comedy The Ladykillers; Basil Rathbone, long before he became Hollywood’s Sherlock Holmes; and the comedians Bud Flanagan and Chesney Allen, a decade before their memorable appearance in the wartime documentary Listen to Britain, made by Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister in 1942.
In that film, the pair sing Underneath the Arches to a factory audience of war-workers: their act forms part of an inclusive celebration of a national culture, linking them to the pianist Myra Hess, who plays, during the same lunchtime, to the then Queen and others at a National Gallery concert. It is great to find the two of them singing their same trademark song in 1932 at the start of Bailiffs – the first short film to have been included in this series of rarities, a useful reminder that cinema programmes used to be more varied than the current relentless pattern of adverts + trailers + feature. The Bailiffs may have been an attempt to launch a British series, based on a comedy duo, that could have an appeal like Laurel and Hardy. The story, of two bunglers trying to get access to a suburban house, has distinct L and H echoes, but where those two were rooted in silent comedy, Flanagan and Allen’s humour is mainly verbal. Only one other short film followed: they returned to Music Hall, and soon became part of the stage and screen phenomenon of The Crazy Gang. Like so many of these rediscovered rarities, The Bailiffs remains fascinating as a period piece, a forgotten dead end in British film history.
Three Men in a Boat, like The Bailiffs, hardly works as laugh-out-loud comedy for today, but again its historical interest is great. Other Ealing films of the 1930s have supplied vivid contemporary footage of the soon-to-burn-down Crystal Palace (Play up the Band, Rarities 7), of the old Euston Station (A Honeymoon Adventure, Rarities 9), and of car-racing at Brands Hatch (Death Drives Through, Rarities 3). The location scenes of Three Men in a Boat take us back to the Thames of a more innocent, less cluttered era. And its director is Graham Cutts. He was a major figure in the British industry of the 1920s, with Alfred Hitchcock as his assistant in a series of films: as Hitchcock prospered, Cutts declined, and his career petered out in the 1930s before his death in obscurity in 1958. Three Men in a Boat marks a poignant stage in this trajectory. The second of many adaptations of the popular book by Jerome K. Jerome, it was clearly made on a low budget; none of its cast mean much to modern audiences; its short running-time has been shortened even further, in this surviving version, by some brutal cuts which leave holes in the narrative. But enough incidental pleasures remain to maintain the interest, and to remind us of Cutts’s professionalism, working here in adversity.
Basil Dean’s film career would likewise end in the 1930s, but he was always mainly a theatre man; when he was ousted from power at Ealing, he had his first love to go back to. Where Cutts was formed in silent cinema and never fully adjusted to sound, Dean was the reverse, only branching out into cinema when synchronised sound made the medium more attractive to eminent playwrights; he was the preferred director of John Galsworthy (now best known for The Forsyte Saga) on stage and then film. Escape, included in Rarities 1, was a very early sound film, but by the time of his second Galsworthy adaptation, Loyalties, both the sound technology and Dean’s direction had become more fluid, and he had taken on inventive young assistants, including Thorold Dickinson, who edited many films at Ealing before becoming a director elsewhere. Here, Dickinson creates two brilliant silent editing effects: an early visualisation of a leading character’s thought process, and an action scene at the climax which it would be wrong to give away, since the story about anti-semitism in upper-class British circles remains suspenseful to the end. 80 years on, the drama still works, thanks to the power of the original play and to the skill of the adaptation, faithful but not ponderously so – and to some strong performances, notably by Basil Rathbone as the Jewish outsider, and Miles Mander as his antagonist in clubland and then in court.
Loyalties and Three Men in a Boat have one credit in common, Carol Reed as assistant director. Soon, Dean promoted him. His first film as director, Midshipman Easy, was included in Rarities 2, and the later Penny Paradise – an Ealing Comedy ahead of its time – in Rarities 1. This new quartet is completed by his second film, Laburnum Grove, a version of the play by J.B.Priestley. It makes a good companion to Loyalties: comedy not tragedy, middle-class not upper-class, but likewise set in London and focused on the divisive power of money. It too is strongly cast: Edmund Gwenn and Cedric Hardwicke, but above all Katie Johnson as Gwenn’s wife. When she starred late in life in The Ladykillers, she was said to have emerged from the obscurity of bit parts only, but this is a significant one – like Mrs Wilberforce, and looking hardly a day younger than her, she moves serenely through the film, innocently impervious to all the machinations happening in and around her house. If Loyalties is the standout film of Rarities 12, hers is the standout performance.
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.
THREE MEN IN A BOAT (1933)
An adaptation of Jerome K. Jerome’s classic story charting the comic misadventures of three friends – and a dog – as they take a boating holiday on the Thames.
Black and White / 54 mins / 1.33:1 / Mono / English
The sole Jewish guest at a Society gathering is robbed; when he exposes a fellow guest as the thief, he finds the veneer of racial tolerance to be disturbingly thin…
Black and White / 68 mins / 1.33:1 / Mono / English
THE BAILIFFS (1932)
In one of their earliest films, Crazy Gang stars Flanagan and Allen star as a couple of incompetent broker’s men who take possession of the wrong house…
Black and White / 25 mins / 1.33:1 / Mono / English
LABURNUM GROVE (1936)
A respectable suburban householder shocks unwelcome visiting relatives by telling them that he is now a forger working for a criminal gang.
Black and White / 71 mins / 1.33:1 / Mono / English