By Simon Ward, writer whose books include The Wit and Wisdom of James Bond, Snowpiercer: The Art and Making of the Film, Aliens: The Set Photography, Okja: The Art and Making of the Film and Making Moon: A British Sci-Fi Cult Classic. He also wrote the introduction to Modesty Blaise: The Grim Joker and has provided text and other materials for numerous Blu-rays.
In an astonishing feat of curation and film preservation, 56 Ealing films have been collected for the first time in a 28-disc set from Network. These movies, from one of cinema history’s legendary studios, offer a wealth of storytelling beyond the classic comedies so associated with the British institution. Here are ten recommendations, which are just the cusp of everything this treasure trove has to offer.
The Girl in the Taxi 
A movie somewhat struggling with itself, a bit like Britain at the time, The Girl in the Taxi contains a rather farcical setup that seems to want to be more risqué than it is. At its heart is the rather lofty, and adult, ambition to examine virtue – according to what measure can it be judged and what is it worth anyway? Specifically, a moralistic president of a ‘virtue society’ stresses these values, whilst his own son has other things on his mind, including a married woman. Then the upright president’s unshakeable morality begins to… shake. Misunderstandings, mixed-up letters and adulterous temptations ensue. The musical numbers are somewhat of an afterthought and you can sense a more raunchy film hidden inside the rather polite trappings. Not an obvious fit for the buttoned-up British world people automatically categorise with Ealing, the antics speak more to the film’s European origins as a French play and German operetta.
The Impassive Footman 
Anyone expecting a comedy of manners and lunacy in the style of P.G. Wodehouse, is in for a shock. The titular footman, whilst all-knowing and all-seeing, is far more of a background character, with the focus instead on a foul, rich hypochondriac, his trapped wife, and the man she loves. An odd sense of foreboding looms over the film, and the clipped restraint of the movie and its characters constantly threaten to take a turn into something more pulpy and genre-inflected. The Impassive Footman was one of many films made for an extremely low budget in order to fulfil a government mandate of more cinemas showing more movies made in Great Britain. It’s an example of what the Americans called ‘B movies’, and was often a format for filmmakers to test some unconventional ideas in their brisk 70 minutes of screentime. Perhaps most puzzling about this offering, is the source material, based on a play by Herman C. McNeile, better known as ‘Sapper’, the writer of Bulldog Drummond. The Impassive Footman is very much an outlier in a bibliography defined by one of the classic British literary heroes.
It Happened in Paris 
As the film credited as Carol Reed’s feature film directorial debut, this is a must for any British cinema fan or film historian. Reed’s first solo director credit would come with the same year’s Midshipman Easy, whereas It Happened in Paris bears a somewhat disputed co-directorial arrangement with Robert Wyler. This Paris-set bildungsroman was shot in the UK and Reed – a master of capturing European cities onscreen – does a good job of conjuring a lived-in, somewhat shabby and street-level view of the French capital. The film boasts an early writing credit by the legendary John Huston, but It Happened in Paris is also notable as the last feature directed by Robert Wyler, who is more famous for the work he did in Hollywood for his younger brother, William Wyler.
The Loves of Joanna Godden 
Another film notable for the behind the scenes talent. The director of the movie, Charles Frend, was a go-to man for both Hitchcock and Alexander Korda, but when he fell ill Robert Hamer stepped behind the megaphone. Hamer was already well-established as an editor and producer in the industry, working steadily since the late Thirties, but he had only directed three items of note before Joanna Godden. Crucially, one of those was the chilling ‘Haunted Mirror’ segment of the stone-cold Ealing horror classic Dead of Night (1945), starring none other than Joanna Godden’s leading lady Googie Withers – who also starred in Hamer’s Pink String and Sealing Wax again in 1945. Perhaps it was his successful partnership with Withers on these earlier films, that made him the perfect fixer for The Loves of Joanna Godden. They would reunite once again, later the same year, for the wonderful It Always Rains on Sunday, before Hamer would mount his masterpiece, Kind Hearts and Coronets, in 1949.
Secret Lives 
A mature, stern but rather stylish look at one woman’s experience as a spy during World War 1, made with World War 2 on the horizon – or, rather, how she is used as a spy, as a female, by men of power. The director, Edmond T. Greville, had learned his craft with such greats as Abel Gance, Louise Brooks, and Eric von Stroheim. The strange undercurrents Stroheim threaded through his work, and how to utilize the striking looks of someone like Brooks, can be identified in Secret Lives. There is a surprisingly frank and cynical element of sexuality in the film; Lena Schmidt (played by the fantastically-eyebrowed Brigitte Horney) is aware of her beauty, and the resentment and contempt she feels for the effect this has on men is written all over her face.
Three Men in a Boat 
As quintessentially British and daffy as it comes. This adaptation of the Jerome K. Jerome comic novel, is far easier to enjoy and far more pleasing than an actual rowboat journey on the River Thames would be. This Ealing gem was actually the second time the novel had been adapted for film, but it bears the distinction of being the first sound version. If the book is a building block for so much English comedic prose, then it is only fitting that Ealing – the byword for a certain style of studied British humour – should have a defining version of the novel in its catalogue.
The Sign of Four 
Another from the director and producer partnership of Graham Cutts and Basil Dean, respectively, who performed the same roles on Three Men in a Boat. And as with that aforementioned film, this too was the first sound adaptation of its source material; in this case, the second Sherlock Holmes novel. Arthur Wontner takes on the role of the great detective, his third of five Holmes films from 1931 to 1937, although only four are available – The Missing Rembrandt (1932) is lost. Despite the significant – and uncalled for – liberties scriptwriter W.P. Lipscomb took with the text, it is always interesting to watch the early Conan Doyle adaptations and see Sherlock Holmes before the style of ‘a Sherlock Holmes film’ had really been established in cinema. Other characters are given generous amounts of screentime and the whole thing has a rather jolly tone – with Watson stealing Holmes’ catchphrase at the very end.
The Silent Passenger 
The Silent Passenger holds the distinction of being the only screenplay written by the great mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers. It was co-written with Basil Mason and was her first attempt to adapt her prose into another medium. She never again wrote for film, but over the years would produce numerous works for stage and radio. The film features her defining creation, the amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey, who was already a beloved star of the page with ten books featuring him by the time this movie reached screens. The Silent Passenger is impossible to see as a faithful adaptation of Sayers’ work and it is generally accepted that she disliked the end result. But it is nonetheless worth seeing in the context of her work and detective cinema of that era, given that at exactly the same time across the pond, Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man was getting the gold star treatment via the MGM adaptations.
A film from the first half of the career of famed director Basil Dearden. Dearden had a remarkable filmography stretching from a spate of anti-war comedies in the early 1940s, all the way through to the brilliant Roger Moore-Jekyll and Hyde vehicle The Man Who Haunted Himself in 1970. His catalogue holds a mix of functional genre movies, outright classics, and worthy experiments, including: Dead of Night (1945), The Blue Lamp (1950), The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), The League of Gentleman (1960), Victim (1961), All Night Long (1961), and The Mind Benders (1963). Frieda came just after the end of the Second World War and is very much a comment on the aftermath, with a German woman attempting to make a life for herself away from Nazism, but facing a different type of ostracism in England’s green and pleasant lands.
Davy is a strange mixture of elements and the sort of film that often comes at the end of an era, when new talents, attitudes, and technology is emerging. On the one hand, is a film that is suitably Ealing in its ambitions – music hall, quaint comedy, heart on its sleeve – and its crew – longtime Ealing editor Peter Tanner, irreplaceable cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. But on the other hand, you have a cast that was looking to the 1960s and the new style of comedy that was about to sweep in: Kenneth Connor, Joan Sims and Liz Fraser; all Carry On stalwarts. Harry Secombe (who plays Davy) was a big draw from The Goon Show, which may have been many things, but it wasn’t an Ealing type of product. Davy was the last Ealing comedy produced and as such forms an important time capsule moment.