"The Challenge" is to be the first to climb the Matterhorn. It's 1864, and local Italian guide Jean Antoine Carrel (Luis Trenker) agrees to guide Englishman Edward Whymper (Robert Douglas) as far up the mountain as possible. Half-way up, and Carrel wants to turn back, but Whymper accuses him of cowardice and goes on. He quickly has an accident and is brought down the mountain by Carrel. The pair swear eternal friendship and decide that next year they will conquer the mountain together.
Whymper decides they should try from the unattempted Swiss side, but Carrel's village wants the tourist trade a successful Italian attempt will bring. They trick Carrel and Whymper into thinking the other has already started an expedition. Whymper's expedition gets to the top first, but on the way down four of his companions are killed. The Swiss are convinced Whymper killed the men to save his own skin and Carrel goes up to find the evidence but finds proof of Whymper's innocence instead. When he discovers he was tricked, he produces the evidence in time to stop Whymper being lynched.
The Mountain Film is a largely German phenomenon. This Anglo-German co-production is a rare English stab at the genre. Luis Trenker was the King of the Mountain Film and he directed all the German version. Sadly, Milton Rosmer directed the interior scenes in the English version and they're dreary. They're full of English actors speaking in English accents despite playing Swiss or Italian peasants. This cruelly shows up Trenker's own lack of English. It's doubtful he was a great actor in his native tongue but struggling with a strange language he's useless.
The outdoor scenes, however, are wonderful. Trenker shows his skill as actor, director and mountaineer; but then he'd had a lot of experience. He started in the twenties as an actor and appeared in several films with Leni Riefenstahl. His persona was that of the common man battling against the elements and the mountain. Like Riefenstahl, he moved to directing; although, unlike her, he avoided blatant Nazi propaganda. His films were popular with the Nazis in the run up to WWII however, and after the war his work was banned by the Allies. This was despite his being blacklisted by the Nazis for his 1940 film Der Feuerteufel which was interpreted as inciting the occupied countries to revolt.
The greatest significance of The Challenge to British Film History lies in its scriptwriter: Emeric Pressburger. This was his first film in Britain. He was hanging about waiting to get to America like so many European Jews at the time. This was the first film job he'd managed to get here, thanks to producer Gunther Stapenhorst with whom he had worked in German films. On his next film he would work with Michael Powell and forge a classic partnership.
Without the glorious mountain photography The Challenge wouldn't be much cop, and even with it, it's no classic. It stands as an interesting curiosity with an even more fascinating off-screen history.
Script: Emeric Pressburger, Patrick Kirwan, Milton Rosmer
Director: Milton Rosmer, Luis Trenker
Players: Joan Gardner, Mary Clare, Fred Groves, Lawrence Baskcomb, Ralph Truman, Tony Simpson, Geoffrey Wardwell, Bernard Miles
Hitchcock described it as "the lowest ebb of my output", but it has its fans. Betty Balfour plays the millionaire's daughter who is cut off without a penny and has to earn her living in a nightclub.
Script: Eliot Stannard
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Players: Gordon Harker, Ferdinand Von Alten, Jean Bradin, Jack Trevor, Marcel Vibert
Rival music hall acts join forces to save their theatres.
Jolly musical provides the perfect opportunity for a great reconstruction of life on the Victorian stage. There's perhaps a tad too many songs and too little plot to make it a classic, but it's a close thing.
Script: Austin Melford, Angus Macphail, John Dighton
Director: Alberto Cavalcanti
Players: Tommy Trinder, Stanley Holloway, Betty Warren, Austin Trevor, Jean Kent, Guy Middleton, Frederick Piper, Harry Fowler, Robert Wyndham, Drusilla Wills, Joan Carol, Billy Shine, Andrea Malandrinos, Paul Boniface, Peter de Greef, Norman Pierce, Eddie Phillips, Leslie Clarke, Eric Boon, Vida Hope, James Robertson Justice, Eliot Makeham, Gibb McLaughlin, Hazel Court, Joe Carr, Phyllis Morris, Vernon Greeves, George Hirst, Patricia Gennett, Ted Finch, Monti De Lyle, Richard Harrison, Kay Kendall
After the war, there were several attempts to make politically committed films outside the studio system. This is probably the best of them.
Basil Radford plays the boss of a plough factory who is so sick of his workers striking all the time that he tells them if they're so clever they should try to run things. This being a film, they take him up on his offer and he's forced to leave them to it. They survive various crises but when a large export order falls through Radford has to come back to help them out.
The film offers a realistic depiction of working conditions after the war (you must see Hattie Jacques weld!) and is relatively even-handed on the class war. The makers (director, producer and co-writer Bernard Miles, co-writer Walter Greenwood) can't quite avoid being preachy at times but at least they aren't anti-Trades Union like so many British films (Carry On at Your Convenience, The Angry Silence etc.) which assume that workers are just sheep being blindly lead by stupid agitators. Even those workers who are idle and nasty are allowed their own point of view. Niall MacGinnis as Baxter the chief whinger has a great scene where the new work system has been created and unless he tries harder he'll be 18 shillings short on his previous pay packet. After complaining to everyone about it, his co-workers each throw a tanner at him to make up his money. He's about to storm out after this public humiliation when one of the tanners goes down Hattie Jacques' cleavage and she does a stupid dance to shake it out. Once he smiles at the ridiculousness of it all he's one of the gang at last and his threatening presence is dissipated.
The set design is wonderfully evocative - the factory looks used - and the location shooting gives the film a strong sense of place. If there's a problem with the film it's with the casting. Not that the cast is bad, but that too many of the actors have gone on to comedy careers and this makes it feel almost like a failed comedy than a light drama. Radford gives a wonderful performance, though my personal favourite is Josephine Wilson as his secretary forced to come to terms with the new order.
It's too civilised and grown-up to really make an impact but there are memorable moments and it's pleasant to spot character actors before they found their characters (see Patrick Troughton do a posh drama student's version of 'ard working class and wonder how he ever got good).
The production history of the film is interesting. The big circuits refused to take it and the makers had to appeal to the Board of Trade for a release. The Board ruled in the film's favour and the Odeon chain drew the short straw. The film flopped.
Script: Bernard Miles, Walter Greenwood
Director: Bernard Miles, Alan Osbiston
Players: Julien Mitchell, Kenneth More, Geoffrey Keen, John Harvey, Peter Jones, Eric Chitty
Ralph Lynn is the idiot who causes havoc at a country house party in this Ben Travers farce. He's stranded in the middle of nowhere and persuaded by the lovely Winifred Shotter to impersonate her dancing partner. Lynn does a comedy dance that is funny but the rest of the film isn't up to much and lacks the driving logic that powers the best farces. Typically in a British comedy, the women fight over Lynn and Kenneth Kove while 30s crooner and sex-symbol Al Bowlly gets ignored. And we wouldn't have it any other way.
Script adapt.: W.P. Lipscomb. (o.a. Ben Travers)
Director: Herbert Wilcox, Ralph Lynn
Players: Robert English, Dino Galvani, Sunday Wilshin
Max Bygraves sets his stall out as a serious actor in this tale of a hustler making his way in show business and trampling over anyone who gets in his way. All a bit depressing.
Script adapt.: Leslie Bricusse, John Creswell. (o.a. Reginald Arkell)
Director: Guy Hamilton
Players: Michael Medwin, Shirley Eaton, Florence Desmond, Dennis Price, Charles Victor, Reginald Beckwith, Cyril Raymond, Peter Jones, Newton Blick, Vic Wise, Eric Sykes, Bill Fraser, Vida Hope, Harold Goodwin, Jane Asher, Anthony Bygraves, Lou Jacobi, Brian Oulton
In order to avoid being expelled, an Oxford student dresses up as the aunt of a fellow student.
Charley's Aunt is one of those theatrical warhorses that just keep going long after audiences have forgotten more "significant" plays. Nothing beats putting a bloke in drag to get British audiences laughing, and Brandon Thomas' play has done that job since it was first performed in 1892. There have been several versions of play in cinema, but none of them have really hit the mark. They're mostly remembered as vehicles for their respective stars, such as Ray Bolger or Jack Benny. The star here is big-hearted Arthur Askey.
Thanks to the massive success of the radio show Band Waggon, Askey was on a roll in 1940. His years of slogging around the variety halls had finally paid off and he was now a proper star and trying to make it big in the movies. Charley's (Big-hearted) Aunt wasn't much of a help.
The film has a great cast and crew. Askey is joined by his Band Waggon co-star Richard (Stinker) Murdoch, who doesn't add much to the proceedings. Moore Marriott is better value doing his wily old coot shtick. Felix Aylmer is also fun as the authority figure taken in by the "aunt's" charms. Jeanne de Casalis as the real aunt has most of the best lines.
Askey's drag act is fairly convincing - helped largely for modern audiences by his almost frightening resemblance to Fanny Craddock. He's good at the frolicking needed for good drag, but he's totally incapable of expressing embarrassment when faced with having to undress in front of a ladies rowing team. He just doesn't have the repression required for the role.
The plot, such as it is, is what would now be called a "re-imagining" of the original. The students appear in a production of the original play, thus getting the idea for the deception. The aunt is no longer from Brazil ("Where the nuts come from") but Birmingham ("Where the nuts and bolts come from). It's been intelligently adapted, but there aren't enough gags to make it truly memorable. It comes across as a mediocre episode of Billy Bunter.
Script: Marriott Edgar, Val Guest (o.a. Brandon Thomas)
Director: Walter Forde
Players: Graham Moffatt, J.H. Roberts, Phyllis Calvert, Wally Patch, Elliot Mason, Peggy Evans, Henry Hepworth, Roddy Hughes, Donald Calthrop
Ann Baxter is the unfortunate heiress who finds Richard Todd claiming to be her dead brother and her relatives all seem to back his story. Is there a plot to get her money or is she just paranoid? Despite the great location work it feels like a stage play adaptation but it isn't. Maybe that's just a function of the claustrophobic atmosphere. I won't give the ending away but it's well worth watching to find out.
Script: David D. Osborn, Charles Sinclair
Director: Michael Anderson Jr.
Players: Alexander Knox, Herbert Lom, Faith Brook
Industrial spy Stanley Baker nicks some Italian blueprints and plans to cross the border by being co-driver to Anthony Steele in an international rally. Director Ralph Thomas can't make this more than a nicely shot travelogue.
Script: Robin Estridge
Director: Ralph Thomas
Players: James Robertson Justice, Odile Versois, Maurice Denham, Michael Medwin, Anne Heywood, McDonald Hobley
A big brewing concern attempts to take over a small local brewery.
Pleasant comedy which now seems most significant for providing Ealing with a template for its post-war successes.
Script: Roger Macdougall, Allan Mackinnon
Director: Walter Forde
Players: Edmund Gwenn, Nova Pilbeam, Jimmy O'Dea, Peter Coke, Moore Marriott, Graham Moffatt, C.V France, Alexander Knox, Ivor Barnard, Jean Webster-Brough, Sidney Monkton, Walter Forde
Struggling composers try to get close enough to a millionaire to persuade him to back their production.
Standard silliness given a perk up by Stanley Lupino and Roddy Hughes as the composers and Sally Gray as the struggling actress they help along the way. The songs are dreadful and the choreography rarely rises above the level of an end-of-the-pier show but there's still a lot of amateurish charm in the production and it's a great way to pass the time.
Script: Michael Barringer
Director: Leo Mittler
Players: Gerald Barry, Kenneth Kove, Wyn Weaver, Majorie Chard, Ernest Sefton, Syd Crossley, Arthur Rigby Jr
Out-of-control teenagers are put on the right path by a spell in Approved Schools.
At the end of the second world war, documentary film makers faced a question: Now what? It was a question that covered a wide range of areas from subject matter, film-making technique and even the structure of the documentary movement itself.
Before the war, there were a number of corporations and government agencies that were happy to subsidise short films. The pre-eminent one was the GPO, but others included the Empire Marketing Board, gas boards and even some local authorities. Film makers had a fair bit of freedom on subject matter and technique, provided the film concluded with an exhortation to open a savings book or buy a new cooker. During the war, film makers were absorbed into the Ministry of Information and the various armed services, and there was one primary subject: Licking Hitler.
Post-war, the primary subject matter disappeared. It also looked as though the main employer would disappear too and so it was essential to convince the government that film makers could effectively inform the public. Film makers already knew from the war years how to blur the line between presenting a reality the audience recognised and the reality the government wanted to present, and politically most of the film makers were right behind the aims of the new Labour government. The big issue was persuading cinemas to show the films now that wartime patriotism and the dictats of the MOI were no longer in play.
Children on Trial was one of the first films made under the new conditions. Its aim was to reassure the public that the penal system for children was humane and that something was being done about the children who had effectively grown up feral during the war.
The film concentrates on two fictional case studies: Fred Watson, arrested during a warehouse burglary, and Shirley Reynolds, "found in the dock area, associating with men". The first half of the film is quite hard hitting: there's the excitement of the robbery and the misery of the children's living conditions. There's not a lot of consorting with men in evidence, however, and in the only scene of Shirley on the pull in a rough pub she's no more tarty than Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter.
Once the fun stuff is over, we're into the bureaucracy of the legal system and the cosy world of the Approved Schools. If there's a theme here it's about replacing lousy parents with well-meaning, middle-class, state-approved functionaries and squalor with the fresh air of the country. In order to lessen this stark, class-biased view, Fred and Shirley are joined in the system by Walter Wilkins an habitual shoplifter whose middle-class father insists has yet again been lead astray by undesirable boys from the slums.
The schools look rather basic to modern eyes, and the film makers have resisted the temptation to spruce them up so there's a tired, austerity-Britain feel to the decor which helps the realism. Less realistic is the attitude of the staff. There's the briefest of mention of the cane, but the regime at these schools is more scout group than prison. This is Ealing Paternalism at its most patronising, and the kids respond as desired. There are a few ups and down on the way - Fred nicks from other boys, Walter goes AWOL - but there's little doubt how this will end. The children return to society with marketable skills and fulfill their duty to look after the families that didn't look after them.
People can sniff a phony and those who got the chance to see Children on Trial certainly sniffed this one. Few got the chance since, despite the exciting early scenes, most cinema chains refused to take it. At 60 minutes it was an awkward length for exhibition - a B picture length for a filler subject - and wouldn't fit easily into an evening's programme.
There is one more aspect of the post-war documentary that Children on Trial exhibits: its use as a calling card for fiction features. Those involved with the documentary film movement in the 1930s were committed to the concept of the documentary as an artform, but the wartime generation could see examples of film makers who moved on to bigger things. It's hard to see that the makers of Pett and Pott or Song of Ceylon had ambitions to make glossy features, it's all too easy to see that director Jack Lee did. This marks the point at which the primary aim of the documentary from an industry perspective is to nurture new talent.
At this distance, there are pleasures to be had from Children on Trial. Quaintness is a virtue when it has the patina of nostalgia. Lee has an eye for realistic detail and portrays the conditions people had to live in at the end of the war as jaw-droppingly awful, a helpful reminder when the Welfare State is questioned.
Script: Jack Lee, Nora Dawson
Director: Jack Lee
Hollywood star Frederick March came over the Pond to play the famous explorer and brought along his wife Florence Eldridge to play Queen Isabella. No doubt they wished they hadn't bothered since this was the biggest turkey of his career.
Script: Cyril Roberts, Muriel Box, Sydney Box
Director: David Macdonald
Players: Francis L. Sullivan, Linden Travers, Kathleen Ryan, Derek Bond, James Robertson Justice, Felix Aylmer, Nora Swinburne, Edward Rigby, Francis Lister, Niall McGinnis, Abraham Sofaer, Dennis Vance, Ralph Truman, Sonia Holm, Arthur Hambling, Richard Ahearne, Ronald Adam, Guy le Feuvre, Lyn Evans, David Cole, Hugh Pryse, Anthony Steel, R. Stuart Lindsell, Gordon Dainton, Valentine Dyall