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Evensong (1934)

For a generation of theatre goers the name Evelyn Laye conjures up an image of glamour and gentility. In the twenties and thirties she enchanted audiences on both sides of the Atlantic in such productions as Princess Charming and Bitter Sweet. Somehow she never made the same impact in films.

In Evensong, Laye plays Maggie, a young Irish girl blessed with a golden voice. She escapes from her repressive home with pianist George (Emlyn Williams). They get to Paris where he is unable to find work but her voice is discovered by Kober (Fritz Kortner). George is jealous and turns up at her big audition with a gun but is unable to kill that voice. He disappears and she gets a new name: Irela (after her native Ireland). As the years pass she becomes a big hit. At the height of her success she is wooed by a rich Count (Carl Esmond). She is reluctant at first, but his expensive gifts and romantic ways soon wear down her resistance. At a Command Performance for the Austrian ruler she discovers that the Count is actually an Archduke and is already betrothed. He insists on giving up his title for her, but it's 1914 and duty demands that they part. During the war she bumps into George and tries to look after him when he ends up shell-shocked, but he dies. We move to 1934, where an ageing Irela is feeling the strain of keeping up with the competition. The ex-Archduke turns up to offer marriage now that his wife has died, but she turns him down. Even Kober thinks she should give up, but she refuses. She dies, alone, in her dressing room.

This is possibly Laye's best film and parts of it are gorgeous. The section where she is romanced by the Count in Venice is particularly lovely. It's the perfect wish-fulfilment fantasy: glamorous locations, fabulous jewels, romantic gestures and glorious music. Director Victor Saville really gets the most out of this sequence. He also gets the best out of Laye and in the closing sequence she is rather effective as the old, vindictive diva.

What Saville can't do is disguise the old-fashioned nature of the film, or of the appeal of Laye. He made Laye's great rival Jessie Matthews a film star but couldn't do the same for Laye because she wasn't what the Thirties wanted. She was Lillian Gish to Matthews' Clara Bow - she didn't have It. She didn't have It in her private life too since Matthews nicked her husband, Sonnie Hale.

It's worth comparing this film to the later The Red Shoes since they both have this central dilemma of Career versus Romance. In both films it is a mystery why the heroines should fancy the men they do since they are such unattractive drips (I also can't figure out why anyone in their right minds would fight over Sonnie Hale). However The Red Shoes is deeply rooted in ballet as Art and, despite a bit of talk about Irela's voice being a precious gift from God, Evensong is far more interested in the rewards of a successful singer: jewels, furs, travel.

If you're in the mood, this is a great film for watching with a box of chocolates. It doesn't quite reach the heights of tragedy at the end that it wants, but you can't have everything.

Still from Evensong 

Script adapt.: Edward Knoblock, Dorothy Farnum. (o.a. Edward Knoblock and Beverley Nichols)

Director: Victor Saville

Players: Carl Esmond, Fritz Kortner, Conchita Supervia, Alice Delysia, Muriel Aked, Denys Val Norton, Arthur Sinclair, Patrick O'Moore, Browning Mummery, Alec Guinness (extra)

Evergreen (1934)

"When You've got a Little Springtime in Your Heart" was one of the hit songs from this musical and it just about sums up its appeal. Fresh, light and sunny; it makes most British musicals look like candidates for the Knacker's Yard. 

Jessie Matthews is the struggling chorus girl whose mother was a famous star. When she can't get a job she impersonates mum and "makes a come-back" looking fabulously youthful. Cue innocent misunderstandings, romance and lots of singing and dancing.

Matthews is glorious. With her toothy grin and wonderful figure she floats through her dance numbers like gossamer. Director Victor Saville handles her perfectly, making her artificial style seem utterly natural. Nobody else really makes much of an impact. Poor Betty Balfour, Britain's biggest star five years earlier, now has the thankless role of Best Friend. Love interest Barry Mackay in his film debut is unmemorable while Sonnie Hale is as irritating as ever.

Other songs include Dancing on the Ceiling and Over My Shoulder.

Photo on the set of Evergreen

Script: Emlyn Williams, Marjorie Gaffney

Director: Victor Saville

Players: Ivor McLaren, Hartley Power, Patrick Ludlow, Betty Shale, Marjorie Brooks, Richard Murdoch, Buddy Bradley Dancers

Everything is Rhythm (1936)

A struggling dance band leader tries every trick in the book to get a big break, and finds romance on the way.

Well, so much for the plot. Since this is a musical you don't expect much more than filler between the numbers. This is an unashamed star vehicle for popular dance band leader Harry Roy. The rest of the acts are fairly obscure, particularly compared with such films as Radio Parade of 1935. It's Roy's show all the way, but luckily he has bags of charm and energy.

Where Everything is Rhythm scores is in capturing the stage act of Roy and his band. When it tries to expand the interest it's less sure footed and comes across as a cut-price Busby Berkeley. There is one interesting effect with Roy and some dance girls tapping their way around a giant piano, but there's a distinct lack of imagination in the rest of the staging.

Compared to the best that Hollywood had to offer, Everything is Rhythm is not a classic. But, compared to Hollywood's run-of-the-mill productions which also sought to make a quick buck out of a band leader's popularity, it comes out rather well.

Script: Syd Courtney, Jack Byrd, Stanley Haynes

Director: Alfred Goulding

Players: Princess Pearl, Ivor Moreton, Dave Kaye, Dorothy Boyd, Clarissa Selwyn, Robert English, Gerald Barry, Phyllis Thackery, Bill Currie, Syd Crossley, Johnny Nit, Mabel Mercer

Expresso Bongo (1959)

Laurence Harvey is the unscrupulous agent building the career of pop star Cliff Richard.

As an adaptation it could have been better, but it's still a fascinating snapshot of its time.

Script adapt.: (o.a.) Wolf Mankowitz

Director: Val Guest

Players: Sylvia Sims, Yolande Donlan, Meier Tzelniker, Ambrosine Phillpotts, Eric Pohlmann, Hermione Baddeley, Reginald Beckwith, Wilfrid Lawson, Martin Miller, Gilbert Harding, Avis Bunnage, Kenneth Griffith, Barry Lowe, Susan Hampshire, Susan Barnet, Peter Myers, Wolf Mankowitz, Esma Cannon, Norma Parnell, Roy Everson, Patricia Lewis, Copeland Lawrence, Lisa Peake, Katherine Keeton, Christine Philips, Sylvia Steele, Paula Barry, Rita Burke, Maureen O'Connor, Patsy Dalton, Pamela Morris

Eyewitness (1956)

It was never going to set the world on fire, this tale of two hoodlums who rob a cinema; but time has been particularly unkind to this drama. The hoodlums are Nigel Stock and Donald Sinden - and who can now take that seriously? Still, if you're in the mood it's fascinating to watch these actors before they became respectively TV's definitive Dr Watson and Please-make-me-a-Sir Donald Sinden. Sinden has a few traces of his familiar hammy old buffer mannerisms but on the whole gives a creditable performance. Stock is rather sweet but already way too old for the role.

The action shifts from the cinema to a hospital when the eyewitness Muriel Pavlow is chased under a bus. Sinden tries to bump her off but the NHS ward is a remarkably busy place considering it's the middle of the night: Nurse Belinda Lee has a boyfriend sniffing round, Leslie Dwyer's waiting for his wife to deliver twins, George Woodbridge is patrolling the grounds. Ada Reeve is great as the old lady who can't get any sleep, and who could with the ward lit so brightly? Also present are husband Michael Craig, doctors Nicholas Parsons and Richard Wattis, Allan Cuthbertson, Harry Towb and Lionel Jeffries to name just the most familiar faces (What, no Victor Maddern? Must have been ill that week)  

It's a fascinating Fifties artefact, particularly in the domestic scenes between Pavlow and Craig. The ward is beautifully realised and shows just how lovely Fifties architecture could be. It's no great shakes as a thriller, but it's watchable.

Script: Janet Green

Director: Muriel Box

Players: David Knight, Susan Beaumont