Will Hay is the incompetent teacher in Africa forced to deputise for the District Commissioner. Aided, abetted and hindered by Graham Moffatt and Moore Marriott he soon has a native revolt on his hands.
This shameless send-up of Sanders of the River is the most comprehensive trashing of the British Empire ever put on celluloid. It's blissfully anarchic.
Script adapt. (sort of): Marriott Edgar, Val Guest. (o.a. Edgar Wallace)
Director: Marcel Varnel
Players: Robert Adam, Jack Livesey, Jack London, Wyndham Goldie
To many, the term British Cinema evokes a world where the stiff upper lip rules. Where captains go down with their ships. Where Helena Bonham Carter is forever in a lace-up corset. But there is another world. A world where low-budgets rule and anarchy reigns. Where the correct response to a plea by one of the privileged classes for more restraint or self-sacrifice from the poor is a two-fingered salute or a raspberry. This is Old Mother Riley's world, and Old Mother Riley MP is one of her most typical films.
The plot is simple (like you were expecting War and Peace!). Mrs Riley and her daughter are unfairly sacked from their jobs in the local laundry. When Mrs Riley learns that her ex-boss is going to knock down the neighbourhood, she decides to run for Parliament in order to stop him. Despite a bit of skulduggery on the part of her opponent, she triumphs. Her impassioned speeches propel her to a Cabinet position where she secures the repayment of a foreign loan which is put towards providing full employment.
Put like that, the film seems like one of those earnest, politically-committed, realist pictures that gets the critics raving. But that reckons without the glorious character that is Old Mother Riley.
Old Mother Riley and her lovely daughter Kitty had been a headline act of the music halls since the 20s. In reality they were the husband and wife team of Arthur Lucan and Kitty McShane. He took the part of an old washerwoman forever battling with society's norms and she was "straight man" to his wild drag act. Behind the scenes their marriage was one of the most horrendously unhappy in the business.
The act was brought to the screen in Stars On Parade, but the series proper began with Old Mother Riley in 1937. The series continued until the early 50s with a total of 15 films.
The character of Old Mother Riley is an unruly mixture of malapropisms, frenzied gestures and slapstick. She inhabits a world of slums, poverty and domestic violence. In these films women have minimal expectations and set roles, but she is able to transcend them. She'll claim to be a poor frail woman, but then set about a gang of thugs with her umbrella. When a sailor is stopped from telling a mucky joke because a "lady" is present, she says "don't mind me, I expect I've heard it". She even becomes a Cabinet Minister (for Strange Affairs) despite an earlier scene in which she gives a speech where she lists the great possibilities a poor male baby should have before she's informed the baby is a girl and hastily revises the career choice down to nurse.
The character provides the energy that keeps this rackety vehicle going. Kitty, on the other hand, is already surplus to requirements. She has a handful of lines, none of them convincingly delivered; and, if we're going to be uncharitable, looks more like a drag act than her mother. No wonder she was permanently annoyed.
By any reasonable definition, this is not a good film. But the character is so watchable, so wonderfully manic, you enjoy the film despite its faults.
Script: Con West, Oswald Mitchell
Director: Oswald Mitchell
Players: Bruce Seton, Martita Hunt, H.F. Maltby, Garry Marsh, Jeanne Stuart, Bryan Powley, Dorothy Dewhurst, Glen Alyn
A rose-grower gets caught up in a murder.
Minor quota production
Script: Anthony Richardson
Director: Bernard Mainwaring
Players: Horace Hodges, Nancy Burne, Bruce Lister, Charles Mortimer, Felix Aylmer, Esme Church, Wilfrid Walter, Eric Portman, George Hayes, Trefor Jones, Philip Ray, Con Brierly, Eileen Senton
Unforgettable Dickens adaptation with John Howard Davies in the title role. Alec Guinness plays Fagin as a total Jewish stereotype but still manages to get the sympathy of the audience. Robert Newton was born to play Bill Sykes. One of the all-time classics.
Script: David Lean, Stanley Hayes. (o.a. Charles Dickens)
Director: David Lean
Players: Kay Walsh, Francis L. Sullivan, Henry Stephenson, Mary Clare, Anthony Newley, Ralph Truman, Josephine Stewart, Kathleen Harrison, Gibb McLaughlin, Amy Veness, Diana Dors, Maurice Denham, Hattie Jacques, Edie Martin, Peter Bull
Two Edwardian couples shut themselves up in a Scottish castle to try a trial marriage.
A vanity project for has-been star Brook who produced, directed and adapted the script. The other actors weren't box-office either, the play ancient, and it had nothing to say of any relevance about the current war. Yet this turned out to be one of the most glorious comedies in British cinema. Film buff heaven!
Script adapt.: Clive Brook, Terence Young. (o.a. Frederick Lonsdale)
Director: Clive Brook
Players: Clive Brook, Beatrice Lilley, Roland Culver, Googie Withers, O.B. Clarence, Lawrence Hanray, Elliot Mason, Hay Petrie, Marjorie Rhodes, Molly Munks, E.V.H. Emmett (narr.)
As he passes the open window of a factory office, a barber makes a spur of the moment decision to nick £100 left lying around. He hopes to improve his life, but finds his wife is up to her eyes in debt to the local moneylender. He pays the bill, but the moneylender becomes a blackmailer when the money is identified as coming from the robbery. The barber turns killer, but the police are already on his trail...
Some films fit into their period so exactly you can almost tell what day of the month each scene was filmed. Other films are more nebulous, containing echoes of past glories and glimpses of the future. On the Night of the Fire is firmly in the second category.
What we have with this film is a non-patronising view of working class life. There are no lovable comic characters smiling chirpily and touching their forelocks at their betters. Neither are there innocent victims battered by the forces of an unkind society and begging for our sympathy. We wouldn't see the working classes portrayed this well until Play for Today in the 60s.
It's 50s TV that seems to provide the inspiration for the police procedural part of the plot. Plummy-voiced actors discuss the case as though they're auditioning for Fabian of Scotland Yard.
The echoes of the past come from Gunter Krampf's photography. He was responsible for several German Expressionist classics including Pandora's Box. He brings this sensibility to the film and some shots could have come straight out of the 20s. It looks good despite being studio bound.
Of course, some things in the film are dead in period. It's set in Newcastle, but no one attempts a Geordie accent. Instead they settle for a generic Northern working class with some characters straying into Cockney. Few of the accents are actually inept or jarring (unlike, say, Waterfront), so it's easy to forgive when the performances get going.
The acting honours go to Ralph Richardson as the barber. He gives a marvellous performance. The script plays to his strengths and he gives it all he's got. None of his acting contemporaries could have such empathy for a normal man.
As the wife, Diana Wynyard is less successful. Her acting is fine, but she's just got too much glamour to convince. Even in dowdy clothes and stripped of most of her makeup she's still a beauty. When she says she's tired she just looks wan and you expect her to go off in search of a chaise longue to recline on.
The other roles are filled with the cream of bit-part players. Mary Clare really gets her teeth into the role of a mad old drunk and if you're going to cast gossipy old trouts who better than Sara Allgood and Maire O'Neill?
On the Night of the Fire is another of those films that get overlooked because they don't fit into any established film movement. Yet, despite this, it's one of the most interesting films of the pre-war period and still entertains.
Script adapt: Brian Desmond Hurst, Terence Young, Patrick Kirwan. (o.a. F.L. Green)
Director: Brian Desmond Hurst
Players: Romney Brent, Henry Oscar, Dave Crowley, Gertrude Musgrove, Frederick Leister, Ivan Brandt, Glynis Johns, Mai Bacon, Phyllis Morris, Teddy Smith, Joe Mott, Joe Cunningham, Harry Terry, Irene Handl
It's the mid-thirties and a cocky youngster takes on the opposition to become a leading speedway star. Naturally this goes to his head and by the time the war starts he has few friends and a broken marriage. He returns from the war a changed man and has to choose between resuming his career or rebuilding his marriage.
The cocky youngster is Dirk Bogarde, well on his way to being the hottest thing in British cinema. This was part of the big build up and it's his vehicle all the way. No one else really gets a look in. He looks very fetching at the track with his hair mussed up and some dirt on his cheek to accentuate his eyes. He's a bit scrawny in a suit, but he himself said at this period he needed three jumpers underneath his shirt to look well-nourished.
The other players mainly exist to make Dirk look good. Thora Hird plays his mother, though she was only in her forties. She wears an old lady wig which makes her look like Old Mother Riley or Norman Bates dressed up as his mother. Renee Asherson plays Dirk's young wife and looks rather dowdy in the thirties, though improves in the war when she gets a decent uniform. Bonar Colleano does his familiar Yank-on-the-make act but is watchable.
This is a curious film. It sort of wants to be political, but hasn't quite got the courage to go there. There's a bit on the Spanish Civil War and a bit of chat about why do people make war. Dirk tries to start a speedway trades union but can't manage it. It feels like the original novel was very political, but the people who optioned it weren't the people who eventually made it and they weren't interested in that aspect. Or maybe it was just regarded as a star vehicle for a pretty boy and Bogarde didn't have enough clout yet to make this harder.
The main interest of the film is in the speedway sequences (not a patch on Money For Speed) and the reconstruction of the recent past. It's curious to see how the forties regarded the thirties, though the film doesn't have the same sense of anger about it that other films have.
The big question - the one I know you're dying to ask - is what the heck has all this got to do with a Jolly Swagman? And the answer is - I don't know. They play Waltzing Matilda at the speedway and the tune crops up in the soundtrack every now and then, but there doesn't seem to be a reason for it to be there. Maybe it's something else that got lost in the adaptation. The US title is Maniacs on Wheels which is scarcely accurate but a lot more enticing on the marquee.
Script adapt: Jack Lee, William Rose, Cliff Gordon. (o.a. Montagu Slater)
Director: Jack Lee
Players: Bill Owen, James Hayter, Moira Lister, Patric Doonan, Cyril Cusack, Sandra Dorne, Sidney James, Anthony Oliver, Dudley Jones, Pauline Jameson, Russell Waters, Stuart Lindsell, Frederick Knight, Michael Kent, June Bardsley, Cyril Chamberlain, Jennifer Jayne, Graham Doody, Joyce Taylor, Jill Allan, Edward Judd