Because the NFT in November gave the first public screening of This Week of Grace since its original release, it seemed a good time to tackle the Gracie Fields DVD set that's remained largely untouched since it was bought. Seven films, seven days, one unique star.
The screen credit cards are rudimentary though the script is intriguing, featuring input from Alma Reville, Miles Malleson and Mr Fields himself Archie Pitt. Maurice Elvey is directing so she's in safe hands.
So here we go. Our first glimpse of Our Gracie is unexpected - she's in a rural idyll and has a feller. That's not going to last. He's off to war and before we know it he has some non-specific injury which means he feels he can't be a true husband to her and so asks his best friend to tell her he's dead.
Fast forward a decade or so and we find Sally/Gracie working in a London cafe. She's still carrying a torch for her man, but doesn't let it show. The best friend is still sniffing around as is the cafe owner. Clearly the weird kiss curl she's wearing makes her catnip for the older man.
And the first song is Lancashire Blues. She's only half singing it to herself and the cafe crowd aren't that interested. Then she's called up to the piano for a proper song and launches into Sally. Now they're interested. And after all the awkwardness of the opening scenes a star is born.
And here comes her feller and all he has is a limp. It looks like whatever he got has cleared up. And he's wandering through London with some unexpected location shooting on Trafalgar Square and the Mall. But surely it's too early for a happy ending?
Luckily we have wayward teen Florence Desmond on hand to muddy the waters and give him the impression that Gracie has moved on and Gracie the impression that he's a slut. Still, Gracie smells a rat and there's five minutes of strange psychodrama as she tries to get Florence to confess the truth. It would be a powerful scene if Florence Desmond wasn't hideously miscast. She fesses up and vows to bring him back to Gracie.
Gracie can't wait around because she has some posh folk to entertain. They love her and her earthy charms at first, but the snobby gits kick her out when she dances with a waiter. So she's back to the cafe for a few choruses of Sally and the arrival of her true love in time for the final clinch.
Despite the lingering technical limitations of the transition to talkies, there's a lot of good here. The script has some interesting things to say about the effects of child abuse though they're rather out of place here. What matters is that Gracie comes to the screen a fully fledged star. She's a strong working-class woman who would be a fascinating character even without the voice.
Jobs: Waitress, singer
Songs: Lancashire Blues, Sally, Fall in and Follow the Band, Fred Fanakapan
The credits feature no players of note except Our Gracie. It seems she is now expected to carry the film alone without the likes of Ian Hunter or Florence Desmond to pep up the cast. In Desmond's case, that's a blessing. Also producer Basil Dean is now co-directing with Graham Cutts. And Archie gets a co-producer credit.
The first thing to notice is the huge increase in budget. Gone are the pokey sets. Instead we open outside a three storey tenement building on the studio lot with dozens of extras. Here's our Gracie and she's all loved up again. This time it's with a struggling songwriter. It's not a good match: he's too posh, too whiney and if he ever sat on her knee they'd look like a vent act.
Gracie's been poshed up a little as befits her job as a manicurist. Somehow it's just the wrong job for her. Still at least the kiss curl's gone and we can look forward to her telling some snotty cow to shove her nail clippers where the sun don't shine.
Despite having Gracie as his inspiration it seems the songwriter has his head turned by some posh floozie at a showbiz party. And that makes it a second time that Gracie gives rich folk a song and then feels so uncomfortable she has to leave.
Without Gracie, the songwriter is bereft of inspiration and soon gets the push. Gracie also gets the push when she tells the posh floozie a few home truths and dunks her head in the sink. She's been offered the chance to star in a West End show but instead decides to become a policewoman - another wrong job for her. It's beginning to look like Basil Dean has no idea what Gracie's core appeal is. In Dean's world there's no Depression.
Two thefts and an assault on a suspect later and Gracie's colleagues decide she's a natural. She, on the other hand, quits in order to triumph on the stage. And there's just time enough for a big number with hundreds of extras before the final kiss with the little songwriter. Sadly, no Buzby Berkeley style choreography - just a lot of marching but at least they spent a bit of money on it.
There's a little bit of meta-something or other going on here when the producer decides that the writer's songs are rather ordinary without Gracie singing them. He's right - they really are an unmemorable bunch. Even the oft-repeated title song fades in the memory as quickly as the plot. The only memorable features of the film are Gracie's rubbish policewoman act and the huge leap in the budget. On any reasonable level, Looking On the Bright Side is a better film than Sally in Our Alley yet somehow it's not as good. It lacks the rough magic of the first one.
Jobs: Manicurist, singer, policewoman
Songs: Looking on the Bright Side, After Tonight We Say Goodbye, I Hate You, You're More Than All the World to Me, He's Dead But He Won't Lie Down
The credits promise "an extravaganza" which is just asking for a fall. At least Maurice Elvey is back on board and Archie appears to have dropped off the credits. Trouble at home perhaps?
The Gracie in this one is a far sleeker creature than we've been used to. Not only has the makeup and clothes been glammed up, but she's also been given new teeth. No expense spared.
It seems to have worked because John Loder has fallen instantly in love with her even though she's just clobbered his companion with an orange. She's up before the beak - Robb Wilton! Naturally she disrupts the court. Fields V Wilton is a comedy match worth watching.
Since Loder's playing a prince it's clear to everyone but Gracie that this love is doomed from the start. Still, there are motions to be gone through. And the first of those motions is the inevitable posh party. And the equally inevitable Gracie-leaving-in-embarrassment scene. This time she's off because the prince's engagement has been announced. But surely it's way too early in the film for him to put duty before love?
Yup, he's given up princing in order to join Gracie on a film set. Only half an hour into the film and already she's been romanced by a prince and given a big break in pictures. See, it can happen folks!
Now Daddy's died and the prince has to do his duty and go home. But there's still a good half hour to go. Aha, she's been asked to visit! The romance is on.
Oops, it was a mistake and while Gracie's getting the full royal welcome from the station to the palace, the princess it's really meant for is having to arrive with the luggage. Biggest laugh so far.
Now the truth's out and Gracie's embarrassed again. Only this time it's not a party she has to sidle away from, it's an entire country. She nobly sacrifices her love for the kingdom and her only reward is a massive donation to the local kiddies hospital. And we leave her with the sick kiddies with nothing but a song in her heart to comfort her in her eternal spinsterhood.
Overall this is the sort of Ruritanian twaddle that Jeanette McDonald could do with her eyes closed but which really doesn't suit Our Gracie. Still there are laughs to be had and the songs are a bit better so it's a step up from Looking on the Bright Side.
Jobs: Landlord's daughter, film star and singer
Songs: Love, Life and Laughter, Riding on the Clouds, Out in the Cold Cold Snow, Cherie, How Happy the Lover, I'm a Failure
She's singing and marching to the title song from the off. And she's up North! Finally! No more messing about in London.
And the good news in the credits is that script is written by JB Priestley. The bad news is that John Loder is on board again so here comes another doomed romance.
There's scarcely been enough time for our ears to stop ringing from the title song before the mill is closed and everyone is on the dole. Not that Gracie's the sort of gal to sign on. Oh no. She's got on her bike for Blackpool to skivvy in a boarding house.
And here she is actually in Blackpool. After the artificiality of the previous film here's the real thing. There's not a lot of plot to the film, just Gracie clowning about in Blackpool. Since it's Blackpool there's no posh folk for her to embarrass herself in front of. Instead she messes up in front of a packed Tower Ballroom. Nothing a quick warble of My Little Bottom Drawer can't cure.
John Loder gets Dorothy Hyson leaving Gracie with nothing but the thought of what might have been. Still, the mill's reopened, Gracie's got a swanky new job as the welfare officer and there's just time to march through the village with a brass band singing the theme tune before the end.
Sing as We Go features Gracie's first duet. It's called Love and sung with little bald Norman Walker. It's a hymn to the romance of Blackpool and is fabulous.
The film is a rickety vehicle for Gracie's talents, but the location shooting gives it a massive boost. If you've ever been to Blackpool this is instant nostalgia.
Jobs: Mill girl, boarding house skivvy, maid, clairvoyant, song plugger, human spider, vanishing lady, toffee seller, mill welfare officer
Songs: Sing As We Go, Speak to me Thora, Just a Catchy Little Tune, My Little Bottom Drawer, Love
Well, JB Priestley's providing the story and we're still up north so this looks promising. Vivien Leigh's second billed for some strange reason so I wonder if this is a reissue print to cash in on Scarlett.
Here's Gracie, trilling the title song and driving the cutest little car outside of Toytown. Though judging by the fact she's nearly knocked over two people maybe she should pay less attention to the singing and more to the road. She's a swanky actress back North to visit her dear old pa. Who promptly has a stroke at the news his business, and the market it's sited in, will have to make way for an extension to a department store.
Instead of the Blackpool location shooting we have a lovely studio set of the market. It's beautiful but it's a shame they didn't actually find somewhere real. Still, it's peopled with lots of fun Northern types for Gracie to play with. They're all up in arms about the new development and so it's time to adopt a disguise and make a disruptive visit to the department shop.
And as luck would have it an important opera singer is making a personal appearance allowing Gracie the chance to impersonate her and massacre a few arias. Strangely, the tactic of disrupting the store only makes the owner more determined to get his extension and he's fiddling the town hall schedule and buying of the press with alcohol before Gracie's had time to catch her breath.
So, it's time to barricade the market and get ready for a long siege. The strength of this film is that Gracie feels part of an actual community not just the loudest person around. It feels very Ealing. And very spirit-of-the-Blitz. She even gives us a couple of bars of Sally.
Finally she listens to the old codger who's been trying to tell them that a Royal Charter means the council has no authority and she has to make a getaway in a helicopter to get to the meeting on time and stop the attempt to smash the siege. Sadly she crashes the helicopter into the council chamber and then, by turning on the gas to the market, causes an explosion that wrecks that too. She's caused millions of pounds of damage but never mind, eh.
The film ends with the reopening of the modern market by a royal figure we never get to see. Sadly the building is too crowded for Gracie to be allowed entry and she drives off singing to herself into a downbeat fade-out.
Nice stuff here, but after the glory of Sing As We Go this is a disappointment.
Jobs: Actress, sheet-music seller
Songs: Look Up and Laugh, Anna from Anacapresi, Opera stuff, Love is everywhere, Shall I be an Old Man's Darling
We're in the West End and the sight of a neon sign for Love on the Dole gives hope for a searing indictment on the effect of the Depression on people's lives. But no. We're soon onto a sign for Queen of Hearts which seems to be a rather soppy Ruritanian operetta. It's due to close for some unspecified reason - there's still a big audience - and the fans mourn.
But where's Gracie? Is she in the chorus? No she's working over the road as a seamstress. But she has the hots for the star of the show: John Loder. This can't possibly end well. Particularly since he seems to be a drunk. And now he's a drunk driver. Oops, Gracie's in the car by accident and they've crashed. Now she's pretending to be the driver. I've lost count of the number of criminal acts she's committed since this week started.
She's put him to bed and disappeared into the night taking only his coat to mend. She delivers the coat backstage and bumps into an old friend who's been working in the chorus of this show Gracie's seen dozens of times without recognising. And before you know it Gracie's been glammed up and mistaken for a wealthy backer who wants a part in this show that's closing. And I really don't understand the economics of the musicals business.
Then we get a whole load of enjoyable clowning about while trying not to get found out. And a whole lot more of trying to do the show after she's been found out. We also get her first production number. It has actual dancers. They're rubbish but at least they're moving about. This actually looks like the show from Break the News but at least in that film they were taking the piss out of it.
Overall this is just another backstage musical. Nicely made but nothing special. And finally she gets John Loder!
Jobs: Seamstress, actress, cafe stall
Songs: Orphans of the Storm, Queen of Hearts, My First Love Song, Why did I Have to Meet You?
And for our final film we have a rags-to-riches story of showbiz success. When we first spot Our Gracie she's in the chorus of a regional panto but luckily within seconds the lead passes out drunk and Gracie's on hand to lead the troupe in the closing song. This spurs her on to try her luck in London despite her feller, John Stuart, saying no.
Three month on and it's clear she's not showgirl material. However a composer takes her under his wing and gives her a chance to tour the country singing his songs. They're sentimental tosh, unlike the comic songs she excels in, and gradually she loses heart. When the composer is forced to stop touring due to ill health she reintroduces the light stuff and starts getting noticed. Soon she's a big star, but the composer is mortally offended and turns his back on her.
Never mind, once he's dead Gracie can popularise one of his soppy operetta-ish songs in a grand finale. It's still soppy and operetta-ish but somehow the audience love it.
So we leave her - a star. Though she's alone with only the audience to love her.
Despite its simple storyline The Show Goes On can be seen as a sophisticated analysis of Gracie's career and Basil Dean's battle to get her to sing the sort of light opera he adored. Classy stuff - none of that working-class common rubbish. On this score, he won the battle. Sadly.
Jobs: Mill girl, actress
Songs: We're All Good Pals Together, In a Little Lancashire Town, My Love for You, I Never Cried So Much in All My Life, You've Got to Smile, A Song in Your Heart
The Gracie Fields Collection at Amazon UK
The Gracie Fields Collection at Amazon US