Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Impassive Footman (1932)

Allan Jeayes & George Curzon
Thanks to those kind people at StudioCanal, fans of Ealing Studios are currently being treated to bumper crop of new releases highlighting some long forgotten delights. In The Ealing Rarities Collection, a number of films have been released in four film sets that not only make available some of Ealing’s lesser known, and lesser seen, films but also reveal the studio’s output from the 1930s.

The classic period of film making at Ealing started with the launch of Ealing Studios as a brand under Michael Balcon in 1938, however the studios had existed for many years before that and were the base for many interesting British films. Thus, though not technically made under the ‘Ealing Studios’ banner, the films form an essential part of the history of British cinema.

As the earliest film in volume three of The Ealing Rarities Collection - consisting of Frieda (1947), Cage of Gold (1950) and Death Drives Through (1935) – The Impassive Footman (1932) is a fascinating insight into a strand of controversial and challenging film making in the UK that has been long neglected.

For those who think British cinema is mild-mannered compared to the stylistic innovations of European cinema, or genteel compared to American cinema, The Impassive Footman is a revelation.

The story follows a young wife, Grace Marwood  (Betty Stockfeld) and her sickly husband John (Allan Jeayes) as she struggles to escape her dull life, finding love with a young doctor, Bryan Daventry (played by 1930s heart throb Own Nares).
Allan Jeayes

Betty Stockfeld & Owen Nares

I won’t spoil the story, but there is a subplot revolving around the footman, Simpson (George Curzon) who is hiding a dark secret.

George Curzon
What was so refreshing were the themes contained within the film: hypochondria, apparent post traumatic stress disorder, sexual frustration, infidelity and moral dilemmas, with Grace even considering murdering her husband as the only means to escape the confines of their dull marriage.

Within minutes of the opening it is clear that Grace Marwood yearns to be free, staring out from the confines of a ship’s cabin where her dull husband in taking his medication and complaining about  his health. She watches a pair of young lovers kissing and enjoying their freedom. That is where she longs to be.

Betty Stockfeld
There is a wonderful line when Grace admits she is struggling to remain faithful to her husband. After Dr Daventry tells her he feels their relationship cannot remain platonic, and fears he might offend her, she replies “Perhaps I wouldn't mind being offended." There is even an extra marital kiss, an act that would have offended some in 1932 and might have fallen foul of the ‘Hays Code’ had the film been released in the USA.
Owen Nares & Betty Stockfeld

The film comes alive in the final third, with the sickly John Marwood being transformed from a figure of fun to a malevolent creature, who is violently cruel to his wife.
Allan Jeayes & Betty Stockfeld

We also discover the footman is hardly the impassive man the audience had assumed him to be. When he confronts John Marwood, his grotesque visage is the stuff of nightmares. This is clearly not the cosy world the most think of when they consider British cinema.

George Curzon

Director Basil Dean shows a certain stylistic flair in a scene set in an operating studio, where the audience views the proceedings from the view of the patient. The moment the anaesthetic is applied appears like a precursor to the audience’s view from David Niven’s perspective in ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ as he is prepared for surgery.

The Impassive Footman
A Matter of Life and Death
A Matter of Life and Death
 At just 74 minutes long, The Impassive Footman is the splendid starting point for anyone wanting to open their eyes to British cinema of the period. 

Oh, and Grace has a rather sweet little pet terrier:

Betty Stockfeld

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