Monday, 17 March 2014

The Divided Heart (1954)

"this is what we're born for, to love and to suffer"
Michel Ray
The German occupation of Yugoslavia

The Divided Heart is proof that you need bombs and explosions to make a great war film. You don't even need to set it in wartime. Because, whatever way you look at it, The Divided Heart is a brilliant film about war and its aftermath. It's also another splendid example of Ealing Studios defying all those critics who say "they just made twee British comedies."

Directed by Charles Chrichton, who was better known for his comedies, it tells the story of Toni (played by Martin Keller in flashbacks and by Michel Ray in the main scenes) ...
Martin Keller
... who is living a normal life in Bavaria with his adoptive parents (Armin Dahlen & Cornell Borchers) until a representative of a United Nations refugee organisation (Geoffrey Keen) arrives to inform them that Toni is not actually a German orphan, instead he is a Yugoslav whose father was executed for assisting the Yugoslav partisans, whose sisters died in concentration camps, but whose mother (Yvonne Mitchell) has survived the war. With his birth mother wanting to be reunited with her son, the case goes to court for the final decision to be made by judges from the occupying US administration.

The film was based on a true story published in Life Magazine in 1952 and, with a voice over telling parts of the story, it has an almost documentary feel. Though there is a genuine emotional pull between the two mothers ("the blood mother versus the bread mother") ...
Cornell Borchers as the adoptive mother

Yvonne Mitchell as the real mother
... as to who should raise Toni, there are no histrionics. Instead, everything is played very low key. Whether its the detachment shown by Geoffrey Keen as he arranges meetings between the boy and his real mother, or the members of the court summing up their thoughts on the case, the emotion feels genuine rather than forced.

Geoffrey Keen and Yvonne Mitchell arrive at court
Don't expect court scenes as cinema gives us in films like A Few Good Men, there is no twisting, turning and thumping of desks. The austerity of the scenes and the situation instead recall the very careful, functional and detached manner in which the occupation forces had to deal with post-war Germany: not with rage and emotion, but with authority and order.

This cold emotionless feel makes the film a perfect - yet converse - companion to 'Germany Year Zero': whilst the latter shows the chaos within Germany as families struggle to survive in the ruins of Berlin, The Divided Heart shows the re-imposition of order. Yet both allow the viewer to understand that the effect of war lasts long after the bullets stop flying. This is summed up by Toni's adoptive father, not long since returned from a Russian prisoner of war camp:
"When is this war going to end?"
 Armin Dahlen
Here's who to also look out for:

Eddie Byrne & Alexander Knox as members of the court's judging panel

Alexander Knox & Liam Redmond as members of the court's judging panel

Alec McCowen as a journalist covering the case

Geoffrey Keen as the UN representative

Ferdy Mayne as the lawyer representing Toni's parents (Armin Dahlen & Cornell Borchers)

Theodore Bikel as Toni's real father

Film Director John Schlesinger as a train guard

A wonderful film that should be on anyone's list of great war films:

Available from Network DVD in Volume 10 of the Ealing Studios Rarities Collection which also features the splendid comedy Saloon Bar.

This poster is currently available from Greg Edwards (and long-established and reputable film memorabilia dealer):

Sunday, 16 March 2014

21 Days (1940)
Oh dear! Where do I start?
It's the story of Larry (Laurence Olivier) and his girlfriend Wanda (Vivien Leigh) whose affair is interrupted by the arrival of her estranged husband (Esme Percy). A fight ensues and the husband dies. Rather than own up to what was, after all, an accident, Larry hides the body. Things go wrong for him when another man (hay Petrie) is accused of the crime. Will the man be convicted? Will Larry own up to the crime? Will Laurence Olivier ever learn to act? 
Does the viewer care? 
The fact that 21 Days was filmed in 1937, yet only released in 1940, might give you some indication of this film's merits. Even as I read the credits, and saw that it was directed by Basil Dean and based on a play by John  Galsworthy (The First and the Last), my heart sank: These were the duo responsible for Escape - a truly dreadful film.
There was certainly a good reason that it spent three years on the shelf. And to good reasons it was eventually resurrected: Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.
Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh

Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh
In 1937 they were just embarking on their romance, and neither as a couple or individually were they a big enough story to warrant releasing this film. By 1940 they were huge stars, and one of cinema's golden couples. This is true, but the film canisters might have been best left on the shelf. I doubt if either of them were eager for this to be shown in public.
So, can I say something good about 21 Days?
I'll do my best. It certainly won't be about the script, or Larry's dreadful hammy acting style.
So here goes:
I do like Larry's jacket. It's a belt-back, fluffy, flecked-wool number. At times it appears a bit too big for him, but it's certainly a nice one:

Collectors of vintage clothing would certainly be excited to find one of those!
Also appearing:
Leslie Banks

Esme Percy

Francis L. Sullivan

Hay Petrie

Meinhart Maur

Robert Newton (at his most restrained)
And here's a screen-grab of my favourite moment in the film:
That's all folks!

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Feminine Touch (1956)
"You will be addressed as 'Nurse'.
Do it honour as it is an honourable title."
Sometimes you get a chance to see a long-ignored film and are surprised that it has been overlooked by both historians and enthusiasts: I'm afraid this isn't one of them.
Re-released in Volume 8 of the rather splendid Ealing Rarities Collection, The Feminine Touch is a slow, not very dramatic and, frankly, quite dull tale of student nurses at a training hospital in the 1950s. At times it views as a training film that might have been used to encourage girls to consider nursing by exposing them to both the glamour (two of the trainees marry doctors) and the strains of nursing.
Whilst a film like 1944's The Lamp Still Burns confronted the issue of whether nurses should be allowed to marry amidst a dramatic format with well-rounded characters, The Feminine Touch all seems rather one dimensional:
There's the glamorous but trustworthy one, Nurse Richards (Belinda Lee) ...
Belinda Lee
... the wealthy but cynical one, Nurse martin (Delphi Lawrence), who plans from day one to marry a doctor ...
Delphi Lawrence
... the 'jolly hockey sticks' girl who takes it all very seriously, Nurse Bowland (Henryetta Edwards) ...
Henryetta Edwards
... the Irish innocent, Nurse O'Brien (Adrienne Corri) and the inevitable cockney Nurse Jenkins (Barbara Archer) ...
Henryetta Edwards, Belinda Lee, Delphi Lawrence, Adrienne Corri and Barbara Archer
... throw in a couple of handsome doctors, George Baker and Christopher Rhodes ...
George Baker

Christopher Rhodes
... and some regulation severe senior nurses, Matron (Diana Wynard) and Sister Snow (Beatrice Varley) ...
Diana Wynard

Beatrice Varley
 ... and a lazy cockney kitchen-hand (Dandy Nichols) ...
Dandy Nichols
... and you have standard hospital drama fare.
At times, the viewer appears lost as to what to make of the film: the conflict between the severity of the system (with the nurses working long hours for little return and doing all the most menial tasks) and the necessity for discipline, as explained to them by Matron in a pair of lengthy lectures which appear to be straight from a training manual.
In the apparent confusion between being a drama or being a training-film, it appears that someone suddenly thought 'Hang on a moment - let's liven things up for the audience. Inject a bit of glamour.' So the audience gets treated to the sight of the girls undressing:
Adrienne Corri, Belinda Lee and Delphi Lawrence

Delphi Lawrence
It doesn't work: even the sight of five young actresses getting in and out of nurses uniforms didn't lure an audience in the 1950s. And it doesn't work now.
Not that the film is without worth ...
... it's just that the director should have left the stocking tops to the Carry Ons and St Trinians of this world and instead concentrated on the serious issues of the challenges faced by those thrown into a world of sickness, misery and death - such as the scenes set in the children's ward. In a hard-hitting scene, a  young patient (Jessie  played by Mandy Miller) - an orphan whose heart condition appears to be terminal - challenges the religious faith under which the hospital and its staff publicly operate:
Mandy Miller
"Why does God have to do this? He shouldn't have to do this, but he does. He's a bully, he's cruel and beastly."
After sitting through this film, I shared her sentiments.
If you really want to watch a film confronting the issue of conflict between a nurse's right to a private life and her need to be dedicated to the profession, I would rather recommend The Lamp Still Burns.
But don't let me put you off from buying the DVD since it contains There Ain't No Justice one of the most interesting pre-war Ealing films.

A number of posters from the film are currently available from memorabilia dealer Greg Edwards, including this one:


Friday, 7 March 2014

Saloon Bar (1940)

A light-hearted murder mystery, Saloon Bar is one the better examples of a genre so popular in 1930s British cinema: an adaptation of a successful stage play (written by Frank Harvey Jnr). It follows the efforts of a group of regulars at a London pub as they try to discover the truth about their friend Will Graves (Alec Clunes) ...
Alec Clunes & Elizabeth Allen
... who is due to hang the next day for the murder of his landlady Mrs Truscott (Annie Edmonds):
Annie Esmond
The regulars, led by cycling-obsessed bookmaker Joe Harris (Gordon Harker) ...
Gordon Harker
... Wickers (Mervyn Johns) ...
Mervyn Johns
... a blind beggar named Jim (Gordon James) ...
Gordon James

... and theatre worker Sally (Joyce Barbour) who has to rush back to the theatre every few minutes to make sure her dancers - who she refers to as her "forty naughties" - get changed ready for the next act ...
Joyce Barbour

  ... join forces with the bar staff, including Ivy (Anna Konstam) ...

Anna Konstam

... and Fred (Al Millen) ...
Al Millen
... to assist Queenie (Elizabeth Allen) ...
Elizabeth Allen
... in her quest to prove her fiancée's innocence. If you've read this blog before, you know I'm not going to spoil the ending for you!
Here's who else they encounter along the way:
Aubrey Dexter

Felix Aylmer

Helena Pickard

Norman Pierce

Judy Campbell

Manning Whiley

Torin Thatcher

Richard Norris
Laurence Kitchin & Mavis Villiers

 ... and a very young Roddy MacDowall, already in his 14th screen appearance:

Roddy MacDowall
Harker’s character is a curious man: a bookmaker who, unlike most cinematic bookmakers, appears to be an honest man. He is also warm, funny and rather eccentric – making constant references to his love of competitive cycling and how it hardened his calves:
If the film had been made a few years later, Alastair Sim would almost certainly have been given the role.

The film includes a number of actors and actresses whose relatives are now well-known:
Alec Clunes – primarily known as a stage actor with a strong reputation for appearances in Shakespearean roles, Clunes was the father the actor Martin Clunes.
Gordon Harker – Was the great-uncle of the actresses Susannah and Caroline Harker.
Judy Campbell – Campbell was an actress whose legacy is perhaps better known than her acting career. Whilst her latter years included appearances in popular TV shows such as Casualty, The Bill and The House of Elliott, Campbell, who died in 2004, was the mother of Jane Birkin and, as such, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s grandmother and Serge Gainsbourg’s mother-in-law. Campbell was also a writer, credited with the screenplay of the 1948 adaptation of Jane Austin’s Emma.
According to one reviewer on the Internet Movie Database: “This is probably the greatest film, set entirely inside a pub, ever made (admittedly a small field).” To be accurate, it isn’t set entirely within the pub (there are a handful of street scenes and a visit to a nearby pub) but the majority of the action takes place within the bar. In many ways, the bar itself is the star of the film. The set was dressed with fittings taken from a number of London pubs that had been bombed in 1940. This helps to give a genuine understanding of the look of pubs of the period. In particular it is useful to contrast the saloon bar of the title with ‘The Shakespeare’ a nearby rival pub: Next time you complain about how the interiors of so many lovely old London pubs have been destroyed by modern owners, think of ‘The Shakespeare’ – it’s clear that the modernisation/vandalism of pubs isn’t a new thing.
With its stark white walls, modern bar and white fittings, it is in sharp contrast to the homely warmth Saloon Bar:
The Shakespeare

The Saloon Bar of the title
The filmmakers  use this to contrast the characters: one set of staff and customers are warm and friendly, the other (as characterised by Doris the barmaid - played by Judy Campbell – a part-time prostitute who is described as having “more than one umbrella in her hatstand”) ...
Judy Campbell
... is cold and austere, just like the pub’s fixtures and fittings.

It's good to see Saloon Bar re-available after so many years out in the wilderness ....

 This original trade advertisement is currently available from film memorabilia dealer Greg Edwards: